On June 20, the first day of summer, Chris Gallegos eased the drift-fishing boat onto the San Juan River.
Gallegos, a veteran San Juan fishing guide, knows the river, where the rocks are, how the water flows in different stretches.
But the boat, a custom-built job in use for the first time that day, was new to him. It was designed so that the back end drops down to allow access to fishermen in wheelchairs.
The two fishermen on this day, both in wheelchairs, were Dustin Berg, 36, of Rio Rancho, and K.C. Henthorn, 32, of Albuquerque.
Berg is the founder and executive director of GO Unlimited, a New Mexico nonprofit devoted to helping people with disabilities take part in free outdoor adventures, adaptive sporting events and group excursions. Henthorn is an enthusiastic participant in GO programs.
“It was kind of exciting for all of us,” Henthorn said of the June fishing trip. “It was my first time drift fishing, but it was also the first time that boat had been on the water. Everyone is figuring out the boat. Chris was operating it.”
Berg said Gallegos did a good job maneuvering the boat over the four river miles they drifted that day, a day that took Berg back to a time before the North Valley motorcycle accident that robbed him of his ability to walk when he was just 19.
“My dad taught me how to fly fish on the San Juan when I was able to walk,” Berg said. “Back then, I walked the river in waders. But until we got that boat, it had been about 20 years since I had been able to access the river, the beauty of it, in that way.”
Finding the possible
Berg was 21 when he started GO Unlimited. The organization’s motto is “Adapt, Overcome, Succeed,” and it grew out of Berg’s own approach to dealing with his disability.
“Going through an injury like this is truly traumatic,” he said. “Just trying to do the necessities is challenging. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to give it everything I got. That is something I always carry with me – looking at the positive.
“Give it 100% or you’ll never find out what’s possible.”
The outdoors had always been a big part of his family’s life, so discovering ways to fish and camp despite his disability was a major part of Berg’s personal rehabilitation regimen.
He founded GO Unlimited to create adaptive fishing trips throughout New Mexico for people with spinal cord and similar mobility limitations. Besides its new drift-fishing boat, the organization has a wheelchair-accessible pontoon boat.
“Fishing is just what you say you are going to do,” Berg said. “It’s just about having fun and getting outdoors.”
A sight to see
And now, fishing is only part of what GO Unlimited is about. Its program has expanded to include off-road trekking, camping, hand-cycling, hunting, trail-riding and wildlife watching.
GO Unlimited’s Therapeutic Recreation program, funded primarily by Lovelace UNM Rehabilitation Hospital, offers archery, wheelchair basketball, bowling, a monthly support-group meeting and outings to Albuquerque Isotopes baseball games, New Mexico United soccer matches, the zoo, aquarium and more.
Henthorn has been on at least a half dozen GO Unlimited fishing trips, attended Isotopes and United games with the organization and participated in bowling nights.
“You get seven people in wheelchairs bowling and it’s a sight to see,” he said.
There is no charge to the people GO Unlimited serves, folks that range in age from 4 or 5 to 70 and older.
The organization is supported mainly by contributions from corporations, civic groups and the private sector. The wheelchair-accessible drift-fishing boat was funded by a grant from the Kelly Brush Foundation.
“Besides gas money and a motel one time, I have not had to pay anything,” Henthorn said. “That’s important for people in wheelchairs, people often on a fixed income. (GO Unlimited) provides most everything – snacks, water, gear. On fishing trips, we have been eating what we caught, firing up the grill at night.”
Henthorn was 27 when he suffered a spinal cord injury in a dirt-bike motocross accident.
“I have been injured for five years,” he said. “I have had to give up some things in my life. Some doors close and others open.”
Henthorn grew up hunting and fishing with his father.
“For me getting outdoors is as important as physical therapy, exercise and eating healthy,” he said. But he believes the opportunities offered by GO Unlimited are also good for people new to outdoor activities.
“Sixteen months after breaking my back, I was back on the job (with an Albuquerque food wholesaler) that I had before the accident,” he said. “But other people are not so lucky. I wish more people in wheelchairs would get motivated to get outdoors because the resources are there.
“If they see that they can do outdoor recreation, then maybe they start to think ‘I can go out and get a job.’ ”
Ready to rock
During a normal year, Berg said GO Unlimited offers two to four activities a week. But 2020 has not been a normal year. He said the coronavirus pandemic put a real dent in the program.
“Our therapeutic recreation programs have been pretty much shut down,” he said.
And except for outings such as the June 20 excursion, planned primarily as a trial run for the new boat, it has not been much of a summer for fishing.
“Getting six guys in wheelchairs together doesn’t happen anymore,” Henthorn said.
Berg said GO Unlimited has been making the best of the down time by training volunteers and concentrating on peer mentoring aimed at connecting people with disabilities to resources and to those more experienced at coping with physical limitations.
Forced into doing meetings via Zoom and Google Meet, Berg said the organization discovered it reaches a wider audience that way.
“People from rural New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and California have been joining us,” he said. “That’s something we are going to keep. This pandemic has been unfortunate, but there are silver linings. It’s what you take and make of it.”