Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 26, 2013

SPENCER — When you paddle down the Yadkin River in a canoe, it’s like a dose of medicine.

Emily Stirewalt knew this when she invited her father, Jim Stirewalt of Salisbury, to ride an Old Town canoe with her for the 9.5 miles between Boone’s Cave and the York Hill boat access north of Spencer.

This would be an adventurous way to relieve her father from his routine, Emily decided.

Stirewalt’s time has been focused recently on his wife, Martha, an Alzheimer’s resident at the Brian Center. More than once a day, Jim goes to the nursing home to check in on his wife.

The days have been draining.

The Yadkin River proved to be a good escape.

Stirewalt couldn’t get over how quiet things were on the river. On this leg of the Fourth Annual Tour de Yadkin, the group of seven canoes and kayaks didn’t pass one motor boat.

They saw only two houses and a couple of outbuildings.

Stirewalt said he loved the flow of the river and, as a history buff, he couldn’t help but think of times when people depended on the river for transportation and commerce.

Stirewalt also was interested in seeing the city of Salisbury’s water intake and pump station on the Yadkin — he had always heard of it but never seen it.

And he was fascinated to see the place where the Colonial Pipeline crosses the river, because the pipeline also crosses some of his family’s farmland in southern Rowan County.

This was the first time Stirewalt had been in a canoe on any river. Paddling on the lake at Lutheridge doesn’t really count, said Stirewalt, a retired Lutheran pastor.

At 86, Stirewalt might have been the oldest Tour de Yadkin participant this year. Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks, a paddler himself, says the Stirewalts are among 528 people who have participated in the 185-mile tour from the highlands of Wilkes County to the Uwharrie Mountains.

So far the tour has covered 132 miles, and last Saturday’s Paddle-A-Thon, to raise money for fishable, swimmable and drinkable water on the Yadkin, drew hundreds of paddlers for a 10.8-mile segment from Huntsville to Tanglewood Park.

That was followed by a party in the field next to the Tanglewood access. In all, more than $10,000 was raised, Naujoks said.

Of course, the tour itself raises awareness of the river, especially for first-time paddlers such as Jim Stirewalt.

He was in good hands Tuesday. Emily, his youngest of three children, is experienced with kayaks and canoes, going back to her days with Outward Bound.

She handled the steering in back, After her father gained a sense of balance, she said, he helped considerably with the paddling.

A school counselor in Guilford County, Emily Stirewalt made sure her father had plenty of water throughout their almost four-hour trip. Along the way, the group stopped for a snack and rest at an outcropping of rocks.

Both of the Stirewalts wore wide-brimmed hats to help against the sun. At Emily’s suggestion, Jim also wore a long-sleeved cotton shirt and long pants.

Scrunched up in a canoe can be tough on the knees, and Jim Stirewalt predicted he might be having cramps that evening. After getting out of the canoe with the group’s help, Jim took a few moments to get his land legs again, but overall, he did well.

There are flat stretches of water requiring some strong paddling on this particular leg. Emily Stirewalt said the group also faced some headwinds early on.

“It wasn’t that bad,” she said. “It could have been a lot worse. I’m going to have to take some Ibuprofen tonight.”

Emily Stirewalt said Naujoks did a good job of pointing out things as they progressed.

The most uncomfortable aspect of the journey for him, Jim Stirewalt said, was getting in the canoe and getting out.

“There were some real good guys with us,” he added. “They were very helpful.”

What would it take for the Stirewalts to tackle the river together again?

“A stronger current,” a tired Emily said.

Jim Stirewalt compared his experience on the river with being a grandparent. You love when the grandchildren are with you, but you’re glad, too, when they go home.

Stirewalt enjoyed his Tuesday on the river. But he was glad to be heading back to Salisbury, with one great adventure under his belt.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or