A Multi-Day Kayak Trip with Type 1 Diabetes

9-minute read

A first multi-day sea kayak trip will be physically and mentally challenging for anyone. For someone with Type 1 diabetes it’s extra challenging, as 28-year old Rachel Anderson shares with us.

 Rachel in the front of a tandem  kayak with another woman in the back, on Lake Superior

Rachel Anderson (front) and her paddle partner on Lake Superior (photo courtesy of Rachel Anderson)

Rachel signed up for a 4-day sea kayak trip to Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands with four friends. They went with an outfitter who provided the food, gear, wet suits (being on Lake Superior) and other essentials.

Although Rachel loves to be active, she knew she’d experience different types of activity than she was used to, and for longer durations. Beyond the normal fatigue and soreness her friends would experience, she knew she’d have to keep a very close eye on her blood sugar levels throughout the trip so they wouldn’t drop too low or raise too high. Those highs and lows can be life-threatening for her.

But she doesn’t want her diabetes to define her and how she journeys through life! So she doesn’t back down from adventures, like multi-day kayak trips. In fact, she looks for these kinds of activities, knowing the challenges she’ll face while doing them.

Here’s our interview with Rachel about her first multi-day sea kayak trip:

AB: Tell us about the sea kayak trip you were part of.

RACHEL: I went with four friends and the two guides from the outfitter. We camped the night before. The next morning we loaded up all our gear, then started our expedition. Most of those days we were kayaking several hours a day, stopping by an island for lunch, getting back on the water, setting up camp, preparing dinner, then repeating the next day.

 5 women stand next to four kayaks, each holding a paddle, on a sandy beach

The kayak crew (photo courtesy of Brittany Dokter)

AB: Give us some background about your diabetes and other health issues.

RACHEL: I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when I was 10 years old. There was no history of it in my family, so no one really knew what it entailed or how to help me live with it. It was a learning curve for all of us.

The cool thing is that my family is very much a traveling family. Even though I was diagnosed with diabetes, that didn’t stop me from continuing to be active with my family and travel at a young age.

As early as 13 I went on an overseas mission trip to Africa with my dad and sisters. I was in Uganda and Rwanda for about thirteen days. I didn’t have any serious problems managing the diabetes there.

I continued to do international mission trips with my church as a teenager, some of them remote. So my family took the approach that I could continue to live a normal life, even with diabetes. That definitely helped me feel confident that I could do an outing like this.

When I was 15, I started to discover that I have various food allergies. At the time of this kayak trip I was strictly avoiding gluten, dairy and nuts. So I had food limitations plus managing the diabetes while I was out.

 two women in a tandem kayak paddle through a sea cave

Rachel and her kayak partner enter one of the Apostle Island’s sea caves (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

AB: What kinds of adjustments did you always have to keep in mind that the others didn’t have to think about?

RACHEL: When you’re doing prolonged periods of activity, your blood sugar continually drops low. Your body is actively using up your carb supply and your insulin is overly active when you’re exercising.

So when it’s activity for hours on end, I had to take that into account and make massive adjustments to my medication ratios with what I was eating.

I had done a canoe trip a couple years ago and my body didn’t seem to need the extreme adjustments with my medication as this trip did.

If I had been using injections for my insulin, I would’ve had to make a serious decrease in my long-acting insulin to account for the amount of activity during the day. And I probably wouldn’t take any short-acting insulin at meals because my body would be using up all the glucose from my food just from the activity.

But I have a pump and continual glucose monitor, which most people are using these days. That was extremely helpful, but even so I found it to be very challenging on this trip.

I spoke with my diabetic doctor and nurse beforehand to find out what adjustments I’d need to make so I wouldn’t run into constant lows. The doctor had me create a temporary insulin program that was completely different from my normal ratios to try to compensate for the amount of activity I’d be doing.

 4 women swim off the rocks in Lake Superior

If there’s water, Rachel will swim in it! (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

That definitely helped, but I still ended up taking a lot more medication at meals than I needed for how much activity I’d be doing. So I was going low almost every couple of hours and having to stop kayaking.

Thankfully, it was a tandem kayak. My partner could keep paddling while I had to sit there and eat some snacks, then wait for 20-30 minutes for my blood sugar to go back up. Then I’d kayak some more, and it would go low again, and I’d have to sit there again.

It was very hard for me because I felt like I was slowing the team down and not contributing my full weight. On previous excursions I’ve just been with friends, so I felt a lot more liberty to communicate my needs with them.

Being with an outfitter, I felt self-conscious about asking for those kinds of accommodations. That made me a lot more stressed out, and it was a lot harder to be at peace with taking care of myself.

That was the hardest thing for me, because I was so aware of it. I already have to ask people for so much, so not knowing their personalities and trying to read between the lines was hard for me.

 Rachel learns to climb back into her kayak from the water, two photos shown...first she falls in the water, next she climbs in

Rachel wanted to learn how to re-enter a kayak from the water (photos courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

AB: Was anything easier than you thought it would be?

RACHEL: One thing that was easier was that the outfitter we went with, Whitecap Kayak, brought along food that was very healthy. I let them know ahead of time about my allergies and diabetes, so almost all the food they brought along was gluten-free and dairy-free. And they were intentional to add protein to the meals that they maybe normally wouldn’t have.

I was really pleased with how wonderful the meals were. They knew about my needs, but they’re already a health-minded company. They adapt what they bring according to who’s on the trip with them.

 two pots of healthy veggies and rice

An example of the healthy meals the outfitter provided (photo courtesy of Rachel Anderson)

I always bring beef sticks, protein bars and extra fats along to help balance my blood sugar. On this trip I didn’t have to use nearly as much of my own food, because they provided such good fuel for us. That was great!

 samples of Rachel's protein snacks

Typical snacks Rachel brings along for adventure trips (photos courtesy of Rachel Anderson)

Each day I was trying to observe what went right and wrong with my blood sugar patterns, then make more adjustment to my insulin ratio the next day. So by the end of the trip I had figured out more of a rhythm that worked well.

For future expeditions I’ll have a better idea of how to adjust my short and long-term insulin and those kinds of dynamics.

AB: Was it worth it?

RACHEL: The trip was still totally worth it, even though it was harder than others I’ve done. It was so beautiful. I’m glad I got to see everything I saw and had that experience. It gave me a lot of food for thought about how to do things a bit differently next time. It was a learning curve type of trip, but very worthwhile, and a lot of fun.

If anything, I would encourage Type 1 diabetics who are going on these types of excursions to not be ashamed of what they need to do to take care of themselves. Communicate beforehand, as much as needed, with everyone involved—tour company, friends—about some of the challenges they might encounter. And then don’t feel bad about it.

On this trip, my trip mates didn’t feel half as bad as I felt, with me having to take those breaks.

AB: What’s your kayak trip advice for those with Type 1 diabetes?

RACHEL: This is kind of funny, but wear good sunblock on your lips! My lips got really sunburnt and swollen—it looks like I had a botox job! Everyone was laughing.

Call your doctor, nurse or diabetic educator before the trip and make a plan for how you expect to adjust your insulin levels. Then take into account that you might have to intensify that approach way more than you expect based on your activity. Overall, it’s safer to err on the side of slightly higher blood sugars than taking too much insulin and dealing with lows on a trip.

Also, it’s always a good idea to bring along protein snacks as well as your blood sugar snacks, because with just the sugary snacks your blood sugar highs and lows will be more dramatic. Carbs don’t sustain your blood sugar levels. When you eat protein or fat along with your carbs then your levels will be more sustained during your activity.

Finally, don’t be held back from doing really big adventures. Just go in with the supplies you need in case you run into emergencies. Go in with education about needed adjustments, but just go for it and have the time of your life!

 Rachel in front with her kayak mate behind her, on the water in front of sea caves

Rachel and another paddle partner along some Apostle Island sea caves (photo courtesy of Rachel Anderson)

Rachel is currently on staff with an international missions organization in Norway. She hopes to sea kayak in a fjord while she’s there.

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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