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Kayaker’s perfect timing lands medical care, assistance in La Crosse

July 31, 2018

Kris Saunders found himself in the right place at the right time at several points since he started paddling down the Mississippi River six weeks ago — and La Crosse turned out to be the perfect place at the perfect time to get medical attention for an infected angle.

The 33-year-old Saunders, a Marine veteran whose voyage is intended to draw attention to and raise money to help U.S. service people battling PTSD, scraped his ankle several days ago, he said during an interview Monday.

Saunders had doctored himself but could barely walk when he awoke in his two-person tent Saturday, because his right ankle was painfully swollen from infection. After conferring by phone with his father, he took Dad’s advice to stop in La Crosse to seek treatment at Gundersen Health System.

An urgent care nurse “was blown away” with his story, and the treating physician said he was surprised Saunders had waited that long, he said.

The doctor said the infection would only have become worse, especially with exposure to bacteria and dirt during the journey, said Saunders, who hails from Georgia but now lives in Annapolis, Md.

“I’m glad I came in,” he said, adding that the doctor not only treated the wound but also administered antibiotics and prescribed medication.

The ankle was nearly normal by noon Monday, still bandaged and bearing an outline the doctor had drawn to indicate the area that had been swollen.

As pain-relieving as that stop was, Saunders’ temporary halt to consult with the folks at Wenonah Canoe in Winona last week was potentially lifesaving.

The 14-foot kayak he had bought in February had been taking on water, and he had to stop regularly to pump it out, he said. As it turned out, the kayak was fine — just the wrong model for the expedition.

Wenonah officials outfitted him with an 18-foot kayak that stores more, rides deeper and is more stable, Saunders said.

“For going down the Mississippi River, the other kayak was too small,” said Geoff Schewe, Wenonah’s logistics manager who helped Saunders troubleshoot. “Going down the big river, with the waves and the barges, it would have tipped.”

Saunders had capsized a couple of times in the early going, although he said he did so in the right places — closer to the river’s headwaters in Lake Itasca in northern-central Minnesota.

“It wasn’t too deep — maybe waist or chest high — and current as fast,” he said, in sharp contrast to the roiling currents here and parts below.

Kayakers and canoeists occasionally stop at Wenonah for repairs or advice, Schewe said, adding that this was the first time he could recall anyone buying another kayak before continuing.

“He’s in love with that boat,” Schewe said, referring to Saunders’ original craft. “In fact, I’m going to ship it to him, in a couple of months,” when Saunders is back in the Free State.

After the medical treatment, Saunders returned to the La Crosse Municipal Harbor in search of a service that could shuttle his kayak to his hotel when he happened upon Lori Voves, who has a houseboat with her husband, Jeff, in the marina.

“We were getting more intrigued by the minute,” Voves said of Saunders’ tale and his quest, and she began working her phone to fetch him help.

About the time she was ready to give up, her son, Don Strittmater, returned from fishing and said he would be happy to transport the kayak. With the help of others and plenty of tie downs, Strittmater and Saunders secured the craft and transported it, Voves said.

“We would have helped him” even if his venture hadn’t been so interesting, she said. “I’m glad we were here. My son is willing to do anything for anybody. If it wouldn’t have worked, he would have carried it.”

Saunders, whose 2003-07 stint in the Marines included a nine-month deployment in Iraq, said he has found people as helpful as Voves and the Wenonah officials throughout his trip.

He was a strength coach and personal trainer in Annapolis who had the ideal combination of available resources without being tied down with responsibilities to undertake his plan to kayak the Mississippi, he said. A former client is holding a job for him in a substance abuse/outpatient facility when he returns, so he doesn’t feel that pressure, he said.

Acknowledging that anyone can develop post-traumatic stress disorder from any traumas in life, Saunders said he has mild elements of PTSD but is not diagnosed.

“I don’t think you can go into war without getting it,” he said. “I have triggers, when I’m stressed. When I go into a restaurants, I need to know the exits … crowds, people bumping into me … nothing major.”

Saunders’ quest — he surpassed his $8,000 fundraising goal and has recalibrated it to $12,000 — is in conjunction with Mission 22, a nonprofit organization that strives to end veteran suicides.

Saunders’ journey of nearly 2,350 miles is intended to show those suffering from PTSD and/or considering taking their own lives that they are not alone, he said.

“They need to learn to reach out, to be humble enough to ask for help,” as he has done not only in Winona and La Crosse but also several other spots along the way, he said.

“People on the trip have supported me and my mission, and that has helped me get through,” said Saunders, who can accept donations at the website where he is chronicling his journey. “And it will help me get all the way to the end.”

“People on the trip have supported me and my mission, and that has helped me get through. And it will help me get all the way to the end.” Kris Saunders,on kayaking the Mississippi River

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