William James is considered the father of American psychology. He once said that “the great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it”. It is, to me, the best expression of what a person’s legacy is, something that will outlast you. When Jerry McAward set out on his first whitewater rafting trip, he had no idea he was on his way to start building his own.
His first trip was so much fun and he couldn’t believe the Lehigh River was only two hours from Manhattan. It was the beginning of a long and passionate relationship with whitewater. Quickly after, he booked kayaking lessons to try and pursue this addictive sport. It certainly wasn’t a glorious first experience. The young man had to battle two panic attacks on his first day caused by claustrophobic fears and his own ego driven mistakes. He panicked at his first attempt at a wet exit, and flipped his kayak after sprinting own his own across the lake, but couldn’t get out of the boat because his foot was trapped in it. The latest would have resulted in him drowning, if not for the instructor catching up and flipping him back up.
“We had driven there in a van together. If my car was there, my life and career would have been completely different because I would have been out of there in no time. I was looking for a way out. Someone from the class, who I already had identified as weaker than me came and asked if I was ok. I gave him a death stare. Then he said “ maybe this isn’t for you”. I was so mad. I got back in the boat. I was so insulted. That was the biggest scare of my entire kayaking career. There were a bunch of other scares but that was the worse and it all happened on the very first day.”
You could think that would be enough to discourage the young man, but it was quite the opposite. Jerry was determined. Almost every weekend, he would flee the Big Apple to go paddle down rivers. He credits kayaking a major shift in his life.
“I was a skinny kid. Everybody called me wiry. When I played organized sports, I got flattened all the time. Everybody who was more physically mature than I was taking great joy in taking me down. I’d break bones and get back up and do it again because you were supposed to play organized sports. I was 22-23 when I discovered kayaking and it was great. There was nobody that was going to flatten me except my bad decisions.”
Thankfully, there were more good decision than bad ones. Like leaving his New York life and accepting a river manager job at a Jim Thorpe outfitter. Kayaking literally took over his life and proved to be therapy and provided a sense of purpose for him.
“I wasn’t diagnosed with ADD as a kid but I was always in a corner. Teachers would tell my parents that if I was paying attention, I’d be the smartest person in the class. Being a river guide ended up being perfect. I have to be paying attentions to all these things at the same time, solving problems before they happen, adapt. Today, more than ever, with all that is going on, that’s what helps me stay on top of things. My ADD helps.”
After many years as a river guide and manager, Jerry was given the opportunity to put a deal together to buy an outfitter known as Jim Thorpe River Adventures. He jumped on it. Coming from a family of self-employed, he wasn’t intimidated by the task at hand and thankfully, regular practice of the sport provided him with the outlet he needed. To his own admission, the most important gain from kayaking is composure skills he got to develop. The ability to pull out of stressful situations and manage to come out on the other side.
“You get knocked over and you can’t just hit the pause button and get out of the boat. You have to keep going and deal with it on the fly. What just happened to you has no bearing on what’s about to happen to you. I found that those composure skills helped me with this business and the myriad of really upsetting things that happened that would have derailed me in another lifetime. It’s not heroic, it’s a skill you learn.”
It is what helped him get through the hardest hurdle of all, the loss of his sister to suicide.
“When Mary committed suicide, it hurt so much I felt like my heart was ripped open. I had this recurring dream after her death where I was shot in the chest with a shotgun. My arm and chest were blown wide open, but I was still standing, still walking. That was a metaphor for my life at that point. I wasn’t going to die from this, but it would leave a permanent mark. It was horrible, it hurt, but I stood and kept walking forward.”
Two years after her death, Jerry is still standing, still walking. In fact, he is living life to the fullest, honouring her memory as best as he can, trying to put aside the what ifs and remembering the beautiful moments in her life. He is building a new home for his business while increasing his service offering to include bike rides, a bike and kayak store, a coffee shop on top of the raft guiding and kayak school he already has in place. Jerry truly hopes to helps people, one Lehigh trip at a time.
“It’s bigger than I planned on it being when I first started planning for it. Part of it is the mission that’s been assigned here. A lot of people need this here. This town needs this. What I hope to get out of it, I hope to make a difference in the world. I didn’t have kids and so my genetic thread ends with me. When I think about it makes me sad. Maybe I just need to prove to myself that I can make a difference in the world. Everyone thinks I’m making a way bigger difference than I think I am in my heart. People my age are retiring in big mansions in Chatam NJ and I’m here, 58, going all in on a river guiding business! I don’t have a 401k, but I have 401 kayaks!”
A man’s legacy can seem like an archaic concept but it has been, for as long as the human kind, a motor of creation and societal change. In a way, it’s his desire to leave the world a better place that drive him today to create in Lehighton a space where everyone can experience the beauty and healing power of nature. Jerry certainly embodied James’ idea of making the most out of his life, creating a legacy that will outlast him by making the world a better place.