When I spoke to Roy Tuscany about coming for a couple of weeks work experience at High Fives this June, I always knew it would be fun. But I had no idea that I would go to Montana for a trip packed with once in a lifetime experiences, with some absolutely amazing people!
Chris Bartkowksi of Generikal Design, the cameraman for the trip, picked me up to go to the airport, bright and early on the morning of June 13th (4am so maybe a bit TOO bright and early!). When we touched down in Montana we met up with some of the High Fives Athletes and picked up the rental car to go meet the rest and begin our adventure!
The Silver Bow Lodge
We were stayed at the Silver Bow Lodge in Divide, Montana. I grew up all over Europe, I lived in Australia and Canada, so I like to think I’ve seen a lot. But I have never seen anything like Montana. People told me we were heading to ‘big sky country’; I thought the sky is the same size everywhere. But Montana is so vast that the sky does actually seem larger! The Silver Bow Lodge was enormous, beautiful and had stuffed taxidermy all over the place (personal favourite was the grizzly!).
This trip was a joint venture between Access Unlimited, High Fives and Craig Hospital, a rehabilitation in Denver.
One thing that everyone had in common was the massive smiles on their faces. Some had come on the trip last year so they knew how good it was. The others and me were just excited for the fishing, shooting and helicopter-ride.
I shared a room with Roy and a young athlete, Trevor Kennison. Trevor broke his back snowboarding in the back-country at Vail Pass in November 2014. He fractured his T11 and T12 vertebrae and had to have two 12-inch titanium rods, 12 screws and two braces placed in his back. He’s paralyzed from the waist down but it would be very difficult to find a happier and funnier 24 year-old guy than Trevor!
Trevor, Roy and I jumped straight in a Razor off-road buggy, for our first activity. I was a bit confused that there was a 10-inch hole by my feet. Roy drove and it was so much fun, all of us laughing and covered in mud! I only had a backpack so I was a bit worried that almost 50% of my clothes for the weekend were now caked in mud! I was then told that you’re meant to cover those holes where most of the mud came through! Me, Roy and Trevor had all had pretty bad accidents a few years back, but that didn’t stop us having the best time tearing around in a buggy like mud-covered idiots! The actual activities hadn’t even started yet but that’s the beauty of High Fives and Access Unlimited, they don’t just make it possible for injured/disabled people to get back to sports they love, but they make sure everyone to has the best time doing it!
The Donny Wackerman
That night I got my first experience of Mr. Donny Wackerman, basically a giant cowboy who looks like he could have killed that bear in the lodge with his bare hands! He’s a 68-year-old Vietnam Veteran, he used to be Willy Nelson’s bodyguard and he was one of the guides to help us with the activities in this incredible state. That night, a few of us sat around the fire outside, just listening to Donny’s endless supply of stories! Roy told me that Donny could ‘Americanize’ me the weekend, this seemed to involve a lot of guns and fishing…
Friday morning was fishing time! We were split into groups and assigned a guide. Trevor and I would be with Tommy.
Tommy looks exactly how I’d imagine a Montana fisherman to look, big beard and baseball cap, he was obviously an expert fisherman. Having never caught a fish before I would need an expert’s advice!
Tommy taught us the basics of casting, and how to pull in the line when you get a bite, which is called stripping and what to do when the fish is out the water. Before we launched the boat, I told Tommy I didn’t expect to be very good, he smiled and said, “Don’t worry Matt, if fishing was hard they’d call it golf!”
There was a really comfortable seat at each end of the boat that spun all the way around. I sat at the front, Trevor at the back and Tommy sat in the middle. There’s no motors allowed on the river, so Tommy just has two oars to guide the boat as we drifted down the river.
I learned two thing that day, how to fly-fish and millions of the jokes that Tommy and Trevor told me. It was pretty early in the day when I caught the first fish of my life. Apparently it’s called a White-Fish, it looked silver to me but I was happy whatever color it was! It’s catch and release on the river, so we put the little guy straight back. As Tommy placed the fish back in the river I realized I didn’t get a photo with the monster I defeated. There’s not a photo but I can tell you it was 14 feet long! *or inches, can’t remember.
I caught another one later that day and have a photo to prove it! Trevor caught a couple too so it was a good day for everyone. No, it was a great day, just drifting down a beautiful river, joking around and doing a bit of fishing too.
We headed back to exchange fishing stories, I was proud with my tally of two until Riley Poor told me he got more than twice as many! Riley is awesome, he’s an Action-sports filmmaker. Riley suffered a severe spinal cord injury in 2009,in a spinal cord injury. The incident left him paralyzed with some arm movement, but no hand function. Since his injury, he has returned to film-making and works at Nike.
Being a huge fan of all things freeskiing, I already knew all about Riley. He told me many stories about his famous friends. I told him I turn into a 12 year old girl around the skiers that I’ve only seen in ski movies (some of which Riley filmed). But him and his girlfriend Andrea are both very friendly and patient with me endlessly asking questions!
The Helicopter tour
The next morning came another first, we had the opportunity to go in a helicopter. I went up first with High Fives athlete, Matt Leonard. Everyone said we were in the air for 40 minutes but it felt like 4 minutes. There was so much to look at. First up we had a birds-eye view of the incredible lodge, we climbed high into that big ol’ sky and could see for miles. Rivers, mountains, loads of fields, not many houses. That’s the thing with Montana, huge empty spaces and not many people, we could see all that natural beauty! We followed the river then climbed up over the mountain and came back low through a creek.
We actually got to shoot guns! In Europe we can’t shoot guns unless you have license or you’re a gangster. It was fun, most people had shot before so they went straight to the firing line to start skeet shooting. Andrea and I were the only two who had never shot before so we went to go through the basics and shoot at some easy targets. I did ok but I don’t think I’m a natural shooter.
They set up a gun for Riley, because he is unable to squeeze a trigger, they placed a gun on a table and attached a line to the trigger and his arm, so he could pull his arm back and fire the gun. He was again much better than me and hit the target almost every time.
I was allowed to shoot an AK47! I’ve heard about these in rap songs so that was and will always be the highlight of my shooting career. When we got back to the lodge, Roy asked me how my shooting went and I told him, “I will definitely be the only person who shot an AK47 on my internship”.
The last night we went to an Access Unlimited Fundraiser at Dillon, Montana. A great night, great food and many funds were raised! The people of Dillon were incredibly generous, spending $8,500 on the live auction, in the name of charity. Roy showed his awesome talent of auctioneering! With the crowd buzzing off his energy, he managed to raise $18,500 in about 10 minutes for an Action Trackchair, an off-road powered wheelchair.
I met a local, Austin, who’d suffered a TBI 2 years ago. I spoke with his dad about my recovery experiences. They told me that Austin never missed a physiotherapy/cognitive therapy session and was always motivated. I told him that, in my experience, that’s the key. Just stay motivated, stay positive and never stop working to get better with your exercises.
At the end of an amazing few days with incredible people, there wasn’t just one highlight. It was one big highlight broken up by sleep. But to be honest, the beds at the lodge were amazingly comfortable so my weekend in Montana, with Access Unlimited and High Fives, was just one big highlight.
Matt Masson Featured below