Karen Lai on kayaking expedition

Cultivating a sense of inclusion on the water

We’re committed to better representing the diversity of the outdoor community we love, so we’ve been reviewing our criteria for what makes for an epic expedition. We realize that funding crazy trips is awesome, but we need to adjust our definition of epic to ensure all our members get the chance to enjoy the outdoors in whatever ways they can.

This trip wasn’t a traditional choice, but it spoke to our hearts and to the wonder of new adventures in the great unknown.

Nuchatlitz kayaking expedition, BC

July 28 to August 3, 2018

Karen Lai on the shore with kayaks in the background

It was the last night of our final day of kayaking, and we had the opportunity to go for a midnight paddle. I had the desire to see bioluminescence in the water, so I managed to get in my double kayak and we followed the rest of the group. Our kayak guides with lanterns on their boat led the way.

We floated on the water in pitch blackness, watching the twinkles and tingles as we dipped our paddles in the ocean. Little fish shot out of the water nearby. It was absolute bliss, indescribable, and an event that I will hold near and dear to my heart. Then, to top it off, one of the guides recited the poem Being Human by Climbing PoeTree, which highlights the resilience, wonder and mystery of nature.

It was a magic moment, and I feel so lucky and blessed to have experienced it first-hand.

Since birth, I’ve lived with a neurological disability, cerebral palsy (specifically, spastic diplegia, which affects mostly my lower limbs). Cerebral palsy affects everyone differently, depending on what area of the brain was damaged. For me, it affects my speech, balance, mobility, coordination and manual dexterity. As we age, the effects intensifies; the reality is that it takes more effort for us to do activities or everyday things. I have to find creative ways for me to participate in activities.

Over the past three years, I’ve built an amazing relationship with Spirit of the West Kayaking Adventures, and we’ve talked openly and authentically about supporting me on their kayaking expeditions while meeting their needs. This year, after many conversations with them, we decided that an extra support person would be the answer to enable me to experience the true joy of being in the outdoors. The funds from MEC allowed me to bring a friend to help me keep up with the group during the expedition.

Karen Lai in double kayak with a friend

The support person’s main function was to be my partner in a double kayak, as it’s much more stable for balance purposes. Other ways my friend supported me was to navigate the challenging terrain, help me get in and get out of the kayak, and assist me with the many camp duties. On trips like these, I’m part of a larger group and I shouldn’t be expected not to participate in larger camp duties – like washing dishes or organizing gear – just because I have a disability. My friend provided the equilibrium that allowed me to participate as a member of a larger expedition.

Inclusion has always been the framework of my life, and I’ve worked hard to ensure that the proper supports are in place. In my opinion, services that support people with disabilities have done well in providing programs and services. However, mainstream programs haven’t done well, since quite often they don’t have the knowledge, equipment or skillset to accommodate people with disabilities. That means the choice of where to participate doesn’t fall on the individual with a disability, as they’re often prescribed to participate in disabled program.

But to me, inclusion is about personal choice – being able to choose which program to participate in. I often don’t feel included in adaptive programs because the level of my disability is mild, so I don’t require any adaptive equipment or special skillset. I just need people with patience, a sense of open-mindedness, and the willingness to think outside the box.

Karen Lai climbing rocks near the shore

The many conversations I’ve had with Spirit of the West Kayaking Adventures has helped us understand each other’s needs. This is inclusion at work at its finest: there was open communication from the beginning and a willingness to learn from each other. For inclusion to happen, it takes two to tango – we both need to be open and authentic with each other. I need to be honest with them as to what I can or cannot do in order for us to have a successful trip.

With this notion, I’ve been able to enjoy the gems that this province has to offer. I’ve promised myself to always play in the outdoors, slightly tweaking it a bit to ensure that it’s supportive for me to enjoy it with the changing condition of my disability.

The outdoors are where magical midnight paddle moments happen, and where I have the opportunity to reflect and to challenge my limits.

Karen Lai near her kayak in shallow water

Karen’s favourite gear picks

We asked Karen for the gear she loved the most on her trip, and here are her recommendations:

MEC VectAir sleeping pad

MEC VectAir Sleeping Pad

Warm synthetic insulation to keep you comfy on cold nights. Raised outer chambers on the MEC VectAir sleeping pad help keep you centred so you don’t roll off.


MEC Delphinus sleeping bag

Delphinus -9C Sleeping Bag

The MEC Delphinus -9C Sleeping Bag is insulated with high-end down and has vertical baffles over the torso to prevent cold spots, since the down won’t shift as you move.


Scrubba Wash Bag

Scrubba Wash Bag

Looks like a dry bag, but is actually a little wash bag for your hiking or travelling clothes. The Scrubba Wash Bag packs down small when you’re not using it.


Karen Lai
Karen Lai

A consultant in accessibility and inclusion who also loves to spend her time kayaking, participating in fitness classes, snowshoeing, or riding her trike around the city.