John Maxwell was not overly worried about his student, just realistic. Bill Graves, with cerebral palsy and only one leg, who had never navigated anything more sophisticated than an inner tube, was about to take on the Potomac River in a temperamental piece of fiberglass and plastic.
"There's a good chance he's going to dump," said Maxwell, who wore a life jacket covered in patches certifying him as an expert paddler. "We may have to pull him out."
So when Maxwell and I dumped our canoe in a pint-sized rapid, while Bill Graves stayed high and dry on the crest of his own wave, the 35-year-old rookie canoeist could hardly be blamed for smiling.
Graves and Maxwell are part of a unique, local program designed to give disabled people access to water sports. Since January of this year, 10 people with handicaps ranging from polio to partial paralysis have been taking classes in paddling and water safety taught by members of Washington's Canoe Cruisers Association, the largest private canoe club in the country.
"Our logo is Mainstream Canoers," said Maxwell, a CCA member and the driving force behind the program. He persuaded club members to donate boats, money and time for instruction. Spring River and Phoenix, two canoe manufacturers, each donated a boat. And IBM recently awarded the program a small grant.
Getting interested students proved a bit more difficult. Using mailing lists provided by the Washington area's spinal cord injury network, Maxwell sent out 700 fliers. The response was not exactly overwhelming.
"That's not too surprising," said Graves, who lost his right leg to bone cancer at the age of 16 and who was diagnosed as having cerebral palsy about five years ago. "People with injuries like that have been scared."
River running might seem particularly hazardous for those with limited motor skills. It is difficult enough to recover from an accidental capsizing in fast-moving water when your arms and legs are pumping up a froth.
But most paddling is not that treacherous. And because they usually do not require leg power, boats can be great equalizers. Where they can take you is worth a little risk.
"For people like me, this would normally be off-limits," said Berto Robie, 33, a clerk-typist for the Department of Commerce. Robie had polio when he was 6 years old. He wears metal braces on his legs. And he is in love with boats.
"The first time I paddled, it was a real zing for me," he said. "It was like a miracle, suddenly being able to bring to bear the muscles I've still got. It's an effort, but that's what life is all about."
Robie would have been unable to paddle a canoe except for a special seat and metal chest brace designed by Max Ware of Rapidan, Va. The brace allows the students with upper spinal cord injuries to power a boat without losing balance. The CCA has also built ramps of wood and dirt to make access to the river easier. There are problems, however, that are not solved as easily.
"It's a real pain in the neck to stick one of those (canoes) on the roof of your car," said Graves, who just a few years ago was lying on his back in a hospital bed, being fed intravenously and able to do nothing more physical than squeeze rubber balls in his hands. Physical therapy and his own aggressive attitude aided his recovery.
"Exercise is how I pulled myself out of that hole," said Graves, who has curly brown hair and disarming blue eyes. "You do more than you think you can and act better than you feel."
"Bill is just able to transcend a great many things," said Marianne Rose, the supervisor of a Multiple Sclerosis Back to Work program that Graves participated in before landing a job as a computer support representative for IBM. "He looked as hard for a job as anybody I ever met. He is a great role model."
Graves has a puckish sense of humor. On the day of his first venture onto the river, he admitted he was likely to "wet my pants." When Ann Schiefer, one of the CCA members, was looking for help getting a canoe off a car roof, Graves volunteered, "Do you need a hand?," then clapped his metal crutches together in clanking applause.
But once on the river, he became very calm and serious. For an hour, he paddled his decked canoe, trying unsuccessfully to ascend one fast eddy in the river. He was obviously fatigued, but kept attacking the current until Maxwell and I brought the lesson to a halt with our unplanned dunking.
"That is darn hard work," said Graves, when he had climbed out of his boat and offered mock condolences to the soggy duo. "Especially when you do it sideways."