Episode 32: Paddling Past Adversity
Chad Guenter, the founder of Keep Calm Paddle On, and Project All In, discusses his journey with mental health and the inspiration behind these initiatives.
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Welcome to Supplementing Health, a podcast presented by Advanced Orthomolecular Research. We are all about applying evidence-based and effective dietary lifestyle and natural health product strategies for your optimal health. In each episode, we will feature very engaging clinicians and experts from the world of functional and naturopathic medicine to help achieve our mission to empower people to lead their best lives naturally.
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[1:08] Cassy Price: Welcome back to Supplementing Health. I’m your host, Cassy Price, and today I am so excited to have Chad Guenter, the founder of two remarkable non-profits focused on raising awareness for mental health, Keep Calm and Paddle On, and Project All In. Welcome, Chad. Thanks for joining me today.
[1:24] Chad Guenter: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.
[1:27] Cassy Price: So you weren’t always in the wellness space, you left what could be considered a typically manly career in ironwork to pursue a role as an outdoor guide. Would you share how that transition inspired the inception of KCPO?
[1:41] Chad Guenter: Yeah. I spent a few years doing ironworks. It was more of a to pay-the-bills kind of job. I was on the road quite a bit, and it started to get super draining, and I just needed a change of path. I was in Miami on a job, and I had had enough. I started cruising web pages and seeing what else was out there.
[2:16] I had remembered a course that I had taken in college. I went to school to be a teacher, Education Degree. I remembered a course I had taken, and it was an outdoor specific course in my program. My professor took us whitewater rafting and camping. We hiked Mount Robson, the Berg Lake Trail. It was something that really stuck with me, so much so that I went and did that same hike for the next two summers.
[2:52] Then, that got me thinking about guiding in the outdoor industry, and then I started looking at whitewater rafting and kayaking. I came across the website of a company called Esprit, that was doing some training. It was doing three months, 90 days of pretty intensive whitewater leadership. I dropped everything; I signed up for it, and that’s what led me into all this water stuff that I’m into today.
[3:28] Subsequently, from that, it spawned this feeling that I needed to share the water with more people. KCPO didn’t happen right away when I got into the guiding world. It took some time, but that’s basically how it started.
[3:52] Cassy Price: Awesome. What is it about the water that you find so healing?
[3:57] Chad Guenter: I think it just demands so much of your attention. It demands so much of your respect. You need to be focused to play on the water, whether it’s the river, lakes, especially oceans, like while you’re on there – you need to pay attention; you need to be very self-aware of what’s going on around you.
[4:21] Like I said, it demands everything from you, and it kind of just makes your brain shut off from the other things that you have going on in your life. Your one task, your one focus, is just to get down that river, to cross that ocean, to get your clients down the river safely. I found that to be a really healing space for me. I just had to share it.
[4:53] Cassy Price: Do you find that all outdoor activities have a similar effect for you?
[4:59] Chad Guenter: To some extent, but not to the extent that being on the water has for me. I snowboard quite a bit in the winter, and I ride my bike throughout the summer, and while I really do feel that getting outside and being connected with nature and doing those things has a large part to play in how our brains start to slow down a little bit and start to be more appreciative about our surroundings – there’s nothing for me, personally, like the water. It holds a very special space for me.
[5:45] Cassy Price: Do you have a favourite place that you like to go out paddleboarding or go out rafting on the water? Is there a specific body that you prefer or location?
[5:55] Chad Guenter: It’s kind of a toss-up between rivers and oceans, to be honest. They are two very different things. At this point in my life, I can’t get enough of the West Coast. I just got back from there. I was there for three weeks, and it was something about those tall trees and the big water. It’s a very special place for me. The rivers, I think, are equally important, but just in a different way. It’s the recognition that they’re both different, but it can offer us such valuable things.
[6:36] Cassy Price: What’s the longest paddling expedition that you’ve done so far, and where did that take you?
[6:41] Chad Guenter: It was actually the first KPCO that I did. It was roughly 300 kilometres. We started halfway through Lake Diefenbaker, which is the lake that sits behind the Gardiner Dam. Below that, the South Saskatchewan flows out and into Saskatoon. On the first KPCO, I paddled 150 kilometres of that lake, which it’s an immense lake. It has ocean-like conditions. It’s 200 feet deep in some spots. There’s 800 km of shoreline. It’s 200 and some kilometres long.
[7:25] Being out there, it’s not just an easy paddle across a lake. There was some of the biggest swell that I’ve seen on a lake. Then crossing the dam and going down the river was another 150 km. So linking those two bits together, all-in-all, it was about a 300 kilometre trek. That seems to be the longest one that I’ve got so far.
[7:50] Cassy Price: Do you have any big plans for future expeditions?
[7:54] Chad Guenter: Yeah. I’m always thinking about what’s next, what can I check off the paddle list? I’ve done the Vancouver to Victoria paddle. That was really quite humbling and amazing all at the same time. While I think ocean crossings just demand so much of you and are amazing, I think my next expedition I’d like to do is link Canmore, the place that I live in, to Saskatoon, the place where I grew up. Those two rivers flow into each other, the Bow River, and then the South Saskatchewan. I’d really like to one day have that be my way of getting home.
[8:53] Cassy Price: That would be quite the trek, for sure. I know I’ve done some kayaking on the Bow River, and there are some interesting parts on it, for sure. So, I think that would be a very exciting trip to take from the little sections of it that I am familiar with. Now, you’re a firefighter, correct? And, you’ve been so for over a decade now?
[9:14] Chad Guenter: Yeah, getting close to it.
[9:17] Cassy Price: I’m sure that’s brought on its own challenging and pressures within your life. I was wondering, how has that impacted your journey and inspired you along the way?
[9:30] Chad Guenter: What a gift to be able to help your community and to be such an integral part of the community and help others when they’re having their worst day. It’s such an honour to have that as a profession. But it can be heavy at times. It can be really heavy at times, and I think we’re going to talk about Project All In, in a moment, and that’s my time in the fire service has kind of put me on this path, albeit very close to KCPO, but just focused slightly more specifically at first responders.
[10:19] I think there is an element in the first-responder world and in the fire industry that we see some heavy things. We have resources and people that are struggling. It’s hard to get the two together, so for me, when I came into this, you come into the job knowing that you’re going to see some things and witness some things and be a part of some things that are bigger than yourself.
[10:54] I’m not sure I had all the tools to properly manage those, but I think now, it’s a lot better, and there have been times when it’s a struggle to get through some of the calls that I’ve seen and some of the things that I’ve been a part of. I think that self-recognition of what it’s doing to you, what it’s doing to your body, your mind, and connecting the dots is really important. And, I think it’s a lifelong thing that you have to be aware of. It’s been an interesting journey through that. It’s not one you can take lightly.
[11:56] Cassy Price: So then was it your own personal experience on the job that sparked the concept for Project All In?
[12:00] Chad Guenter: No. It really wasn’t. It was in another job that I have. I train firefighters, military, police, and civilians in technical rescue. There was a group that I had been working with for a very long time. They had a few incidents, and I knew this crew quite well, and they had a few things that have happened to them internally. It was very tough, and it was along the lines of members battling mental health issues.
[12:43] People didn’t see it coming, and they felt like they were a little bit at odds like, “How does someone so close to us that we see on our shifts all the time, and they’d be struggling so much, and we did not notice this?” It finally came to a head when there was a specific suicide attempt from an individual that really started to make – it almost got me angry.
[13:15] I was like, “Why is this happening to us? Why are first responders feeling like they have no options, or if there is options, we know that there are options for resources, why do they feel like they can’t get them? Why do they feel like they can’t ask for them? Why is the ask for help so hard?” That’s really what spawned my thought process of how do we make the ask-for-help easier?
[13:53] I’ve been thinking about that for ten years as I worked with the hundreds of people that we’ve taken down the river for KCPO. The re-occurring question was, “I can’t ask for help. I find asking for help so embarrassing or such a struggle or shameful, or it makes me anxious.” Whatever adjective or whatever feeling you want to put in there, it was stopping people from asking for help.
[14:27] I guess the thoughts have always been there, and how do we make this easier, but when it was more specific to the industry that I was in, it just hit home a lot closer, and it was time to see if we could make some change.
[14:51] Cassy Price: That’s awesome. I think with a lot of movements that have been happening, like Bell Talk Days and that sort of thing, it is starting to be normalized, somewhat, these conversations around mental health, but do you think there’s an importance for creating specific dialogues for different groupings of people that struggle with mental health?
[15:11] Chad Guenter: Yeah. I really do. The example I have to use is in the first responder world. When firefighters or police officers, let’s say, they’re having a bad day, like anyone has a bad day in reality. Anyone can have a bad day – absolutely anyone. But when someone that has this specific type of job that requires you to interact with the public, in the police officers’ world, you might get spit on, you might get sworn at. You probably don’t get the respect that you deserve in that kind of position, and they feel, and firefighters and the EMS that I’ve talked to, and military that I’ve talked to, “We need to talk to somebody that gets it. We need to have the approach of finding help be about something that’s common, like something that we understand.”
[16:25] Sometimes in my own examples, talking to a therapist, it helps immensely if that person across the room from me, across the table, knows what a night shift is like – knows what it’s like to go to a call and then back to the family, and then maybe back to another call, or go back to work as a lot of our volunteer and paid-on-call fire departments work.
[16:57] Having someone that knows that, having the program that understands that, having a specific – like you said, having it worded differently so that it suits particular groups, I think is very important because then it makes us understand that other people in our group are feeling this too.
[17:20] Cassy Price: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think, too, as first responders, you guys have to see and deal with situations that the rest of us have the luxury of blocking out if we so choose, in a lot of cases. Right?
[17:36] Chad Guenter: Yes (Mhmm).
[17:36] Cassy Price: You’re dealing with some very traumatic things sometimes, and you just have to buckle down and get it done in the moment, which I’m sure can be very challenging. Do you think there are additional pressures on men in the industry to “just deal” when it comes to their mental health as opposed to the women?
[17:57] Chad Guenter: I do a little bit, but I also think it’s changing quite a bit. There’s definitely an old guard that has the mentality of, “You signed up for this job, so man up.” Whatever that means, like don’t talk about it; don’t show emotion, I guess is what that is pertaining to.
[18:23] I had a conversation with a firefighter from the U.S. He was very well respected, very high up, and I did a presentation to a large group. He came up to me after, and he said, “I couldn’t do what you do. I couldn’t say the things that you say. I couldn’t be up there and be vulnerable.” He was saying thank you. He said, “Thank you for doing what you do.”
[18:54] But there is still a large presence of men, and just people in general in this service that find it hard to show that, “Yeah, something is bothering me.” And when we don’t have something physically wrong with us due to that thing that we experienced, then it’s hard to justify why we shouldn’t just be okay. If I break my arm at that call because I was trying to help this person get out of that particular situation, then it’s like, “Well, yeah. I did that. As a result of this, I broke my arm. I’m going to get compensated. I’m going to get rehab, and no one thinks any less of me.” This is our perception.
[19:41] But if I have an experience at a call, and it somehow infiltrates my defences, then I’m like, “Oh, man! That really affected me. I better not say anything, though, because someone might think I’m weak, I’m weak-minded, that maybe I’m not there, I’m not with it, so that at my next call, they don’t trust me to carry out a similar task.” I think there is still that mindset around. I do think that it’s changing. I see the change. I see the change in my own fire hall. I see the change in other fire halls and other agencies, but I still think there is a long way to go, unfortunately.
[20:31] Cassy Price: So if you could give one piece of advice to someone who is struggling and not yet comfortable opening up about it, what would that be?
[20:39] Chad Guenter: Million-dollar question. That’s a tough one. Everyone thinks that when they struggle, no one will quite understand or have a similar experience. But, I think once we start talking about it, we start to understand that, “Yeah. You have gone through something similar to me. You feel the same way or a similar way. Okay, I’m not the only one.”
[21:19] Sometimes, that can be really hard to come out and say those things, but I think the best piece of advice that you could put in this spot is, if you change the trajectory of an airplane by just 1%, you will end up in a very different spot. I think if we look at finding help that way or just trying to change our mindsets on this topic that we don’t have to make these massive changes. We can just alter what we do, alter what we think just a little bit. I think it makes a big, massive difference.
[22:22] Cassy Price: Okay. Along the same vein then, for you, personally, was there a piece of advice or an “aha” moment that helped you take the turn with your own personal situation?
[22:35] Chad Guenter: Yeah. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of impactful people along the way for me, but I would say, confidently and easily, that my father just always saying, “Find the humour in it. Find the humour in that situation,” and that can help quite a bit. That’s easily the best advice I’ve been given.
[23:22] Cassy Price: Did you ever expect your life to follow the path that it has?
[23:29] Chad Guenter: No. I don’t think so. I went to school to be a teacher. To be honest, a phys-ed teacher is what I wanted to be because I just wanted to keep playing sports. I went to college to play volleyball, and I was like, “Well, this just makes sense. This is what I’m going to do.” I was there to play volleyball, and I just had to go to school because of it.
[24:00] Then I took a different path along the way. I did the ironwork; I was an arborist for a while. I did security for bands and musicians and stuff like that. Then, in a roundabout way, I’m back teaching; I’m back presenting to people; I’m back speaking in front of groups. Honestly, when I left teaching, and I went to ironwork, I didn’t think that this was where I would end up. I definitely didn’t think I was going to be a firefighter even though that was something that I had really wanted to have happen. I think you just get placed on a path, and then it starts working that way for you if you really try and change it for yourself.
[25:09] Cassy Price: So in your opinion, have we made big enough strides towards normalizing mental health yet? Or do you think there’s still a long way to go?
[25:18] Chad Guenter: Kind of a two-sided answer, I suppose. Yes, I think the strides have been big. I don’t want to call it lip service. We start throwing around these terms a lot like mental health, mental illness, mental health matters, and all that sort of stuff. While I think that happens in a lot of areas, I think we need to just really recognize that if we throw it around a lot, and we don’t actually act on it, that those are two very different things.
[25:56] I do think that we’ve been making big strides towards normalizing the conversation in all of this. I think we do have a lot of way to go yet, but normalizing things, making things more common is just to talk about them more. And I think doing what we’re doing today, just having this conversation, is one of those small steps but makes a big, big difference.
[26:27] If more people realize that it is okay to talk about this stuff – it’s absolutely okay. The more we recognize that, the easier it will get. You’re always going to be presented with challenges when you’re trying to change things or progress things. It’s no different than the large challenges and progressions that we’ve tried to make as humans along the way. I see good and big things for this, so I’m very hopeful and very optimistic about it.
[27:07] Cassy Price: For others who want to help or make a difference, are there signs of mental health issues that you recommend looking out for in those around you?
[27:17] Chad Guenter: That’s tough because I wish there was just one clear answer: look for this, and you will know. But everyone deals with mental health and their mental illness, whatever they have going on, in different ways. Our brains are all very different. The point where we don’t have them fully figured out yet, why people do certain things when seeing certain things or experiencing certain things.
[27:46] While it is different for everyone, the common thread that we can pull from this is when people start doing different things. They’re not doing their normal routine. Maybe they’re drinking a little bit more than they used to. They were a once-in-a-while drinker, and all the sudden, they’ve turned into a little bit more than that. Or they were a punctual person, and they’re not so punctual anymore, they’re consistently late, or maybe they don’t even show up. A little bit agitated, a little bit more quickly than they used to be.
[28:25] Just that identification process of those people that are close to us because we’re not going to recognize that, likely, in people that we’re not close to, so for those who are in your circle, when you start to see some different behavioural changes, that’s probably a good indication that something’s up, and that’s where we do the check-in. “Hey, how have you been? What’s going on? Let’s grab a coffee. Let’s do that hike that you’ve been wanting to do.”
[29:05] This is a tough time of life, too. We’re told to stay distanced from each other, so that makes it equally challenging. That’s why that check-in amongst our friends and our families is so important. So, noticing things that are different in our loved ones is probably the easiest, biggest indicator that I can think of.
[29:30] Cassy Price: Do you have tips for starting that conversation with someone that’s a friend or a family member that you have noticed those differences?
[29:38] Chad Guenter: Yeah. That can be tricky, too, because we always want to make sure we don’t say the wrong thing, but I think we dwell too much on thinking, “Oh, man. I really hope I say the right thing.” Think less about that; worry less about that, and just offer a safe space to these friends and family. Just make sure that they know that they’re not judged for what they need to say and get off their chest. Just hold that respect, and that safe space without judgment is a big way to help get that person to open up.
[30:40] Cassy Price: Awesome. Jumping back a little bit here, when you had mentioned getting more people involved in taking steps to help improve the mental health landscape that we currently are seeing, how can people get involved in that if they don’t know where to start?
[31:02] Chad Guenter: If you’re a part of an agency specifically, and let’s just use the first responder realm for this example. See if there are some resources that are available to your agency and see if you can be a part of that. Now, not all of us need to be a part of that. We all have our own special place and how this works for each other. And maybe you understand that’s not the best spot for you, but if there is, and that is something that you could take on, then try to find some of your agency resources and maybe attach yourself to a few of the people that are a part of that and see where you could help out.
[32:00] I don’t think everyone has the capacity to take on a lot of heavy stuff. I don’t think humans, in general, have the capacity to take on heavy stuff continually. To be involved in this, I think to save our own mental health can be quite simple, and it’s circling back to that check-in for our friends and that check-in for our family and just offering up that space is a very valuable and easy place to start with getting involved and making this easier.
[32:43] There are a lot of initiatives that are starting up or have been around for quite a while, and initiatives similar to KCPO where we paddle, we get people on the water, and people are just standing up for their loved ones. They’re literally paddling down the river, standing up for their loved ones that are battling. And actually standing up for themselves, as well, but in a periphery kind of a way, they’re getting involved by showing that they understand and that they’re aware.
[33:22] Sometimes, that’s all folks need when their struggling is to see that others are willing to do something like that. So, maybe finding an initiative that’s in the place that you live, in the city that you are in, or something like that, find an initiative and something that interests you that are guided by people that you’ve respected and have a good background. I think that’s another really good place to start.
[33:57] Cassy Price: Can you elaborate a little bit on what the mission behind KCPO really is?
[34:03] Chad Guenter: KCPO stands for Keep Calm, Paddle On. It derives from a military saying of Keep Calm, Carry On. It came about from my own family and my own personal struggles of dealing with mental health. I have a brother who deals with mental illness to the point where it’s made it incredibly hard for him to have a “normal” life.
[34:45] I was really frustrated about not being able to help him as much as I would like. So, one day I had bought a paddleboard from a place called Escape Sports in Saskatoon. I had bought it, and I took a break from being on the water because I was on the road working so much. This was my chance at reconnecting with my love of the water.
[35:21] Then, I was handed some pretty heavy news from my family, coincidentally, that same day that I bought the paddleboard. I sat at a coffee shop, sitting there trying to think of how do I take this in, and I felt guilty for spending 1,300 or 1,400 bucks on this paddleboard when I could have just given it to my family to help them out. That’s kind of where the idea for KCPO came up is that I was just going to get on my paddleboard and paddle for a ridiculously long period of time until people started to take note of why I was doing it.
[36:13] The reason I was doing it was to raise awareness for mental illness and mental health and how we can better deal with those situations. That was that first expedition I was telling you about, that 300 kilometre expedition on Lake Diefenbaker, and then subsequently on the South Saskatchewan River. I did that solo to just kind of get people thinking. “Holy cow. This guy is doing what? He’s paddling this distance. What’s he doing it for? Is he just doing it?”
[36:48] I really just tried to generate conversation and awareness. But after I did that trip, it had really moved me, and it had really benefited me in a way I didn’t expect, and I opened up the next year to more people. It was two of my very good friends, and we did that trip together on the same platform to raise awareness and money for mental illness.
[37:24] The three of us got to talking, “There is no way that we cannot open this up to more people. People need to feel this experience.” So, the next year, we opened it up to nine people. The year after that, it was 12. Then, the year after that, it was 20. And then the year after that, it ended up being 30. I was turning people away.
[37:51] At one point in time, people had met up with us along different parts of the river, and I think we had 100 people on the river at one time. What we do is, we pack all of our gear, our tent, our sleeping bags, our stove, our food on this little paddleboard, and we paddle down the river, make camp.
[38:13] We paddle 50 to 60, sometimes 70 km a day, to make sure that we make miles in this three-day time period, which is three days and 150 to 160 km. What this trip has really shown us over the last nine years is that when we put people in groups of like-minded individuals, there’s some real sharing and some real compassion, and some understanding that happens when it’s tailored to a cause.
[38:52] Another thing that I noticed was that people were stepping so far out of their comfort zones, but felt supported to do so because of the people that were around them. I think that was such a heavy and influential metaphor for folks that struggle with mental illness. This trip, KCPO, was a jumping-off point for what eventually became Project All In.
[39:27] It really is a way for people to focus solely on the river and what they need to do to get down it, which is a lot like life. Sometimes, we don’t put the appropriate focus on the parts of our lives that we need to, and on the river, it just demands it of you. I think a lot of people leave that trip with an understanding of “I need to find people that are like me. I need to find people that are supportive. I need to find people that understand what I’m going through.” It really has turned into something very special.
[40:14] Cassy Price: Are you still doing annual trips with KCPO?
[40:18] Chad Guenter: We did up until this year. We did nine years, and then with everything that has gone on this year in the world, it seems like it was a good idea to follow suit and not get a big group of people together, even though it is pretty easy to space out on the water sufficiently, it just seemed like a good idea to put a pause on everything, to reevaluate how it was running. I think we’ll be back – not, I think. I know we’ll be back next year, and we’re really excited to be able to get that trip up and running again. We’ve taken so many people down the river. We’ve been able to make such an impact on that community and it’s been such a beautiful thing to see it grow the way it has. It would be a shame to stop it.
[40:20] Cassy Price: Awesome. Well it has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you today Chad, thank you so much for joining me. One last question I had for you is, if any of the listeners want to get a hold of you or get in contact with you, how would they go about doing that?
[40:25] Chad Guenter: I think the easiest way is at [email protected], that’s my email through our not-for-profit, and even if it doesn’t have to do with being a first responder, that’s probably the easiest way to get to me. We can start talking there.
[40:41] Cassy Price: Awesome. Well thank you again for joining me, this has been absolutely lovely, and thank you to the listeners who have tuned in.
[40:50] Chad Guenter: No kidding, this has been a pleasure and I always appreciate any opportunity to be able to talk about this so thank you very much.
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