Whitewater frees student from “disabled” label

Allison Bolgiano

“All the differences were on the shore,” Scramble leader sophomore John Whiting said about first-year MiKayla Briere, one of his whitewater rafting Scramblers.

Briere is different from the average Whitman first-year in several ways. Not a member of the Seattle or Portland multitudes, she hails from Lincoln, N.H. a small town in middle of the White Mountains. She knew she wanted to attend Whitman and only applied to Whitman. She wants to major in geology-environmental studies. She gets around campus using a hot pink wheelchair.

The bright wheelchair represents her spunky personality. She is fiery and not afraid to give honest answers.

“She’s the definition of sass,” Whiting said.

“She’s really gung ho about everything. She’ll try whatever,” Scramble leader Claire Snyder said.

Having lived with a degenerative condition her whole life, Briere started using a wheelchair at the beginning of her junior year of high school. She doesn’t let her disability keep her from doing the things she loves.

On the Scramble, MiKayla could get anywhere on the rafts, according to Whiting.

“I like riding the bull, which is sitting on the front of the boat while you’re going through rapids,” said Briere.

The Bodaciously Bouncing Boating Scramble rafted on the Salmon River in Idaho. With Whiting, junior Snyder, sophomore Matt Raymond, and senior Drew  Trogstad-Isaacson in the lead, the 19 person group spent six days running class I-IV rapids. They carried all their gear with them and set up camp at a new site each night.

“The most challenging part was the beaches because they’re super sandy so my wheelchair just sank into it,” said Briere.

The leaders experimented with different wheelchair rigs. They soon arrived at a solution. Piggyback rides proved the best way for MiKayla to get around.

“John Whiting became my official horse for the trip. John would carry me anywhere I needed to go,” said Briere.

One afternoon the group was sprinting into the river. To ensure she did not miss out on any of the action, Raymond picked MiKayla up on his back and ran full speed into the river with her.

Briere and fellow Scrambler Aleksander Maricq were the first disabled students ever to participate in a Scramble. The leaders’ success in making the trip accessible, safe and fun for both students is an accomplishment that has opened the possibilities of the   Scramble program.

This year’s success allows the Outdoor Program to confidently say that students with disabilities can participate in the rafting Scramble.

“In the future we can say we’ve done this before. We did it last year. Don’t not do it because of fear of challenging the system,” Whiting said.

Bodaciously Bouncing Boating was not a lone outdoor adventure for Briere who was a snowboard racer on the national circuit before she began using a wheelchair. To continue her passion for snow sports she now mono-skis.

“I didn’t know who I was without snow. I had to change directions. I didn’t want to lose everything. I’d built a love for something and you just have to find a way to get back to what you love,” Briere said.

Briere has not only found a way to keep skiing herself, but she is helping others do the same. Teaching adaptive skiing to children with disabilities is very fulfilling for Briere.

Since arriving at Whitman, she is developing new passions. Whitewater kayaking and rafting trips dot Briere’s schedule. She is taking Beginning Whitewater Kayaking, and has learned to roll a kayak.

“She has found a niche in the whitewater program,” Snyder said.

After her Scramble, a Deschutes rafting trip, a Hell’s Canyon rafting and kayaking trip and a Salmon River whitewater kayaking trip, Briere loves spending weekends outdoors.

“I’d rather go on an OP trip somewhere crazy than go to a party because you don’t get to go on trips like this in real life. You grow a lot closer to people when you’re away from civilization,” said Briere.

A love of adventure and a willingness to challenge herself are hallmarks of Briere’s personality.

“She definitely cautious, but she’s willing to take amazing risks. What I’m hoping for is that MiKayla can have some leadership roles in the OP. She has enough spunk to be an effective and hilarious leader,” Whiting said.

Briere says that she would like people to see her as person without a wheelchair.

“Don’t be afraid of it. It’s just there,” she said.

Whitewater gets Briere out of her wheelchair. Beyond that, it removes the differences that normally distinguish MiKayla from others.

“I like that the fact that you’d never know the difference between me and you in a kayak. You wouldn’t know which one of us is in a wheelchair,” she smiled.

It’s true. When Briere paddles, the wheelchair stays on the shore. A zealous and daring person is all you would see as she navigates hydraulics, holes and huge waves.