We had been in touch with Chad since the beginning of the project. Common friends had mentioned him and his rad mental health awareness fundraising SUP event, knowing it would make a perfect Sero Story. Then, along the way, trough our journey, many more brought up his name and suggested we meet. I was excited to meet him, filled with anticipation. I wanted to know more about his project and his motivations but more than anything, my curiosity was through the roof because so many pointed in his direction. Why? Why such a consensus? It didn’t take me long to find out. Behind this tattooed giant lies one of the most genuinely caring human being I had the pleasure to meet. A big heart on two feet, one that is beating for others but also bleeding with them sometimes. What started for him as a personal quest for happiness ended up being an altruistic journey to help others that need it the most with this one motto: Keep Calm and Paddle On.
Love for the water came late in his life. After spending two years working all over the USA as an ironworker to pay for student debts, he decided to invest time and energy into something he loved instead of work.
“I had only been whitewater rafting once and it was in University for an Outdoor Education class. I just remember that being one of the most fun class in school. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, this is where I learned the most just because the environment allowed that for me.”
Chad enrolled in the Whitewater Intensive Leadership Development program and over the course of three months got all his guiding and SWIFT water rescue certifications and started guiding, first on the Ottawa River and then on the Kananaskis.
“I found very quickly that you do not make enough money doing things you love. I was living in a trailer I couldn’t stand up in with two dogs and paying just as much for rent as I would for a house but living in a tiny trailer, trying to make it work. A passion doesn’t always pay.”
Things weren’t working the way he wanted. Crushed by debts and feeling like there was no way out, Chad had to file for bankruptcy and move back to his hometown of Saskatoon. Times were hard and all those stresses added up and sent him into a downward spiral.
“Eventually, it came to me being diagnosed with depression in 2008. I think a large part of that is because I wasn’t on the river anymore and I wasn’t doing things that I loved and I wasn’t getting outside. I felt really stagnant and stuck.”
Thankfully, he got out of that and slowly got his life back on track both emotionally and financially, but one more thing he wanted to do was get back to doing what he loved. His friends, owners of Escape Sports, had been trying to get him to get into stand-up paddling for a while and he decided to give it a go.
“I immediately regretted the decision to buy it. It’s not that I couldn’t afford it. It was just that it was a lot of money to sink into something and I knew there were other people super close to me that could’ve used that money and I felt super selfish for buying it. I immediately thought about taking the board back and give people the money, but would that really fix anything? The answer was no, so I sat and thought about it. What if I could make this board make me at least that much money back in some kind of event or some kind of expedition that would get some attention and raise some money.”
That was the start of KCPO – Keep Calm and Paddle On – and without knowing it, a new start for Chad. For the first edition in 2012, he paddled 300 km on Diefenbaker Lake and onto the South Saskatchewan River all the way to Saskatoon, followed by a friend in a support boat. His goal, to raise money and foster open discussion about mental health, a subject close to his heart. His own experience with depression and having seen his brother and mother battle with mental health made it an obvious choice. Would he make that goal of raising at least the amount the board cost him to help those in need?
“Failure was such a huge thing that played in the back of my mind, I thought “What if I can’t even make a buck out of this.” It sounds kind of selfish thinking about it now because it was all about making me feel better about it all, but it did much more than that in the end. I don’t think I realized the impact that it would have.”
Over $5,000 were raised with that first trip which has become an annual expedition. Every year, an ever increasing number of people have joined Chad on his journey which has never raised below the first year’s mark. Chad’s quest to find his happiness back on the water has become an event around which the community rallies to not only raise funds but also to heal. Personal wounds left by their own mental health struggles or the ones left by a loved one that has lost their battle. The water heals.
“Because it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t care who you are, it doesn’t care how good you are of a swimmer. It always tests you. As soon as you think you have something sorted on the river, something pops up that reminds you it’s not as easy as you think. I think it’s just the similarities of any kind of paddling on any kind of water with life. It’s the greatest teacher. Even when it’s bad, it’s good.”
Chad needs it’s healing powers too. By taking on this project, he has uncovered a task bigger than himself. The ever growing number of sad stories and pain he has to deal with in order to help others is taking it’s toll on this giant’s heart.
“I’m in it now, wether or not it’s what I have bargained for. There’s not way to stop. Each and every year it takes more and more of my time, which is not a bad thing. Maybe at some point it’s all I will be doing, but I need to find that balance that doesn’t leave me mentally exhausted. I think the trip is much if not more important for me mentally.”
Chad found his balance back on the water and what gave it back to him might threaten it in the end if he isn’t careful. But his balance and his peace seem less important to him than the need to help those who need it the most. For this reason, he is committed to making it work.
“I got to have it every year, It has to happen every year. That river is unbelievable. It’s so beautiful yet when I lived there, I had never really been on it. I had never paddled it. Since that first trip, there is more and more people. It’s a trip that everyone needs to see, instead of just me, because it seems so selfish to have this whole place to myself.”
I am convinced the last word anyone would come up with when meeting Chad is selfish. If anything, selfless would be more it. He is the kind of person that makes you want to be a better human being, the kind of person we need more of in this world. Chad, I can say confidently in the name of so many of Searching for Sero’s followers, thank you for what you are doing and thank you for being who you are, and to everyone else, Keep Calm and Paddle On.