ATHABASCA – About 650 km on the water, and nearly $10,000 raised for mental health and suicide awareness — that’s what Lisa Stocking did this summer.
Stocking paddle-boarded the final portion of her 650 km trek down the Athabasca River Thursday, Aug. 19, gliding into the boat launch at Riverfront Park in Athabasca at about 3 p.m. that day, after 10 days on the river that started Aug. 10 at Jasper.
Supporters and admirers gathered in the park waiting for her arrival, while her closest friends continued to raise funds for the cause with a hot dog sale and donation drive that, by itself, raised $1,000, of the nearly $10,000 brought in over the course of her fundraising campaign. Fifty or more people lined the riverbank to clap and cheer as Stocking and her small entourage arrived.
“It was weird,” Stocking said in a riverfront interview the next day. “I actually didn't have a lot of emotion finishing, but I was very overwhelmed and very humbled by that. I expected it, but didn't expect it — I kind of had a feeling with the way my friends are that maybe that would happen — that’s what I expected from them, not for people to actually show up.”
After completing a 200 km trek from Poacher’s Landing to Fort McMurray last summer, Stocking said she has been thinking about the stretch of river from Jasper to Athabasca for a while now and was planning to paddle it this summer anyway, because she likes the challenge more than anything, but then the opportunity arose where she could also help raise funds for mental health and suicide awareness.
It all came about very organically through the contacts she has made through paddling and aquabatics, for which she is an ambassador. One of her fellow ambassadors happens to work for the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary and helps organize that organization’s Run for Life. Her paddling partner just happened to mention that the enormity of the task could draw a lot of attention and that she could possibly raise a lot of money for a great cause. The Paddle for Life campaign continued to fall into place from there.
“This is pretty epic you might want to consider doing it for something,” Stocking recalled her saying. “And I actually didn't really consider it as epic, I just wanted to see the river … I get that it is now. I think that's actually starting to sink in, the magnitude of it.”
Later, she just happened to be listening to a podcast that featured another paddle boarder who had organized a paddling campaign for the Canadian Mental Health Association. She reached out to him, and soon learned he was the founder of Project All In, a group formed in support of first responders’ mental health.
Next, she reached out to another paddle-boarder friend to ask if he would take part in a mental health campaign with her and found that was something he was already doing. That’s how she came to partner with his Brave Viking brand, which is donating all proceeds from the sale of its River of Hope t-shirt to Stocking’s campaign.
And while the fundraising aspect of the journey wasn’t the intent in the beginning, Stocking saw a lot of parallels between her self-imposed, physical struggle with the river, and those trying to navigate the waters of their own mental health on a day-to-day basis.
Some days were a lot harder than others, she said. There were rough sections, with a quick current, especially while she was still in the mountains near Jasper; then there were full days of paddling into the wind; and then there were days when the river was still, and making any progress took an incredible amount of effort.
“It was very parallel to what people struggle with; I couldn't go anywhere, I was, but very slowly and it was very debilitating,” she said.
Making those connections in her own mind made it all the more worthwhile, and knowing she made a difference in the lives of others is probably the biggest highlight for her. Stocking was outfitted with a tracking device, so supporters could follow her path down the river online, which turned out to be quite a popular feature, as she has since heard from some who gained a lot of hope from following her efforts, and taking her cause to heart.
Eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness and encouraging those who need help to seek it out without any type of social reprisal is a big part of the awareness that needs to take place, she said. Like Stocking’s river journey, having a support system in place is an integral piece of an individual’s mental health journey.
Even now, it has only been a few days since Stocking returned from the wild, but things are returning to normal slowly — she has now had time to do some laundry and get some groceries for the family, but absorbing the full impact of the accomplishment she completed is still going to take a while.
“I think there's a lot that is going to take a long time to process and comprehend. It felt like I lived a few lifetimes in those 10 days actually,” she said.
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