The paddling trip is like any other. There’s orientation, a scramble for gear and boat checks as everyone readies for a trip on the James River from the Hardware River down to New Canton, VA.

But the van for the shuttle carries more than changes of clothes and car keys. It’s full of the wheelchairs and braces that belong to the students, all participants in the adaptive paddling program at Wintergreen Resort.

Wintergreen Adaptive Sports is one of a growing number of programs that put disabled people on the water, people who never imagined they’d paddle their own boat or sail on the Bay.

Programs vary, with some offered only for children. Others, like the fast-growing Team RiverRunner, headquartered in Washington, DC, were created for “wounded warriors,” service men and women and veterans who have physical disabilities. All build on the transformative power of being on the water; all are described as empowering, healing, rewarding.

Savanna Stout has been paddling five years with the Wintergreen program. Now 21, she’s in her own pink plastic kayak fitted to take advantage of mobility in her upper body. “The wheelchair was all I’d ever known,” she said, until Wintergreen volunteers helped her gain the skills and confidence to become a solo paddler.

Her mother encouraged her to give it a try, in spite of Stout’s fear, and she came home from her first session with bright eyes and a hunger for more.

Volunteers are key to the programs. “I get more out of the program than I give to it,” said Scott Wiggins, who has volunteered for Wintergreen for more than seven years. Team RiverRunner was founded to work with disabled veterans, but many of its chapters bring paddling opportunities to disabled civilians. Joe Mornini, founder of Team RiverRunner, said this fulfills their mission of providing purpose to those who suffer the physical and mental wounds of war.

The DC Team RiverRunner chapter hosts weekly open houses with Camp Calleva, providing an opportunity for vets with limitations to work with kids with limitations. The Virginia Beach chapter pairs military paddlers with kids who have developmental and physical disabilities. As coordinator Chuck Conley says, “Everybody can do some good.”

Back on the James, Savanna takes her turn at a small ledge. Students, instructors, and volunteers all get the same encouragement as they traverse the churning water. After all, on the water, the river treats everyone equally.

Variety of programs allow the disabled to test the waters

Many local parks and recreation departments offer therapeutic recreation programs that include on-the-water experiences. Fees may apply in some cases. Most also welcome volunteers.

  • Wintergreen Adaptive Sports: Lovingston, VA. Summer schedule starts May 31. Call 434-426-6932 or visit
  • Sportable: Richmond. Paddling, rowing, and other sports on Reedy Creek on the James River. Kayak programs start June 3. Visit or call 804-340-2991.
  • Team RiverRunner: Washington, DC. Kayaking for wounded warriors, their families. Visit or call 703-532-6070.
  • Calleva River School: Poolesville, MD. Free open house every Sunday starting May 4: kayak, canoe, sail and stand-up paddleboard in Seneca Creek/Potomac River for disabled children, their families. Call 301-216-1248 or visit
  • Team RiverRunner: Virginia Beach. Kayak, surf kayak, outrigger canoe, veteran service projects with Autistic Buddies and KelsKids (with disabilities). Call 757-515-5391 or visit
  • Therapeutic Adventures: Charlottesville, VA. Individualized adaptive sports instruction, outdoor recreation, guide services. Kayaking, canoeing, fly-fishing on central Virginia rivers and Eastern Shore. Contact: 434-981-5834, e-mail or visit
  • Baltimore Adapted Recreation & Sports: Sparks, MD. Canoeing, kayaking, sailing. First kayak tour May 3 at Piney Run State Park. Call 478-227-7386 or visit
  • Access-Ability at Downtown Sailing Center: Baltimore. Free adaptive sailing open houses start April 12. Call 410-727-0722 or visit
  • Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating: Annapolis. Monthly free sailing, workshops, racing, community, family sailing with and for disabled persons. Call 410 -626-0273 or visit
  • American Canoe Association Adaptive Paddling: