I do some of my clearest thinking while drifting along ninety feet beneath the surface of the sea. I like to think that it's because scuba diving is a form of moving meditation. You're forced to concentrate on breathing and you exist in the moment: both exercises my Yoga instructor has been trying in vain to get me to reproduce. I find that following a dive I often have some of my clearest insights into the world around me. So I thought I would try to recreate that experience in a blog for the Huffington Post -- a dash of travel, a pinch of extreme scuba diving, and a moderate dollop of social and philosophical rumination. This is my first installment.
Brockville, Ont., is the so-called gateway to the Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River: a tourist mecca, offering boat rides through stunning scenery, a quaint downtown filled with charming restaurants and shops, a historical pedigree that goes back 300 years. But while I appreciate those facets of Brockville, none of those features are why I gravitate there. I hang out every summer in Brockville because it's got some of the best wreck-diving in the country: a cross section of wooden vessels that sank in the later 1800s, tramp steamer dating to the mid 1900s, and even massive modern cargo ships. It also features some of the warmest water for diving in Canada -- almost tropical by mid-summer. The only drawback is the current -- the massive flow of water that results from the Great Lakes funneling into the St. Lawrence River. That flow pushes the water along at an impressive clip. Some days it's so strong you feel like a flag snapping on a pole during a windstorm when you're hanging on the line down to the wreck. Let go of that line and you might end up in Montreal before anyone catches you in a boat.
So I was a little curious a few days ago when my friend Hubert Chretien invited me to go diving in Brockville with a group of disabled divers. Hubert teaches people with physical disabilities how to scuba dive. He's the president of a charity called "Freedom at Depth." He told me that one of the divers, Harry, was a quadriplegic who was one of the best divers he'd ever trained. I wondered about how someone who was paralyzed from the neck down would deal with diving in Brockville.
We met up the next day on a dive boat called the Helen C. The plan was to explore the wreck of the Henry C. Daryaw, a 220 steel freighter that sank in 1941. It's a challenging wreck to dive: It's deep -- at 95 feet --and the current in this part of the river is particularly strong. But as I talked with Harry, he seemed unfazed with the upcoming challenges. His only real concern: getting some help to put his gear on, something that Hubert obliged him with. The dive plan was simple enough. The boat was going to take us upstream from the wreck. Then like aquatic paratroopers we were all going to jump off the boat together and sink down to the bottom of the river. If all went according to plan, we would drift gently onto the wreck.
But of course things didn't go according to plan. First there was dropping together: We hit the water less like a coordinated troop and more like a herd of seals randomly abandoning the shore. When we finally all ended up on the bottom, we couldn't see more than about ten feet in front of us. Too much rain lately had clouded up the river. We could barely see each other, the wreck was nowhere to be found, and the current was blowing us around like leavers in an autumn storm. I'm a very experienced diver and it was a challenge for me to get the dive under control. I wondered briefly how Harry was making out. Then I saw him just ahead of me, hanging in the water, perfectly composed and trimmed out. It was a little embarrassing to see how easy he was making this look. Ultimately we got the dive under control, found the wreck, and spent a pleasant 15 minutes exploring it. The rest of the dive went off without a hitch, and 40 minutes after we'd left the boat, we were picked up again.
I was truly impressed by what Harry has accomplished as a diver. After the dive we talked a little and I began to realize he's such a good diver because despite (or perhaps because of) his disability, he's spent hundreds of hours perfecting his diving technique. He can't use his legs. He has limited use of his arms. But he can control his buoyancy and trim and with those two tools he rides the currents like a sea otter. Harry said it was no big deal. He talked about the fact that people with disabilities have to overcome daily challenges just to live. I mentioned to Harry a story that I did a number of years back in which I profiled a paraplegic who had defied the odds and taught himself to walk again -- a sort of shuffling motion that relied on his hips for movement. The result: His insurance company took away his disability payments. Harry laughed at that story and says he'd been through exactly the same situation. He told me other stories about friends with disabilities and the challenges they've faced: waiting hours for wheelchair capable taxis that never show up, vainly trying to negotiate iced up streets and sidewalks that have no ramps, even the simple act of getting groceries from the top shelf of a supermarket when you're sitting in a wheelchair. The list was extensive.
The whole experience left me thinking about what Mahatma Ghandi once said, "a nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."
But Harry laughed the whole thing off. His attitude: bring it on; adversity is a fact of life, overcoming it is a true test of who you are. It was an uplifting message for me. I've been struggling with a little adversity of my own lately -- challenges on the job. But after diving with Harry and seeing the adversity he faces with such elegance and skill it put my problems into perspective. It was a sunny day and I was doing what I love to do most. We headed off for our second dive.
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