The World Class Family on the Nile River. Peter is on the far right with his huge smile I will always remember.

River of Life & the Flow of Time

~For my friends Stephen Forester and Peter Tompson. Two of the most gifted paddlers and people I have ever had the pleasure to be friends with. Thank you for all of the inspiration and sharing your passion for life with me. Your spirits will always be with me. ~

The World Class Family on the Nile River. Peter is the second on the right with his huge smile I will always remember.

Stephen is one of the closest friends I have had in my life. He was an amazing person and I think about him everyday.

River of Life & the Flow of Time

I breathe in deeply and close my eyes to calm the flow of thoughts in my mind. The thoughts I think become my existence and my existence originates from my mind. Breathe in. Breathe out. This is my last ride of the entire competition. I am sitting in fifth, the lowest position I could be in the finals. This is my last chance, but no matter what I have already succeeded. All expectation, fear, doubt, suffering, ego and sadness fall away. This is my redemption. Nirvana is my experience. The head judge gives me the thumbs up. I begin paddling out of the eddy and just before I drop in I let out an exultant roar. This is just another moment flowing by in the river of my life. I think how incredibly lucky I am to be alive on the river at this moment in time after everything I have experienced in my short life. Then I hit the whitewater and the controlled chaos begins.

Photo: Cheryl Killman

Reverse the flow. Let time pour backward, like water running upstream. The moment is on September 6th, 2009 around noon in Thun, Switzerland. The setting is a iridescent blue river wave that forms in the outflow of an old wooden dam covered in flowers, under an ancient castle that is bested only by the natural majesty of the Swiss Alps towering above. Around me are the four best junior paddlers in the world from Spain, France, Australia and the United States. This place and time is the kind of dream that dreams wish to be, and the kind of moment that culminates every hundred lifetimes or so if you have good karma. I had just won the Jr. Freestyle Kayaking World Championship. I was sitting in the eddy under the grandstands when it was announced that my first ride had withstood the three rounds of other competitors trying to top it, and I was the new Jr. World Champion. The crowd in the stands above me erupted into cheers and I could feel the vibrations emanate down through the supports I was holding onto and send small ripples out into the water. Electrified, I pulled hard on the supports pushing me into the main current and I dropped into the wave with the biggest smile of my life. I threw trick, after trick after trick until the buzzer went off to notify me that my ride time had finished. I could hardly care and kept throwing tricks until my best friend Dane, who had won silver, came to surf with me. I stayed on the wave just long enough to exchange a high five before I peeled off and headed downriver. That was the last time I had competed at an international event. The dream fades, as the river gets deeper and darker as time flows downstream.

Words do not describe this place.

This is a place that is unaltered, raw and utterly beautiful. I am standing directly at the base of Victoria Falls, Zambia, as the sheer power of the place overwhelms me. Few people have stood where I am now as the only way to get here is by kayak navigating deadly rapids. The gorge walls are black primordial rock that has slowly over the course of time given way to the erosional force of water. The sky is a sliver of misty blue that only just shows between the four hundred foot tall gorge walls. The water pours in from all around giving the impression that the gates of heaven are flooding. In a place like this the truth of our insignificance towers around you, pours in far above your head, deafens your ears, whips your eyes and fills your being with the nature of timeless existence. These are the moments I live for. These are the moments I may die for. I walk down to my kayak and begin paddling rapids so large David would be hesitant to confront this Goliath. Above the rapid 12b I pass a dead body, bloated, swirling in the eddy line. He met his end in the waters of this river, eventually to be food for the crocodiles and fish. I ask myself “will I?” A few days later after running one of the most difficult and purely terrifying rapids on the river, number 9, I was chased out of an eddy by a crocodile. That was the most scared I have ever been in my life, and the hardest I have ever paddled. Had I waited a few moments longer I would have met my end in the jaws of ancient death itself. Here in this place time exists in an unaltered state, unmerciful and utterly brutal. The fact of our weakness and death is painfully honest. If you wish to survive this river it is best to make peace with this truth.

Now all time falls away. There is no contrast in the world like sitting at the top at the edge a waterfall. I breathe in, close my eyes and meditate on my line. In my mind I peel out of the eddy, get river right, square up with the lip of the falls, take my final stroke just as my boat goes past vertical and then wait for the hit of impact at the bottom. If only everything in life would be like how we imagine, but it is not so. I open my eyes and put my visualization into reality. I paddle out of the eddy, get river right and float over the lip. From the top of the falls I look down from my vantage thirty feet bellow and time stops, frozen. From the top of the falls I feel the full feeling of life rush through my veins because I am so near to death. The moment ends, then I begin falling. I take that final stroke on my way down. I wait for the hit but it never comes. The impact is so extreme my mind simply cannot comprehend such a force passing through my body. The next thing I know is that I am out of my boat at the base of the waterfall being churned like a rag doll in the violent current. I try to swim, but my legs won’t kick. I wait for what feels like an eternity until I break the surface and to my horror my legs float up next to me. Luckily I grabbed onto a rock to keep me from floating downstream to my death. I had shattered my lower spine, pelvis and spinal chord basically detaching my legs from the rest of my body. Pain beyond words shoots up to my brain and begins tearing at the core of my being. The rescue took five hours to hoist me up a vertical cliff, across a gorge wall and back across the flooded river on a backboard. Time becomes my enemy as it locks me away from my pure existence of paddling and I am only able to endure agonizing moment by moment for what seams like eternity. Hope, that is what keeps me going. The hope that I will fight to paddle again another day even when death was so close.

Staying positive as everything is broken.

Stitches and scars!

Over the next year time did not treat me well, but everything in this universe is relative. It felt like my life had been stuffed at the bottom of a horrible sieve. The heavy current pushing me deeper and deeper, unable to move, lungs burning for air as I see the light of the surface fading away and I am trapped waiting to die. My existence was pure suffering. Just like dropping into a chaotic rapid, the only thing I could do was deal with what I was committed to. I endured a six hour surgery where the doctors removed the shards of bone out of my partly severed spinal column, putting each nerve back into place and then bolting me back together again with twenty screws and rods, most longer than six inches. The metal stuck out of my back by an inch or two and I had turned into a living “Jasonstein.” I couldn’t feel anything beyond the tops of my thighs and after six days of rest I just barely managed to take one step from my bed to a chair. I maxed out on painkillers and neuropathic painkillers and still it was not enough to fight back against the heavy torture. Then over time I fought back. One step turned into two, then four, and eventually I didn’t need a wheelchair and graduated to crutches. When the first catheter came out I refused to learn how to use one so that my only option was to re-train my bladder to function again. The months wore on and eventually I was out of the hospital. The real work had only just begun. Every sensation, every muscle I gained back I had to fight for, as it would return with excruciating nerve pain that would feel like burning, stabbing, needles or full electrocution. Eventually the battle started occurring in my mind where I would have to confront the pain to not let it dominate me, and ultimately accept it positively as a healing process. Night after night when the nerve pain was maddeningly extreme, I would meditate for hours and hours. I would wander through the experiences of my life, jumping around from moment to moment like a sort of time travel or imagining the severed nerves of my spine healing. My favorite meditation was thinking about kayaking rides on my favorite waves around world and I would spend months in my mind kayaking. Three times a week for a year I religiously attended physical therapy, acupuncture, deep tissue massage and other treatments to piece my body back together. Then one year after my injury I had the hardware removed from my spine. This surgery surprised me too how bad it really was, but soon I started out walking real slow and eased on up just a little bit, then I was jumping up again. I was kayaking, climbing, skiing and doing everything I had waited so long to do. It all felt so surreal to be living such a way of life again. After being so badly broken for such a long amount of time I would be lost if I was in one of my meditations or experiencing real life, but the feeling of cold water on my face brings me back to reality.

Thank you Bird Lew for healing me with your needles. You are a miracle healer and my climbing inspiration!

Walking again at Spine Nevada! The most amazing woman and PT Guru's Thais Mollet and Jen Mavis. I love you guys! You are family to me! Thank you Dr. James Lynch for all of your kindness and always being there for my family and I. Forever massive gratitude!

Here I sit a year and a half later. I breathe in deeply and close my eyes to calm the flow of thoughts in my mind. The head judge gives me the thumbs up. I begin paddling out of the eddy and just before I drop in I let out an exultant roar. Then I hit the whitewater and the dreams I had been visualizing of kayaking for the past year to focus my mind off of the pain were realized and actualized. Beautiful trick after trick all flowed together into one of the best rides I have ever had. The time buzzer goes off and I feel nothing but gratitude as I peel out of the hole. My score is announced and I move up into second place with the best freestyle kayakers in the world.  Life and death, suffering and thriving, happiness and sadness, first and last it is all an illusion meant to distract us from the nature of gratitude and compassion for the gift life that we all possess, until we don’t. Finally the second and third place contenders push me down to third place but my happiness is independent from standings. This is one of those moments that lasts an eternity and one that I will revisit in my mind. Later when I receive my medal and stand on the podium I let out another thunder of happiness for being so fortunate to be alive and freely floating downstream in my river of life, again.

Pure joy! Photo: James Bebbington

Epilogue- This story is just the surface of what happened this past year. I am forever changed with scars and metal souvenirs, but the biggest impact this has had on my life is that life is short and you must make the most of it while you are here. Life life to the fullest. Smile. Find happiness. My story really is not about me. A whole community rallied to support me back to live my dreams and I am so incredibly grateful to everyone who has shown compassion to me. Thank you to everyone who showed even the smallest act of kindness to bring me here today. Thank you to my family and my friends. Thank you to the guys who got me out of the river canyon that day. Thank you to Sutter-Roseville for putting me back together. Thank you to Shriners Children’s Hospital for the rehabilitation and being the best organization in human history. Thank you to Spine Nevada, Dr. James Lynch, Thais Mollet, Jen Mavis and everyone there for the physical therapy and feeling like my other family. Thank you to High Fives Foundation for all of the inspiration, friendship, guidance and therapy that was the key to my recovery. Thank you to Kurt McEntire for all of the MAT sessions and believing in me, you are one of the kindest people I know.