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Elysian Valley kayaker leaves his disability on the shore

Kayaker Andy Janicki paddles away | Courtesy Andy Janicki

Kayaker Andy Janicki paddles away | Courtesy Andy Janicki

By BRENDA REES

ELYSIAN VALLEY — “The one that about being in a wheelchair is that you are often looking down on the ground, making sure you won’t run over something, watching for rocks or other obstacles,” says 32-year-old Andy Janicki. “When you are in a kayak, you can look up and all around. It’s a whole new experience that empowers those with disabilities.”

An avid outdoorsman both before and after an accident at age 21 which left him paralyzed from the upper chest down, Janicki is determined to bring nature to the wheelchair bound. The Elysian Valley resident recently got a spate of good news: his organization, Wheels to Water, was granted nonprofit status, and a launch party fundraiser at the Spoke Bicycle Café raised enough cash to purchase five adaptive kayaks.

While Wheels to Water is new to Southern California, Janicki’s idea of giving people with disabilities an outdoor kayak experience is not new. For many years back in his native Wisconsin, he worked as an accessibility coordinator for the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Part of his job was to make sure that certain trails, cabins, hunting blinds, piers, etc. were accessible.

“Before my accident I did a lot of backpacking but with the chair, it was harder to be on trails and going places independently,” he explains. “It made sense to use the water as a way to get around outdoors.”

Janicki introduced many people in wheelchairs to the joys of kayaking, leading multiple overnight trips in local waterways as well as around Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. He coordinated trips with Wounded Warriors, giving veterans a wilderness experience complete with camping and star gazing. Janicki saw the emotional joy from people ages 16 to 65 who left wheels behind and took to the water.

Andy Janicki, second from right) with a group of disabled kayakers in Wisconsin. Two are quadraplegics. | Courtesy Andy Janicki

Andy Janicki, (second from right) with a group of disabled kayakers in Wisconsin. Two are quadraplegics. | Courtesy Andy Janicki

Part of that joy comes from both nature and the nature of the sport. Janicki explains that in many other adaptive sports and recreation, there always seems to be a separating line between able-bodied and disabled bodies. Basketball played in customized wheelchairs or specialized equipment for skiing.

“But sitting deep inside a kayak somehow evens out that field,” he says. “You are on the same footing with everyone else. You get to leave that disability on the shore.”
When he arrived in Southern California, Janicki was introduced to ocean water kayaking. “Paddling alongside dolphins and seals was something you don’t do in the Midwest,” he says with a laugh.

Janicki wants to reach out to Los Angeles County’s enormous disabled population, offering free kayak experiences complete with transportation. Yes, free. Many people with disabilities are on a limited income, and Janicki doesn’t want them to miss the opportunity because of money.

Janicki envisions beginning kayak lessons in the calm waters off Redondo Beach, Marina Del Rey, the Long Beach canals, the Los Angeles River at the Sepulveda Basin and others. However, the section of the L.A. River near his home would be on his short list because of the steep, sloping concrete embankments. Later, he would like groups to explore local watery bodies such as Big Bear Lake, Arrowhead Lake and Lake Elizabeth.

Back in Wisconsin, volunteers helped with transportation as well as during the multiple day trips – something Janicki would like to eventually have here in SoCal.
All in all, it’s a matter of time, outreach and persistence for Wheels to Water to come into its own, says Janicki. There’s plenty of nature in the Los Angeles area (“go up the 2 freeway and in 15 minutes you are in the middle of the forest”) and the powerful experience about being outdoors can transform anyone, he says.

“It’s all about feeling alive.”

Kayaker Andy Janicki | Brenda Rees

Andy Janicki next to the L.A. River  | Brenda Rees

Brenda Rees is a writer and resident of Eagle Rock.

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2 comments

  1. I never thought about kayaking as a way to even the playing field for active people with disabilities like Andy. You’re pretty awesome, Andy!

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