At the Kelly Island fishing access on a warm September morning, Chris Clasby guides his wheelchair onto a raft. To move forward he puffs hard into a plastic tube; to move backward he sips hard. Right is a soft puff, left a soft sip.
The boat ramp is pocked with rocks and ruts and the chair lurches a zigzag toward the boat. At one point, Clasby nears the edge of the concrete ramp and a 4-foot drop to the river. He senses onlookers tensing as his chair stops a few feet short of the edge. “You know, I probably weigh 300 pounds with this chair,” he says to me, smiling mischievously. “If I fall in, I’m not coming out.”
Unassisted, Clasby corrects his course and maneuvers himself up a collapsible ramp and onto the boat, a 16-foot Cataraft with a thick-plated metal floor. The customized craft is owned by the Missoula-based Montana Access to Outdoor Recreation program (MATOR), the only one of its kind in the state and one of two or so in the country. Since its inception in 2008, MATOR has loaned adaptive watercraft, off-road wheelchairs, fishing rods, customized bows, and rifle mounts—along with roughly 400 pieces of other gear, ranging from battery chargers to hand-cranked cycles—to disabled outdoorsmen and women across Montana. Equipment like this can be prohibitively expensive (a rifle mount alone goes for over $1,500), but these loaners come free of charge. MATOR also provides free demonstrations and connects clients with a network of volunteers to accompany them on outings.
Clasby, 39, has been the program coordinator since the beginning. He has talkative blue eyes, a ready smile, and, since 1990, has been paralyzed from the neck down.
At work, he operates his computer and phone with voice recognition software. He manipulates the computer mouse with a 14-inch “mouth-stick” between his lips. Working from MATOR’s Southwest Higgins office, Clasby facilitates the equipment loans, organizes a yearly fishing conclave, and researches new assistive equipment. The greatest perk, he admits, is testing the gear.
“Well, we need to make sure the stuff works,” he says.Once Clasby is on board, his wheelchair locked in place, Matt Miller, a MATOR volunteer and former fishing guide, mounts a sip-and-puff fishing rod onto a metal crossbar at the front of the raft.
When Clasby sips on the tube, a mechanical arm draws the rod back until it’s parallel with the water, loading a system of springs. Stop sipping, and the springs release, catapulting the rod forward and launching a cast. To reel in, Clasby puffs.
Despite the technology, Clasby, also an avid hunter, says outdoor recreation is still a significant challenge for people with a disability. Most activities need to be accessible from a road, and equipment meltdowns are not uncommon. But what many would see as limitations, Clasby sees as sport. “We have this joke: When we hear a guy brag about his big bull or big fish, we just listen until he’s finished and then say, ‘Yeah, but did you do it with your lips?’”
In 1988, when Clasby was a sophomore at Helena High School, he got a job bagging groceries. He’d come to Helena to live with his dad, leaving his mom and five siblings behind in Missoula in search of a new degree of independence.
One day while working at the grocery store, Clasby asked a customer if he needed help carrying his bags. The man’s name was Hank Emerson and the two chatted as they walked across the parking lot. It was fall, and the conversation inevitably turned to hunting. “I remember Hank said, ‘I’m not some kind of weirdo, but if you want to go duck hunting sometime, here’s my card,’” Clasby recalled.
For the next two years, Emerson and Clasby hunted and fished around Helena. Emerson was in his mid-60s, a retired lieutenant general and Vietnam veteran. Clasby was a typical 16-year-old Montanan, interested in calf roping, cattle wrestling, truck driving and girls. Though hunting and fishing had always been a part of Clasby’s life, he credits Emerson for distilling a passive interest into a passion.
On July 9, 1990, a few weeks after his high school graduation, Clasby and a friend were driving north on I-15 out of Butte, headed back to Helena, after competing in the Silver State International Rodeo, a teenagers’ competition in Fallon, Nevada. They took it slow on the last leg, visiting friends in Missoula, Drummond, and Philipsburg, and stopping to buy another case of beer in Anaconda. Clasby has no memory of this part of the trip, but over the years he’s been able to piece together most of what happened.
At around 7 p.m., the teens were driving through Elk Park, 60 miles from home. Police reports say the driver swerved, over-corrected, and crashed into the median, pitching the Ranger pickup end-over-end. Both boys were ejected through the back window of the cab. Accident investigators could not determine who was at the wheel. Clasby has long since given up finding the answer.
An ambulance brought him to St. James Hospital in Butte. His condition stabilized within a few days, but he remained unconscious for nearly eight weeks. The wreck had fractured his right elbow and collarbone and snapped his spinal cord at the C4 vertebra in his neck, leaving his arms and legs paralyzed. After five weeks in Butte, he was transferred, still unconscious, to Craig Hospital in Colorado, a specialized rehab center.
Clasby woke up in sunshine, tilted back in a chair, staring up at unfamiliar brick buildings. His dad was standing over him. They were in Englewood, Colo., in a courtyard behind Craig Hospital, his dad told him. Clasby and his friend had been in an accident on their way back from the rodeo on July 9. Clasby thought it strange that his dad used a specific date like that—“July 9.”