Backdropped by mist and the deep emerald of an Alaska rainforest, a young boy, smiles into the camera. His name is Christopher Watson, a middle-schooler in Juneau.
Like most kids his age, he looks happy to be bobbing along in a kayak, carefree and enthusiastic about his adventure. And undoubtedly he is.
But Christopher is unique — he has a disability — and opportunities like this don’t come around all that often.
But on this day, he grins from ear-to-ear through fog tinged glasses. His experience is made possible by the regional nonprofit Southeast Alaska Independent Living and the organization’s activity branch Outdoor Recreation and Community Access, or ORCA, for short.
Kayaking is only one of many activities supported by ORCA, according to Juneau ORCA Team Leader Tristan Knutson-Lombardo. Participants also have the opportunity to enjoy winter sports such as skiing, snowboarding and cross country skiing, and summer activities including ziplining, biking, and rock climbing, to name a few.
He said the program provides outdoor recreation opportunities and community access to persons of all ages experiencing disabilities.
ORCA runs three different year-round youth programs — Young Adventure Club, for second- through fifth-graders, the Middle Adventure Club, for middle school youth, and the Adventure Club, for high school teens.
But like many nonprofits, the program relies on the support of donations and time from volunteers.
ORCA is hosting an open house from 5-7 p.m. today, Sept. 21, at Twin Lakes in an effort to bolster participation and encourage new volunteer engagement. Participants are invited to take free kayak rides and participate in adaptive bike demonstrations. There will be live music, a barbeque and information for parents.
Knutson-Lombardo has worked for ORCA for more than 3½ years. He was with Christopher on the day they kayaked on Mendenhall Lake.
“It was just about a year ago,” he said. “That experience turned his day positive. ORCA is definitely a good pick-me-up for him.”
Kayaking isn’t just good for Christopher, Knutson-Lombardo said, it’s also accessible for a variety of individuals who experience disabilities, and it’s therapeutic.
“Kids and adults who have a lot of energy, or are easily distracted, find this great calming effect once you get them on the water,” he said. “And for most it’s their first time because not everyone has access to a kayak.”
Biking, he said, is also a popular activity.
“Anybody can get on and the bike can be tailored to (his or her) needs and ability,” he said. “In the winter, playing in the snow is by far the most popular activity.”
Whether it’s Nordic skiing or sledding, ORCA participants young and old have a wonderful time.
It’s not just about the organized activities, however. Kevin Crowley, an activities coordinator with ORCA, said staff works to incorporate learning experiences into every event. Take this week’s scavenger hunt, for example.
“We’ll be looking for a coffee shop, a movie theater, a totem pole and asking them to meet a dog, for example,” Crowley said. “We work on consumer goals and interpersonal connections. There’s a lot of fun skill-building activities — like kayaking and rock climbing — but tied into all that are intrinsic values, teamwork, self-reliance and personal growth.”
ORCA was created in the late 1990s Knutson-Lombardo said, after amicably breaking ties with an adaptive chapter in Anchorage. He said the break came after organizers realized the differing needs of clients here. Today, ORCA and SAIL have branches in other Southeast communities including Haines, Sitka and Ketchikan.
Knutson-Lombardo said the activities ORCA pursues are in a constant state of evolution and the variety offered depends heavily on the skill-sets of the organizers.
Take archery, for example, he said.
“No one on our staff knows how to shoot a bow and arrow, but today we got a call from someone who wants to volunteer and show our participants archery,” he said. Sometimes it may look like our offerings are limited, he said, but “it’s not because we can’t, it’s because we (our staff or volunteers) don’t have the skill set for it.”
Knudson-Lombardo said he remembers a time he took a group ziplining at Eaglecrest.
“Nobody really understood what was happening,” he said. “The nerves set in and there were some tears and shaky legs. It took a while to get everyone off that first platform. Once everyone overcame that fear, hurdle or obstacle — whether it was going fast or being high up in the air — once they moved forward, they started getting along, supporting each other and pumping one another up for the next zip.”
Overcoming barriers, whether accidental or purposeful, he said, makes it all worthwhile.
• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at firstname.lastname@example.org.