Sometimes you need to disconnect from reality and connect with nature in order to reset. In doing so, you may find, like Gabriel Gray that the healing Earth may need a little love and care herself. There was a time, however, where he did not think much about such things.
“For a long time, riding bulls was my adrenaline kick and back then, I didn’t really have any care in the world. I was just going from town to town riding bulls. As you get older, things change. You start thinking about life more. No matter what, everything leads to nature, leads to the outdoors.”
When the cowboy decided to leave the circuit, he started working for the fire service, but all is not pretty when your job brings you frequent trauma.
“I got into a little funk where I was seeing a lot of bad stuff. I thought about quitting, but even if you see a lot of bad stuff, you do a lot of good as well. I knew I was going to stay. Everybody has different ways they can decompress. I needed something to take my mind off of it. I went into the woods and started doing more trips.”
Stand-up paddling was his escape from work, but it was also much more than that. The sounds, the views, the wildlife, everything made him feel more alive. The connection he felt, he had been somehow seeking it for a long time.
“I grew up going to church, I was raised Pentecostal but I got away from Church and for me, my church is now being outside in nature. I feel closer to God by being out there than I ever did in a building. It changed me, my personality, my attitude.”
What started as a personal escape grew into so much more. Gabriel was quite outdoorsy and short trip soon turned into longer expeditions. He soon became a paddling reference in the area and conservation groups requested his help to guide paddles they wanted to go on. It was the start of his dedication to conservation efforts. When the group he worked with dismantled, Gabriel founded his own – Fight to Save Our American Rivers.
“I always tell people I consider the Earth like a human body. Our rivers and streams are like our veins and arteries. It all feeds into our body, which is the ocean. If you clog those arteries, pollute them, your killing your body basically.”
Through this project, Gabriel has sought to raise awareness for the waterways, get kids and adults involved in the outdoors again and emphasize the importance of clean water by paddling on endangered rivers and documenting his expeditions.
“Our youth and our adults are disconnected. If we don’t get them involved somehow, our population is steadily increasing and our natural resources and water levels are going to stay the same or decrease. Unless we do something different and get those kids involved preserving our wild lands and our wild and scenic rivers, taking care of these places, they are not going to see the stuff that you and I are seeing. 20 years from now, it’s hard to tell what it’s going to look like, and that’s a short time. That’s the reason why conservation efforts are important to me, it’s preserving it for our future and our kids.”
Continuing his conservation efforts, Gabriel and his wife have also settled in rural Florida where he can also find personal refuge on their small farm. For the outdoorsman, healing nature takes many forms although water holds a special place.
“It’s a healing process for me, and I think it’s a healing process for a lot of people, they just don’t know it. They are just disconnected. When you take somebody outside, when I take them on one of my trips, by the time they get done, they are a totally different person. Once you start doing trips like that, your senses come alive and you’re a lot more aware of your surroundings. That’s one thing I really love about being out there.”
Gabriel wants to keep his conservation efforts going because the clock is ticking but he also wants stand-up paddling to keep progressing and be part of that progression.
“I was lucky enough to be into the sport early and start expeditionning and doing camping trips off my paddle board early so I kind of pioneered that side of the sport. I always want to see it grow. There are a lot of people who are doing a lot of really cool things an if I want to keep the kids, out youth’s attention, I have to step up. I always try to find something that will up my last trip.”
From paddling from Islamorada Key through Biscane Bay to Miami Beach, to hiking a paddle board over top a mountain and being able to showcase the life-cycle of a river, Gabriel spares no effort to keep everyone’s attention. Nature is not immune to human impact, but he believes we can change.
“When I go in some of those places, I see that all the time. On my Montana trip, I was 30 miles into the wilderness. About half way down the river, you start seeing trash. If you don’t police those people, humans can destroy things, but we can also save it if we put our minds to it.”
Life is a cycle, like Gabriel’s rivers. Nature saved him and in return, he’s doing his best to save her.