Elements of Recovery - A Na Pali Bucket List Story

I'd like to think I have never taken paddling for granted. And the good health that lets me paddle. But I am sure over the years I have enjoyed this sport, I have done just that. Taken for granted our waters, the camaraderie of teammates, and the athleticism paddling provides me. So as you can imagine, when a back injury took away my ability to comfortably sit, stand, walk and paddle, I scolded myself for having not appreciated it even more.

The doctor said it was a herniated disk. L5-S1 for those who know anything about the spine. Without the encouragement to seek help, and sincere concern of my good friend Greggy, I probably would have kept avoiding the doctor even longer than I did. And who knows how bad it would have gotten. To me, it was a very frightening reminder of my mortality. Being told that a burning feeling I have is spinal fluid escaping into my leg freaked me the frack out. Picking up my baby had to be put on hold. My oldest daughter couldn't slide down my legs like she used to or jump in my arms. Walking the dog was too risky. My wife had to take on a whole new level of awesome around the house to makeup for my brokenness. And the thought of paddling again suddenly became an issue of "if"...not "when"'.

Paddling Recovery

I was broken. Vulnerable. And getting soft. My weight went up. And my morale went down. That said, my paddle friends reached out to me. They would talk about their races so I could live vicariously. Laugh at my crooked x-rays and tell me my spine is leaning left too much 'cus it's afraid to huli'. And they would just come visit and let me whine and be bitter, so as to give my wife a reprieve from my pessimism about never getting better. The Paddling Community... It was SO needed. And appreciated.

The calendar drifted to March. My last water time was in early December (a weekend of Surf-ski racing and long-distance OC1) and it seemed like a lifetime ago. I had not been dry-docked this long since I started paddling back in 2009. Clubs were training for OC6 season, and I was nowhere near healthy enough to join. Fortunately for me, I was able to stay involved with you all through Cali Paddler as I was helping create fun new items, and posting stories written by our Tribe. It nurtured my sanity as I healed and stayed connected. Thank you.

They say its time for rehab, yah. yah. yah.

Spring came. Chiropractor visits. Physical therapy. Stretching and TONS of ice. It all helped helped me heal. I started to see the cloud lift. I was still nervous to do 'something stupid'. But I have been given the clear in May to paddle.  I didn't want to have my first paddle be on OC1, fearing the risk of my body breaking in half, and being in an unsafe predicament. So when the time and body felt right, my friend Red picked up on the first ring and said 'absolutely' when I asked if we could go out together on his two man canoe. And so, we paddled. I was timid. Very trepidatious. But knowing if something didn't feel right he would tell me to shut it down and would get us back home without hesitation. No ego in this paddle friendship. He wanted me healthy and on the water for the long haul. I knew I could share with him if my back was feeling vulnerable at any moment. But alas the back felt good. My core muscles were weak and so those hurt a bit, but structurally I was ok. And so, passing this test, I would get to paddle a second time! The slow rehab and water therepy had begun.

A week later, I did SUP. I was still icing, stretching and spending tons of time laying on the living room floor while my oldest daughter decorated me with My Little Pony dolls and colored me get well pictures that she would tape to my hairy legs (ouch). The next week I did OC1 for the first time (my sanctuary craft). My friend Tony this time was my wingman to make sure I didn't seize up in the middle of the ocean. Yes,  I insisted we head out of the bay to the ocean. (Sorry lovely wife for not telling you about that until after the fact) ;) but again knowing a paddle friend had my back. Besides it was flat, and I reaaaally missed the ocean. My fourth time in the water would finally be in an oc6. I texted another close friend, the coach at the canoe club I call home, and asked if I could jump in on a practice and see how my back did. Apologizing in advance if I were to screw up any crews he was setting or if I had to stop mid practice if something wasn't right. Coach Kawika replied "of course!" so quick I wondered if he was had intended the message to another person and mine popped up on his screen. Despite my apprehension of paddling OC6 again it went great. Somehow, through patience, guidance from friends and experts, and rehab I was paddling again.

As you can Imagine, I had to fight the urge to do too much too fast. Fortunately, with two young kids running around, paddle time was a rationed luxury so I wouldn't fall into my normal balls-to-the-wall crazy paddle routine when I ramp up. Once a week I would vary my craft choice to keep me from going to heavy into one discipline and risk aggravating my back.

As we neared the end of June, we were coming up on the Iron Champs race where I would get to see my paddle friends at our Cali paddler booth and cheer them on. Prior to that event, I had let slip on a Facebook thread how I had always wanted to do a certain race that was being discussed. Something to the effect of, "oh man that has been on my bucket list for years". A call from a paddling friend named Si came my way shortly after that. He and Aussie Steve were notorious for putting together fun crews of paddlers to travel and paddle. They were putting a team together for Na Pali Challenge on Kauai. A mutual friend originally planning to race it was unable to go, and so a spot had freed up. "What do you think?" He asked.

Back in 2010, my second year of paddling, a friend and steering mentor Marc, aka "Hapa" came back from doing Na Pali. He said in a very serious tone, "Clarke, you need to do this race". Knowing my infatuation for paddling coastlines that are inaccessible by land, exploring, and gaining vantage points of coastlines 99.9% of the world will never see, he was quick to sell me on the race. A point to point race from Hanalei to Waimea, he told me the whole time he was thinking about how much I would enjoy it. After flicking through amazing photos of the race, showing 2000 foot cliffs and waterfalls, I was sold. Over the next six years, the Na Pali Race Carrot dangled out of reach. As we all know, a lot needs to line up for us Cali paddlers to travel to Hawaii to race. Timing, funds, crews, logistics and of course a lot of support and encouragement from others.

So, back to to the year 2016. Here I am, over a year and a half removed from my last OC6 race (Molokai Hoe in Oct 2014). 7 months from being flat on my back, unable to hold my baby daughter. And my training consisting of once-a-week get off the couch rec paddler. "Why again did they invite me???" I told him I was shocked, stoked and honored and would have an answer soon. Knowing I had six weeks until race day, I had to really assess thing, for my sake, my families, and the crew I would be racing with.

My wife was understandably nervous. Not only had she been picking up the slack when I was hurt with the family and housework, and dreadful of a setback, but she was worried about me doing something dumb that would jeopardize my long term health. She had been there by my side (technically standing over me) back in the winter when I had trouble breathing deep at night. When my whole leg would go numb. And when I was so broken that back surgery was a fearful possibility. She needed to know I was ready for it. But she is also a paddler. She gets it. So after some long talks....and with her support and encouragement, I set out to get in the best race shape I could. Smartly. Safely. Strategically. I added new stretching routines. Reintroduced running and swimming into my days. And of course slowly upped my paddling to levels I knew I needed if I were to even consider a long distance change race like Na Pali.

Talking with a few of my soon to be teammates, they reassured me I wouldn't be 'screwing up their race' by accepting the invite. A fear I had. Sometimes in paddling, self-doubt can creep in. But teammates and friends then show up with more confidence in us then we have in ourselves. In this case, I had never shared a canoe with them. But I still had their support and encouragement to join them. In the words of Aussie Steve, "Game on, let's smash this!".

Fast forward five weeks of training, healthy eating, and nervous anticipation. Notching a few 20 milers on oc6, a SUP race in windy conditions, ocean swimming with my mermaid friend and swim coach Breezy. Tons of cross training and most importantly listening to my body, I was on a flight to Hawaii.

Meeting the Vaka Motley Crew in Hawaii

The energy of the crew was instantly awesome. Most of them had paddled together before so they had familiarity with each other. This group came from SoCal, NorCal, America Samoa and Australia. 12 paddlers including myself. They welcomed me to Vaka Motley Crew with open arms. This made me want to perform even better though, despite me knowing they were not putting pressure on me to be some paddle stud. As with any team sport, and team paddling, you never want to be a weak link. To cost your teammates a chance to have fun or be fast.

I admit, I really didn't want to suck. :) and I would get nervous every time my back would so much as have an itch. "What if I'm not in shape?" "What if I bonk?" "What if my back goes out in the first five minutes????"

Again though, paddlers are amazing people. And in the next two days as we rigged our canoe (thank you @Hanalei CC for loaning us Nanamoali'i), registered and bonded on the island I knew no matter what, these were great people. Talented paddlers. And they would 'have my back'.

The day of...

Race morning came. There would be no warm-up paddle. There would be no time to blend as a crew. I would be jumping into the canoe at the thirty minute mark with my five male teammates while the six women would jump out as the first legs of our 35-40 mile relay would begin. I would be hoisting myself into the canoe and immediately paddle at race intensity. For the start of 5-7 hours of time on the water. How would it go down? Would my back hold up? Would I be able to match my teammates as they deserved. And perform to the standards I had set for myself years ago when I had been hammering races every chance I could?

That morning, before I swam out to our chase boat, I spent time with our canoe. I silently sang the Hawaiian chant 'e ho mai' to humbly ask for blessings of a safe journey for us all. I poured sand from the beach through my fingers into the shallow water, and watched it blend together as my friend Marc had done there 6 years before. I wished friends and teammates good luck. And gave a special long embrace to my friend Momi (pearl). Her husband Mark introduced me to my first outrigger canoe on my honeymoon to Hawaii almost ten years prior. Little did they know how such a small gesture would profoundly affect my life. Because of them I now paddle. I would be sharing the waters with her for the first time. I hoped to make her proud.

As I got on the chase boat, we heard the start of the race. Our ladies would be doing the first thirty minutes. Then a change window of five minutes would open. And we would swap crews. This would repeat every half hour as we paddled around the north and western half of Kauai.

I lathered on sunscreen, lip balm, ate my race food and energy bars and watched as our women demonstrated how ridiculously talented they are at paddling! Us guys had been joking about how they would be setting the bar for us all. And how we needed to work our tails off to try not go and screw up all the awesomeness they would be displaying. Well, they didn't disappoint. Fluid, fast and full of great energy. Despite the incredible coastline of cliffs and waterfalls behind them, THEY had our full attention. "5 minutes until first window!!!!" Cackled the radio on our support boat. Just like that we were gonna be up.

Go time

Any nerves I had at this point I knew would disappear the second I jumped into the water with my teammates to intercept the canoe. And sure enough they did. No time for nerves when you got a job to tackle. You do....or you don't. And the latter is never an option.

We got to the canoe, I hoisted myself up and over the gunwales into to my seat. Zipped up my spray skirt, and took my first paddle stroke for the day. And ya know what? I then took the second and third of what would be several thousand paddle strokes.

I'm not gonna exaggerate this story to be about some guy on his death bed, getting up and hitting a home run, completing a marathon and winning a karate tournament with a broken kneecap. Because here is the truth.... People have had waaayyy worse injuries then me and done waayyy more. But I am gonna point out how an injury makes you grateful to be present once again doing something you love. And here is the other reason I'm not gonna inflate this to be some Rocky Balboa 12th round come from behind bout....because this is a team sport. And I had eleven people that day working their tails off, battling hard and pulling together. The second we started moving it was as a unit. And the "me" and "I" was out of the equation. Sure I needed to do good and not screw up all those peeps behind me in the canoe (I sat in seat one), but any success that day would be generated by the collective. And this my friends, is one of those #ifyoupaddleyougetit realities.

Let the good times roll

So, piece by piece, mile by amazingly beautiful coastline mile, we raced. The first piece was rough as we were pretty amped up watching the ladies do so well, and we were trying to figure out how to blend and paddle together for the first time. But on our break, we talked to each other, listened to each other and sure enough made adjustments in the second piece to really help us do better. By the third piece the canoe was jamming. I had no idea a five minute warning had been called to us from the chase signaling the end of that third piece. It felt so good I wasn't counting down the seconds to get to jump out. I wanted more. And the crew behind me was a machine. I was setting up pins and they were knocking them down. My seat 2 Jake was a great presence in the canoe. One of only two on our team to do the race before, he was talking to me at important parts to keep my head in the game and helping make sure my stroke was what the crew needed.

Dolphins and sea turtles made appearances throughout the next few hours as we paddled along. Fun waves guiding us along as our steersman James locked us in to more than we deserved. The glide was present.


Towards the end of our fourth piece, I turned mortal....fast. While it wasn't as hot as in years past, and while the gnarly headwinds never materialized that can make this stretch Along what is called "barking sand" a beast, it was becoming a grind for me. Technique was starting to get a bit sloppier. My posture a bit more hunched, my eyes more closed and the canoe felt heavier than it had before. we were on mile thirty. I was certainly counting the seconds for this shift to be done. I promise.

On the next break, it became clear we may be finishing the race on next change. The finish is grueling and flat. Unlike the first 20 miles of green cliffs and waterfalls, we were now on the dry side. The desert if you will. That said, I had been bracing for much much much worse at this point. So realizing the positives made it easier to deal with the real factor....I was fricken tired!!!!

Last time on chase boat and I did my usual food screen and Chamois but'r routine. ( If you don't know about this godsend of product, your rear end will thank you next long paddle.) Popped a high caffeine gu pack knowing it was gonna be my last shift of the day. And then preceded to ring our cow bell for the ladies as they continued to paddle great. Side note, ot was at this time I watch their steerswoman Paula as she paddled six consecutive sides before having to poke. She and her crew were so locked in. Next time I steer, I have set that as a benchmark. Really awesome to witness.

Almost there

So the finishing piece. This crew change was a little harder. when the girls jumped out the canoe hit a wave and my seat where I grab and pull in launched high in the air. No biggie as this happens a lot in the ocean. But it was notable for me as I was dangling with my whole body out of the water and doing a full pull-up unexpectedly without getting leg kicks to help propel me up. My back never even flinched.

The rest of me.....was tired. :) we didn't have any canoes to close behind us to make it a race for a spot, and the closest one in front was a couple minutes ahead. So this last stretch, 40+minutes this one since no changes after a certain buoy, would be us as a team getting to the finish line while the girls screamed and cheered beside us.  From the boat.

We cross the finish buoy. And the normal air horn I am used to at finish lines was absent, so I kept paddling some more. And then realized it was time To stop. I was grateful. Exhausted. Beaten up. But not broken. Pretty stoked actually.

I certainly had parts I would like to have improved on. Better technique. Better reach. Better returns. Better power application. You know....all of it. But that what our sport is all about. Always a chance to improve.

So we beached the canoe in Kikiaola Harbor, the finishing area that was dominated by our race, unrigged, watched paddlers come in behind us and hung out at the after-race lunch party. So many studs to meet and congratulate. So many friendly faces. My exhaustion was real, but I was not going to end this party any sooner than I had to. After all, I had just had a great race and was in no hurry to turn the page.

Speculation on how we finished ranged a lot. In the end we took 14th overall in a time of 5:19. 8th place in our age and boat class division (open traditional). We had wonderful conditions in my opinion which helped make it a really fun time on the water. And of course my crew was a rag tag bunch of awesome paddlers who I look forward to paddling with again some day should the chance arise. Thank you all. You got me back out there again racing, and I am so grateful.

What I was reminded of through this year

Paddling is one of those sports, where when you don't have it....you get twitchy. Cranky. And depressed. And when our health and bodies don't allow us to paddle, we find ourselves doubly bummed out because we start to wonder if that part of our life is going to be gone forever. Usually irrational thoughts... but they happen none the less. So while I find myself now having gotten back in a canoe, and enjoying the water competitively again, I'm going to double down on my effort to not take it for granted. Too much happiness is derived from paddling. Too much camaraderie with our friends who also paddle. And too much connection with the water, nature and all of its magic, to not enjoy every stroke we get to take. Be it on a canoe, paddleboard, surf ski, or whatever! I'm preaching to the choir I know. We all love paddling here. But this was just my little story, of losing something for a short while, then having it given back to me through a thoughtful invitation. In a place I have dreamed about paddling for years. And that was enabled by the support of my paddle friends to help get me back out on the water and healthy enough to make it happen.

Giving thanks...

On my final morning in Kauai I woke up to the sounds of most remaining teammates waking u early to hike. Despite the sun not being up at this god playful hour, the sounds of their hushed chatter was very welcomed. I rose to give hugs and well wishes. Si and I went out on the porch to wave them off, the sun rising to the east over their car as they pulled away.

The remaining three of us packed up, cleaned the house and headed down for one last swim/float in the water. A Hawaiian tradition I have had shared with me, was if you are leaving to gift a lei back to the island. I took the tea leaf lei Michele thoughtfully made for our canoe, and headed down to the water. To return it home before I left.

I wasn't sure how best to gift the lei. I set it in the water for a bit, but it promptly washed back to me instead of out to sea. So I grabbed my snorkel and mask and took the lei out with me into the ocean as I swam around. Awaiting inspiration which I knew would come in such a special place as this.

As I was swimming using my legs to slowly propel around, looking down at the ocean floor, I began to gingerly open up the individual tea leaves that had been carefully twisted and braided. About that time I felt a pulse of water along my torso that made me flinch. Startled by the sensation I looked all around at what had blown by me with such force. Despite a good bit of searching as my pulse returned to normal,  I saw nothing. With the first leaf now free, I released it as a gift to Hawaii's wind, which had just pulsed by me underwater. And which had been favorable for our whole race.

Swimming and looking deeper now, beyond the confines of the protective break wall, and the sandy beach, I began to see more clearly the intricate ocean floor. Below me like a jewel I saw an amazing coral head. I circled it several times while I loosened the second leaf of the lei. Diving down beyond the point where my ears popped, I placed the leaf beside the coral head. It's fluttered and danced underwater, putting on a show for the land of Hawaii, symbolized by the coral. The gift to the land was given, a thank you for so many miles of amazing coastline we paddled.

Left with one leaf, I was in no hurry to surface. Vacation would end soon with airport lines and normal life taking its place. Surfacing would not happen just yet. Keeping with the theme, I knew the final gift would be to the waters of Hawaii. But where and when, would still be determined.

Many times in paddling, special things have happened. Be it a pod of Dolphins surfacing and flirting with my oc1 wake. A whale breaching shortly after a paddle out ceremony. A turtle choosing to match my course as I swim back to the support boat of a change race. I find that paddling has brought me closer to nature through the water time It gives me.

Floating and snorkeling along, with my third and final tea leaf gift for the ocean, I had been struck by the lack of fish I had seen. A few here and there, but a significant drop off from what I recalled seeing here before.

I surfaced to clear my mask and snorkel and get my bearings. My meandering path of travel had put me out farther than I originally intended but no distance to instill concern. The water and currents were gentle. With mask and snorkel properly adorning me again I submerged. And I was not alone anymore.

For whatever reason, I dare not embellish or speculate what caused them to be there, I was in the middle off about 30-40 fish. All curious, circling and dancing around me. Blue tails, met yellow fins, met translucent long noses. It was a rainbow of colors in every direction. I dove deep and let them swim overhead, around and below. Our mutual curiosity lasted a long time, but sadly my quest to surface for air would cut short time with my new found friends. But not before I left my final tea leaf lei as a gift to the sea. A thank you for the fun swell and currents that guided us, and all its inhabitants who cheered us on from below.

It's not often that every condition of a paddle race could work in our favor. But that is what happened for our crew and those other canoes in our race. There was fun swell n every direction. The wind never disappeared, but rather kept us cool, and from helpful directions to help us along. And the scenery. Thousand foot peaks looking over us as we looked up at them, escorted us the whole way. Keeping me in awe and grateful, even as fatigue set in.

Not often we finish a race where 1st timers and 20 time veterans of the race rave and gesture with equally enthusiastic hand motions. To rave about it being great in every direction we paddled. But that was what happened. And this paddler will be coming home to California, as I fly over the Pacific Ocean writing this, with a new found gratitude for his sport and a new notch on his belt to paddle amazing places with amazing people.

2016 Vaka Motley Crew - Na Pali Challenge
Women (1-6)
Sarah Kolpin
Amity Mason
Michele Willmering
Shannon Hartnett
Gloria Lambert
Paula Stevenson McDonald

Men (1-6)
Clarke Graves
Jake Kuhn
Siam Mendoza
Derek O'Connell
Steve Corney
James B. Rojas

Cali Paddler Team Writer Clarke Graves

Team Writer Clarke Graves - If there is water, he will paddle it (regardless of craft). Clarke is a surfer turned paddler who grew up in San Diego but has traveled every corner of California enjoying its beauty and appeal. He has had the privilege of racing SUP, OC6, OC2, OC1, Prone and can't wait to hop into a dragon boat and surf-ski for an extended length of time.

One of Clarke's goals is to paddle as much shoreline in California as he can, with as many paddling friends who are willing to join him. If you have an idea for Clarke to write about or any questions, send it our way and we will pass it along!

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  • Marc (Hapa) - August 16, 2016

    Clarke, I am humbled and proud to be part of your experience of Na Pali’. When I paddled Na Pali’ and finished. Sat back and thought about what had just happened, the first person to come to mind was, “Clarke” had to do this. The experience, feelings and sights put me in awe. One day hopefully at the end of my recovery, I will have the honor of paddling with you again my friend (Clarke)
    Mahalo nui o

  • Stacey - August 16, 2016

    I have struggled to find an adequate description for “civilians” (non-paddlers)… the best I could come up with for my Na’Pali experience is “life-changing gift”. I had some intensely emotional moments on Saturday, and it was every bit the spiritual experience I’d wanted it to be. “I ku mau mau!” – stand together! Clarke, my master’s degree is in the psychology of injury, and everything you describe is totally normal, and common, and honest. Congratulations for completing the journey back in such a spectacular way! So very honored to have been present for even a tiny part, by doing this race too. When we said “See you on the other side” before the race, it was more meaningful. … because you are truly on the other side of your injury experience now. As our team captain said the next day, it’s important to stop, look around, and say “Mahalo ke akua” – thank you, God – for this sport, this ohana, this opportunity, this moment of pono, of recovery. Mahalo ke akua…..
    Aolha, bruddah, welcome to the other side! ! ♡ Stacey

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