The power and potential of blue space

Chad Guenter, a firefighter and rescue instructor in Canmore, Alberta, stands six-foot-three, weighs 250 pounds, and is covered in tattoos. He has seen a lot of troubling things while working: a seven-day-old baby who died of cardiac arrest, the bodies of three railroad engineers he helped recover from the crumpled wreck of a freight train. But, sometimes, it’s the routine calls—like the elderly man who showed signs of stroke and reminded him of his father—that send him reeling. Over years of occupational stress, Guenter has talked to therapists about his flashbacks and heavy feelings. But, for immediate relief, he goes to the river. “When I’m on the water, there’s nothing else that I have to worry about—nothing else,” says Guenter, whose stand-up paddleboard has helped him cope with the trauma he experiences as a first responder. “Water demands all of my attention. It’s really healing.”

Guenter, who surfs in the rapids near his home, in the Rockies, and escapes on long-distance paddleboard journeys, launched a community group, Keep Calm and Paddle On, in 2012. Inspired by a 300-kilometre solo paddle along Lake Diefenbaker and the South Saskatchewan River to his hometown of Saskatoon, he has led annual multiday trips with dozens of participants. People push outside their comfort zones while reflecting on and talking about their inner struggles in a supportive atmosphere. “Our thoughts get pulled in so many different directions, but if you focus on what needs to be done, it can help you navigate your life,” says Guenter. “Getting into the rhythm of a paddle stroke can be meditative, but it’s much more than that. Maybe it’s because we don’t spend much time on the water anymore while past generations needed water. Maybe it’s because water is so much bigger than us. I get choked up thinking about it, but that’s okay. Calm seas never made a good sailor.”

Read the rest of my story about the therapeutic benefits of blue space – basically, spending time on, in or around water — in the June issue of The Walrus.

You can also get a taste of the beauty of blue space — and the connections between paddleboarding and mental health (at least mine) — in the March/April issue of enRoute.

And for a short primer on the subject, written with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, check out my story in the most recent issue of Mountain Life magazine.

A springtime blue space trifecta — it’s almost as good as river surfing!

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