OC1 Essay Contest Entry - Denise Jaeger

The following submission was made as an entry to win a OC1 from an amazingly generous donor, who wanted to see the canoe truly enjoyed, rather than turn a profit. Entrants were asked to submit an essay answering the following:

  • Part 1: “Describe how paddling has changed your life.”
  • Part 2: “How do you plan to use this canoe, and perhaps someday pass it along?”

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Denise Jaeger, Pennsylvania

It was the darkest of times, a fall into a deep, black cave.  It was the most frightening period of our lives.  There was no light at the end of this tunnel.  All of the clichés could ring true.  Except they don’t. There are so many more pieces to the story and mere clichés trivialize the discoveries that were to come.

At the time my husband Art was successively diagnosed with three primary cancers between Christmas and Valentine’s day, our youngest had just graduated college, our middle had just married, our oldest was building a successful business. And we had discovered kayaking.  Oh, the sheer fun of it! Oh, the adventure! Each weekend we loaded the car and gleefully ventured into literal and figurative new waters with our kayak cohort, a diverse group of people dedicated to adventure, nature, and loving life. Often since, we have talked about how quickly we became family to strangers connected solely by a love of paddling.  We camped, hiked, ate, and spread cheer together – but mostly, we paddled. Our fellow paddlers taught us to roll and rescue. They taught us to pack light and dehydrate things never imagined dry.  They took us to wild places and brought complete joy to our world.  It was a beautiful time of camaraderie and discovery for Art and me.

The cancer diagnoses were so shocking that there was no time to wallow. We set our purpose: cure, restore.  We did not enter a tunnel sans light or even a cave. We had no time to feel dark and sullen. I was, however, frightened. But not for long. While the march to cure consumed five and half years of our life together and Art endured multiple revisions of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, we found hope, once again, in shared community. University of Pennsylvania Hospital became our new home and the fellow patients and medical staff enveloped us in a world of hope that left little doubt we would come back from this experience and take to the waters once again.  My role, aside from caregiver, was manager and researcher.  I studied the latest research in all modalities of treatments from holistic to medical; I Ninjaed the hell out of kale; I was psychologist and taskmaster.  Together, we approached this journey as another adventure, another challenge to revel in.  We paddled on.  Sans water. With the spirit we had developed on the water.

Once the shadow of the cancer demon diminished, we set into routine. But without the focus of the past years, I felt adrift, uncertain and unstable. My caregiver role had once again been disintegrated. Thankfully, of course.  Art was healing and understandably needed time and space to do so. I loved my work as always, but I felt I was lacking an identity.

Fugues of fun times slowly crept into my daily thoughts. I would stare at the sleek, graceful 18-footers dangling temptingly from our garage wall.  I longed to pull through the water once again.  But it was clear Art would not return to the water in the same way.  Both his lungs and his confidence had taken a hit. He legitimately hesitated to test his lung capacity in water.  And I could not load and transport a 50 plus pound boat alone. Ultimately, I bought myself a smaller, lighter kayak and headed to local venues for solitary paddles that, despite the time for reflection and quiet contemplation, were lacking in camaraderie and personal, physical growth opportunities. I felt defeated and quietly acquiesced.  But Art, in an exceedingly unselfish act challenged my acquiescence; he clipped an article from the local paper introducing an information session for a dragon boat team. Timidly and with my sister accompanying me, I attended.

Four years later, my life resonates again with the joy of paddling! Once again, I am venturing into literal and figurative waters!  I have found camaraderie in a community of paddlers who have become a new family.  They challenge me to push harder, tap my unseen potential, and embrace the unfamiliar.  They provide laughter, acceptance, and security. I even experienced huli on a lake for them. More. Than. A. Couple. Of. Times. My commitment to them drives me to lift, to push, to pull. Stronger, stronger I become in body and spirit.  There is nothing that compares to pounding water with heart in synchronicity with 19 others and then quietly sharing dancing gleam on sunlit waters as we breathe in this life. There is nothing like feeling the tightness of muscles after working the swing of a paddle and the connection to a boat – dragon boat, OC, or kayak – and the electricity of water.  I am renewed. I am engaged. My paddler’s back can carry any new challenge presented. The physical demands of paddling coupled with the life-giving aura of nature have built a better person.  I am whole.

Why would I not want to share this incredible gift as others have so generously shared with me?  I believe unequivocally that Art’s adventures in paddling allowed him the strength to win his battle and me the strength to steer his victory.  I continue to thrive and grow in the joy of paddling and the community of paddlers. I am grateful for those solitary, quiet paddles where the lapping of water on the hull of my boat fosters contemplation and reflection.   If I were to be gifted with this beauty, I would feel gratitude beyond words and would celebrate life molded to its movement.  I would continue to better my stroke in concert with the water in the hopes of broadening my paddling experiences. I hope to be selected to represent my team in international competition in 2020, something my younger self never imagined for me!  I would have access to waters and territory that lift my soul.  And when the day comes that I can no longer glide across the water in her grace, I would pass her to another to feel such inspiration.  She is a symbolic vessel of storytelling and of all the stories to come that bind our disparate, connected journeys in this paddling world. 


Hello!  I am Denise Jaeger, an adventurer just a tad into my sixth decade.  I am sincerely full of gratitude for the opportunity to add my story in honor of this beautiful vessel and generous donor.  I am the mother of three awesome human beings, wife to a man of courage, high school teacher for the past two decades (came to this late as well!), and an avid paddler of any vessel. I work with teens on environmental issues and bridge them with the most experienced of our society.  I love my family, my students, my work, and most assuredly my time on the water. Thank you for this opportunity.


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