A decade ago, Nathan Woods lay in a hospital bed with a gaping hole where most of his lower left leg should be, following a horrific football accident. Many people would have been in the depths of despair or cursing fate for dealing such bad cards. Not Woods. He thanked God for the opportunities that were to come, even those that were veiled as he lay incapacitated, not sure if he would ever walk again.
A hyperextended knee, ruptured artery, compartment syndrome, acute fasciotomy, 10 surgeries, no feeling in his lower extremities, his left anterior tibialis gone; quite a list of problems for a promising pole-vaulter and football player who loved nothing more than to be active outdoors. But, rather than focusing on what he couldn’t do, Woods decided to concentrate on what he could. He went to college at the University of Oregon and, having worked through more surgeries and painful daily rehab for two years, became an equipment manager for the football team. He also earned a business degree and met his future wife, Cecilia. Following graduation, Woods went into event management. His father had grown up with legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine and his brother was an All-American pole-vaulter, so it seemed only natural when Woods helped organize and plan track events, including the 2012 U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials.
Outside of work, Woods continued looking for ways to stay active. He got into cycling, but found that it stressed his left ankle too much. Basketball, skiing, hiking, and more were fun, but not something Woods could do regularly because of the demands on his injured leg. Then, in 2010, while on holiday in Sunriver, Oregon, he tried something new that would satisfy his passions for fitness and being outdoors: standup paddling. Because he had just bought an engagement ring for Cecilia, Woods couldn’t afford to buy his own board, instead borrowing friends’ gear and attending more demo days. “I think Cecilia saw that paddleboarding twice a week was helping my leg and giving me that aerobic workout I’d been craving,” Woods says. For Christmas last year Cecilia bought him the ultimate gift: his own board and paddle.
This was all the encouragement Woods needed to take to the water more often. Braving the chilly waters of the Willamette River, often clad in fishing waders because he didn’t have a wetsuit, Woods was out on his board three or four times a week February through April, paddling up to thirty miles each time. He had long been thinking about doing something memorable to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of his accident, which he has come to see was indeed the “blessing” that seemed so unlikely to all those around him at the time.
As his passion for paddling grew and Woods started reading about the exploits of endurance paddler Shane Perrin, an idea hit: he would paddle north up the Willamette from Eugene to Portland. “Once I’d made up my mind what to do and where to go, I figured I should check how far it was,” he says with a laugh. The answer was 164 miles. With no idea if he could make it that far, Woods started a fundraising campaign for Oregon Active, which provides adventure therapy trips for people with challenging circumstances, and set the ambitious target of garnering $2,000. “My goal is to provide opportunities for people to enjoy life, and that’s at the core of everything Oregon Active is about,” Woods says.
Glide SUP decided to add Woods to their roster and following an appearance on Perrin’s show, Stoke Radio, the Oregon athlete now had the experienced traveling companion he had been looking for. “When I heard Nathan’s story, I told him “I’m in. I’ll come with you!” Perrin says. “His determination reminds me of my own recovery from a kidney transplant.”
Woods was glad of the help. “I’d been feeling a little out of my depth with the project, so when Shane told me he wanted to come too I jumped at that,” he says.
Once the expedition got underway on August 30, Woods wasn’t so sure he’d made the right decision. As a result of his injury, his tight left calf muscles pull all of the toes back. On his previous paddles they’d not given him any problems, but the rigors of 164 miles changed things, with the hammer toes giving him so much pain that “Shane would know about it because I’d be yelling to try to fight through it.”
Woods’ left foot has varying levels of sensation, from hypersensitivity to numbness, and the more stimulated areas let him know they weren’t too happy with this trek. Still, Woods’ motto of “keep standing” and Perrin’s encouragement kept him pushing through the pain.
“When I’m distance paddling I try all sorts of mind tricks to keep my mind off what my body’s feeling,” Perrin says. “When I saw Nathan was struggling I asked him a lot of questions, guided him to different parts of the river and set point challenges – anything I could do to keep him from thinking about his leg.”
To help Woods further, Perrin also paddled the first stage of day three, as the Willamette wound its way up to Champoeg. This gave Woods a few extra hours sleep and a revitalizing meeting with his family.
Back on the river later that day, Woods faced another unwelcome difficulty. The increased boat traffic in the final 20 miles created a lot of chop and cross-currents that took his limited balance to its limit and beyond.
“Nathan fell off his board several times because of the crazy boat wakes and one time hit his bad leg on the edge of the rail,” Perrin says. “I know how much that hurts my legs, which don’t have any issues, so I felt bad for him. But Nathan being Nathan, he just pulled himself back on the board and kept going.”
Weary from three hard days on the river, the two men finally paddled into Portland just after 4:40 pm on a cool September 1 afternoon. Woods hopes that the trip will provide motivation to others to overcome physical obstacles.
“The people I’ve met through this expedition, my experiences with the Oregon Ducks, my marriage and all my professional opportunities show me that I was right to be thankful that first day in the hospital,” Woods says. “I don’t want my story to lay dormant, but hope it inspires anyone who faces difficulties, including adaptive athletes, to get into SUP and keep standing.”
Woods and Perrin plan to make the “#Eug2Pdx” – as their journey was dubbed on social media sites – an annual event to benefit Oregon Active. —Phil White