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Relearning how to be outside

When Ira Edwards was struck  by a rogue tree he was felling in 2010 and paralyzed from the waist down, he knew life would never be the same. But it never occurred to him to stop doing the things he loved: hunting, fishing, skiing, and being outside in Alaska. “A lot of that is believing you can. It just takes me a lot longer to do.” Named “the real-life most interesting man in the world” by The Chive, Ira shares how this injury has shaped him and how the outdoors helped him become happy and healthy again.

—AS TOLD TO AND EDITED BY MOLLY RETTIG

Let’s start by talking about life before your injury.

I grew up in Palmer skiing and being outside. The whole world revolved around skiing, having kept up a 163-consecutive-month ski streak. I raced for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and got a degree in wildlife biology. I went to work for Fish and Game, and was drawn to the law enforcement side of things when I saw people abusing their hunting privileges, so I went to the Alaska State Trooper Academy and became a state park ranger. I’ve always been super active. The year I broke my back, 2010, I ran four marathons.

And then in 2010, everything changed.


What happened?  

I was working for the Alaska State Parks clearing hazard trees from the trails up toward Willow after a pre-Thanksgiving windstorm. One tree was a widowmaker; the top half was broken off and leaning onto the trail. We tried to take it down safely, but instead of falling the way we planned, the top half broke off the tree and pushed the trunk down my safety path. It should have fallen in a different direction, but it didn’t. I was a nail, the tree was a hammer. I got pile-drived into the ground. I broke my back, several other bones, damaged organs, I did not bleed out but could have.

That sounds terrifying, and I imagine it was a long recovery. How did you get through it? 

It was a rough transition. I’d say I was at the bottom of a bottomless pit, but fortunately I had a lot of friends that helped drag me out. The first year I wasn’t healthy as healing takes time and I had some recurring infections from the hospital stay. I went through a painful divorce right after I got hurt. I didn’t have any of the adaptive sports equipment to do the things I love doing. You can’t just go to the store and buy it. When you get paralyzed, you have to rebuild how you do things. Even though I came into the hospital super strong and fit, I left the hospital pretty weak and flimsy, so I had to relearn how to do all the things with a lot less muscle mass, with only my upper body. I used to be a size large T-shirt; my chest and shoulders have grown so much I’m now a double XL.

What was your journey to getting back into the outdoors?

I was on heavy doses of blood thinners for two years because I got pretty bad blood clots. You can’t do much because you might bleed out. It was challenging mentally and physically to get back. Every few months I’d be a little better and start doing one thing I used to do. But I was used to making fast progress, so it was frustrating. 

It took six months to get a hand cycle. It was over a year until I got a sit-ski, and I had to get strong and healthy enough to use it. I was able to start cross country skiing a little more than a year later. Now I’m back to doing everything, Nordic and downhill skiing, canoeing, hand-cycling. I did the Boston Marathon in 2018. Last summer I got to go surfing down in Santa Cruz. I have a custom surfboard called a Waveski; it’s a sit-on-top surfboard made for people riding tight waves and works great for adaptive athletes.

Edwards in between runs of solid face shots while skiing in Winter Park, CO, with friends.

I hear you still hunt! How has it changed for you? 

This year I processed my 120th animal, between me and friends. I had never owned a motorized device but now I have a side-by-side. A lot of what I carry around is medical supplies — a toilet, catheters — there’s a lot of equipment that comes with being paralyzed. I had to relearn how to shoot because my back is bolted together, and I’m still able to shoot really well. Last year I built a new hunting rifle, more of a sniper rifle, and got a moose at 575 meters. But no more ultralight backpacking for me.

Edwards lines up a shot on a moose after range finding and setting the scope corrections. 

How do you deal with a large animal like a moose from a wheelchair?

Basically, I don’t go hunting by myself. I have a strap-on butt pad, so I can scoot around on my butt to butcher. You spread a tarp on the ground, put pieces of meat on the tarp and then into game bags. Once it’s quartered, I can lift a caribou up to the machine by myself from the ground, but not a moose. A moose hindquarter, even a small bull, is over 100 pounds.

I’ve read about your trips taking others with disabilities into the outdoors. What are some of the highlights? 

The Chive bought me a side-by-side, and I used it to take a friend with cerebral palsy hunting in Chicken. We got her a caribou last year and a moose this year. Next year I’m hoping to take another person with a disability. Big Agnes recently donated three large Expedition tents that you can roll a wheelchair into with sleeping bags, cots, camp chairs, and camp tables. In the near future I’m going to be fundraising for a wall tent and propane cookers and other group camping items so I won’t need to always borrow the gear. Each person with a disability will need a helper, and this gear makes it easy to have the helpers. 

Thanks for sharing your story, Ira. Final thoughts for people dealing with disabilities or just physical challenges that threaten the things they love doing? 

I’ve been successful outdoors because I’m stubborn. You just have to work harder than the next guy. For me it’s all working harder because I can’t walk. I’m a pretty positive guy, so that helped too. A lot of people much less disabled than me complain about not being able to do anything. I want to show them life can be fun, but not force it down people’s throats.

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