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I'm Back* - By Jo Kemper

IR is fortunate to be surrounded by incredible team members both on and off the water. Jo Kemper, one of IR's own athletes, is an incredible friend, and member of our community. 

This is Jo's 2nd installment, an update if you will, on her journey to recovery from injuries related to a life spent paddling and adventuring around the world. We recommend that you read her 1st installment (Hell, Help, and Healing) as a precursor to this piece. 

Jo's strength and determination are just two of many traits that you will find in her writing. Traits that also define her mindset over the course of her life, especially over these last 2 years. 

We want to thank Jo for having the courage to share these aspects of her personal life with us. In turn, it is our hope that her determination drives others to continue fighting any of their own personal obstacles in life to achieve the version of themselves they most desire. 

There's more to a paddler, than paddling.

Thank you, Jo. 

-IR Team

 For an audio version of this installment, please click here.

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I'm Back* - By Jo Kemper

This February almost squeaked by without any of the rivers here flooding. An event I look forward to each year with eager anticipation, and palpable excitement. February floods here often land close to Valentine’s Day. This meshes well with my love for the White Salmon, and rivals April fools in terms of my dedication to preparation. It’s the moment I train for; persistently pestering paddling partners throughout bitter winter temperatures, low water, and limited daylight. My enthusiasm for a winter middle lap might not lead you to believe I’ve continued this tradition for a decade, whenever I haven’t been injured. A vain attempt to never feel off the couch when the faucets open, and the atmospheric river arrives.

 

USGS River Gauge of Underwood, WA


I very recently let myself believe I was making a real comeback, the type where my back was no longer the limiting factor in my paddling, nor my other endeavors. I treated myself to a brand new kayak to celebrate. A sort of congratulations to me, from me, for accomplishing my goal. It felt like my hard work had finally paid off. Early mornings spent juicing celery, endless hours of repetitious PT routines, mountains of miles on and off the treadmill, and countless trips to the city for appointments all felt worthwhile. In early February I unintentionally flipped my kayak for the second time since my spine surgery, despite paddling more than 150 days. I narrowly avoided landing on top of my friend, whose line I was following a tit too tight, by intentionally plugging. I was throttled by a wave hole before flushing through the rest of the rapid on my head, and carping a roll before rolling up. Refreshed by the relief of no instant pain in my spine, and the pleasant reminder that I do know how to roll, I considered my beatering a huge success. A big milestone in my eyes.

This time last year I was writing about my back pain, and the impact it had been having on my life. I could barely paddle flatwater. My spine surgery, while a monumental step forward in the process of healing, signaled only the beginning of my recovery, and nowhere near the end of my pain, though it did drastically reduce it. I have since hemorrhaged my time, energy, and money into my recovery with a singular, and very personal goal. To get back to adventures, my kind of adventures, unencumbered by pain.

In July 2020, I walked out of the hospital one day after spine surgery in significantly less pain than when I walked in. My surgeon, and the aftercare team told me that I should walk as often, and as much as I could tolerate in the days following surgery, assuring me I couldn't walk too much. When I told my surgeon three weeks later that I’d gradually worked up to over ten miles a day in mile increments, he raised an eyebrow and agreed to let me start physical therapy a week earlier than planned. I did my physical therapy, and then some, with obsessive diligence; I still do.

By the end of September, nine weeks out of surgery, and despite my bending, lifting, and twisting limitations, I started hyper-light backpacking. Only carrying puffy garments, foam pads, and my poles. Enthused by my new found ability to adventure on my feet, I went hiking or backpacking 15-20 miles every weekend for six weeks in a row, as long as I had a partner willing to carry the majority of my camp weight. By mid November, less than four months post op, I started ski touring. With the doctor’s blessing I tried paddling flatwater in December, and did a cheeky 2-mile overnighter for Christmas.

My surgeon and physical therapist had both cleared me to kayak. Despite the green lights and to my gut-wrenching disappointment, I could barely paddle nor enjoy myself after paddling due to the pain. I was profoundly demoralized. I had followed all the rules, done my due diligence with PT, and yet, it hurt enough to discourage me from paddling again for months. I’d told the surgeon prior to my operation that if I came out of surgery in a wheelchair and the pain was gone I would consider it a success. I didn’t feel very justified in complaining to him about not being able to kayak without pain, but I did. The surgeon kindly let me whinge, then referred me to a physiatrist, who pointed me towards a new physical therapist. If spine surgery was the highlight of my 2020, getting connected with Matt could easily be the highlight of my 2021.

It feels shady to describe Matt as a physical therapist. His help feels above and beyond the scope of physical therapy, to me. He has helped me shift my recovery from immensely frustrating, and demoralizing, to one that I am proud to claim as mine. The results from our time spent together have been glaringly obvious. At first his face casually mocked me for my minuscule set of weights, and he recommended I acquire a punching bag, and heavier weights. His exercises opened the door for me to challenge myself, and the clear correlation between doing the exercises and experiencing less pain quickly became evident. For the first time since spine surgery my end goals started to come back into focus.

With a whole new deck of confidence, I was able to skate ski, climb Mt. St. Helens, and do a ski traverse in the Goat Rocks all by early April. Before the snow melted, I was running like I’ve never run before. Gradually, I was able to add more paddling into my routine, without causing regrettable pain. In May, I did a personal first descent of the Middle Fork John Day and was able to portage my loaded long boat around multiple barbed wire fences spanning the river. I convinced not one, but three of my friends to run eleven miles of the Lewis trail for shuttle, before kayaking back down. In lieu of an actual half marathon, in June, I did a friend’s homemade triathlon. Starting from near the Truss put in just off Hwy 141 and covering over thirteen miles running up Monte Cristo and Monte Carlo, before mountain biking down to the park, and paddling to the mouth of the White Salmon. As I gained strength and momentum I started chipping away at the adventures saved on my never-ending list. I knocked off Thrillium and Sedum Ridge bike trails in June. In July, I slept at almost 9000 feet on Mount Adams and watched the glaciers crumble in the heat from a perch on the north cleaver. I celebrated the one year anniversary of my surgery on the Minam River, in my new packraft, an adventure I’d been talking about for years. In August, I pulled together an afternoon of trail running and open water swimming in Indian Heaven. I also mountain biked the Elkhorn Crest trail before embarking on a glorious ten day, 230-mile packrafting trip in Alaska.

 

Nelchina River confluence packrafting trip.
Nelchina River Confluence - Photo by Catherine Loke



Half way through the Alaska trip l noticed new pain in my back, in a location that previously had not given me trouble. I panicked. I attributed the discomfort to the squish factor of sitting in a packraft, and not doing my PT for ten days. Nonetheless, when I returned home I went to the doctor, had another two MRIs of my spine, and was told I was fine. The next weekend I biked Ape Canyon- Plains of Abraham- Smith Creek, and Falls Creek.

 

Jo Kemper's 13 mile Lunch Run
Maria Kallman's triathlon run

 
This would probably be a good time to point out that I did none of these adventures alone. I am incredibly fortunate to have friends willing to risk the ever-present potential of me being in too much pain to follow through with a plan. Instead of asking me to have a beer in my downtime, my friends have joined me on my mission for uptime, invited me to broaden my horizons, and pushed me in directions I might never have pushed myself. The adventures I pulled off in the last two years would not have been possible without my friends and their willingness to cater adventures to my abilities, at every stage of my recovery. For that I am immensely grateful.

As fall transitioned into winter I resumed my paddling addiction with a renewed sense of trust in my body. For the first time in years, kayaking brought me more joy than pain. It felt good for my soul. I am proud of myself for getting to this place in my recovery, and equally grateful for the support and inspiration I had along the way. This journey has been a struggle, aside from the pain. I can only personally compare it to engineering school in terms of frustration, duration, and debt. I felt like I just graduated with honors all over again; set free to spread my wings and fly. I had very low expectations going into spine surgery; all I wanted at that time was relief, solace from the near constant suffering. I didn’t expect to now find myself thinking about racing, something, anything; wanting to charge. I started to feel fast and strong. Ready to cut the caution tape, and push myself without the dark cloud of apprehension lingering overhead, shadowing my every move.

I am fumbling for words to describe my most recent flounderings. I put my ski under a downed tree in the first week of January and wasn’t able to walk or run without knee pain for almost two months. At times my knee seized in a two block walk and I ended up on crutches, or asking for a ridiculously short ride home. This knee dilemma was manageable, minuscule amid the other crises unfolding in my life. Until seven weeks later, when I still hadn’t been able to see a knee doctor and I dislocated my shoulder paddling. One lackadaisical slip. A stupid flip I saw coming and it didn’t threaten me enough to oppose it. A single joint cradling the key to my happiness popped out, and the reduction that followed shattered my aspirations for this season.


Jo's X-ray of her shoulder injury.




Despite the discouraging nature of facing my third surgical repair on this shoulder, and who knows what with my knee, I am relieved I didn’t mess up my spine fusion. Compared to the sensations I felt daily in my spine this time two years ago, having my shoulder out for two hours was a dull, mild experience. No invisible knife blades stabbed into the core of my being. Though, I almost passed out during the riverside reduction attempts, and nearly vomited on my friend’s head when he removed my wrist gasket from my dangling arm. The agony I endured in my spine was unsustainable for living; this shoulder pain, while excruciating, was barely a blip on the pain scale to which my body is accustomed. The shoulder surgeon’s lack of optimism for my future as a kayaker is far more tormenting than my shoulder discomfort. His outlook has left my positivity in shards, dripping beyond the barrier of my mask, penetrating my soul. We just met though, and he did say there is a chance.

I am stuck on the sidelines, in waiting purgatory. Sitting out my favorite paddling season for the third consecutive year. My disappointment is hard to hide. If I hadn’t been sofa king stoked mere weeks ago, I’d probably have a better attitude about being on the couch right now. Dispirited, disheartened, debilitated, and not far from depressed. I am watching my muscles wither away, and my endurance fade. I am a frequent flier at rebound, and it feels like I’m collecting surgeons like Pokémon cards. I am learning the extent of my injuries, and the fate of my right side. If a picture is worth a thousand words, those of you who know me, know I’m more likely to come up with a thousand coherent words over a picture that does any justice. These pictures are worth a couple thousand dollars. The few accompanying words from radiology predict my foreseeable future.

My situation isn’t dire, it’s dumb. It feels like I counted my chickens before they crossed the road, or all my eggs were in a single basket. Maybe, I French fried when I should have pizza'd. Perhaps, I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. Whatever it was, I definitely botched the lemonade. My highlight reel is stuck on rewind, being chewed up and spit out by the VHS player into the toilet bowl of my dreams. Chá de fita. Combined with the contents of my piggy bank and anxious stomach, it won’t flush, and my aspirations are left overflowing onto the floor. In a matter of months, I went from boofing punchbowl to feeling like I landed headfirst in the clogged toilet bowl.

I have sugar coated every single adventure I’ve done since my surgery with the caveat of my spine’s condition. I embraced an abrasively conservative approach to my athletic endeavors, unwilling to risk what I have worked day in and day out to accomplish. I feel personally antagonized by the universe to have been completely debilitated from a combination of skiing the hill behind my house and paddling a middle lap before work. Two of my guilty pleasures. I wasn’t going fast, or hard, or doing anything notably challenging. I was having a good time, for once, I was not worrying about my spine. My spine might be the best thing I’ve got going for me right now, and to be able to say that brings some perspective to my situation.

Jo whitewater kayaking on the Lower White Salmon on a snowy winter day.
Photo by Cassidy Berg


I am simultaneously making a glorious comeback and facing a soul crushing setback. I’ve achieved mediocrity in the middle, plateaued in the familiar platitudes of my first world problems. I was on the cusp of where I wanted to be, and now I’m waiting in the queue to start over again. I am wallowing in a pile of self pity about my crushed dreams and delayed paddling plans. I am at the mercy of the molasses, that is, a short staffed and overburdened medical system. I am suffering the consequences of this self-inflicted sport, that I choose to do of my own free will, despite the havoc it wreaks on my body. Meanwhile, my friends, loved ones and strangers alike, are experiencing the tolls of war, political circumstance, disease, disaster, and death; crises entirely beyond the purview of anyone’s own fault, or questionable life choices. Solutions, like selective surgery, don’t dangle opportunistically within the reach of refugees. Second, and third opinions aren’t optional in the time between sirens and bombs.

In my time spent patiently, and literally, growing a backbone from a cadaver slurry, I have contemplated this sometimes fatal attraction to whitewater induced adrenaline. My pursuit of kayaking feels like some sort of twisted Stockholm syndrome. I am inexplicably drawn to this sport that continues to beat me down. A masochistic water-dance with an unpredictable deity, moonlighting as executioner, collecting costs in the form of limb, and sometimes life.

Each time I experience the loss of a vibrant member of my paddling community, to a river I love deeply, I regurgitate the death of my lover, my friends, and near death of my brother; I swallow, but my throat is at an impasse. An all too familiar pain of seeing loved ones suffering from a sport that has cruelly become interwoven in an internal tug of war between love and loss. Kayaking takes its toll, and its intrinsic value to each of us can be lost in a churning river of swirling priorities, and unforeseeable circumstances. This year has forced me to embrace the undeniable connection between my physical and mental health, and feel the power of my personal relationship with whitewater. I am healing, grieving, and aspiring for more and less, in a confusing tangle of pain, joy, and risk. I am trying to invest in my mental and physical wellbeing with the same enthusiasm I pursue kayaking. I am reluctantly learning to lean into the support my community and family is able to offer, and however uncomfortable, to ask for and accept help when I need it.

I am more grateful than ever to call White Salmon my home, and to be a part of this community. I am surrounded by friends, who are my heroes; hedged by neighbors who nourish my soul, kindle my sense of adventure, and show up for me in the most remarkable ways when I need help. I moved here for the whitewater, and stayed because I enjoy being here, on this river, amongst these people.

I don’t know what’s in store for me, or if my kayaking career is going to continue in any of the ways I’d imagined it would. I do know that I am incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to face this setback, to be in this situation. My fire is not extinguished. Ready, or not, I will embrace the beautiful uncertainty that is my future. I will continue to combat my apathy with passion, push toward my athletic goals, and pursue what brings me joy, even as it feels like the goalposts are constantly on the move.

“What one discovers is often altogether different from what one seeks. Our kayaks were a means, yet by no means to an end. To let go of expectation and surf the wave of change is the essence of any adventure. To be open to constant change, the only constant. All we are is our response. All we can do is try to respond with clarity and integrity, to ride the wave with grace, to maintain a fine balance in motion.” - Arlene Burns


Special thanks to all of my amazing friends who have joined me, pushed me, inspired me, waited for me, made me laugh, and maybe most of all, believed in me on this journey.


*Maypril Fools, I’m still here.

 

Jo's backpacking trip on Eagle Cap

Backing trip on Eagle Cap 

Snowy Ski Traverse in the Goat Rocks Wilderness

Jo and Crew on traverse in the Goat Rocks Wilderness. 

Packrafting In Alaska
Packrafting trip in Alaska - photo by Catherine Loke
Biking Plains of Abraham, Washington State
Nicole Mansfield navigating a creek crossing on our Plains of Abraham biking trip in Washington State - Photo By Jo.
Back physical Therapy
Daily PT for the back.

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If you are in a really dark place, please tell someone. 

My email is jokemper@gmail.com

Washington Listens Line – 1-833-681-0211 (9 am – 9 pm Mon-Fri, 9 am – 6 pm weekends)

Washington Warm Line – 1-866-427-4747 (24/7)

National Suicide Prevention Helpline – 1-800-273-8255

Mental Health Crisis Lines Southwest Washington (Clark, Skamania, Klickitat counties) – 1-800-626-8137 | TTY 1-866-835-2755

Therapy for Communities of Color – Text NOSTIGMA to 707070

Teen Text Support Line – 207-515-8398

*crisis line numbers, and more resources are available at www.nami.org

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