December 05, 2019
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UMPI professor pushing her limits to be first paraplegic to climb Katahdin

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
Dr. Jacquelyn Lowman, University of Maine at Presque Isle associate professor of communications and her service dog Saint, checks out the special wheelchair she plans to use later this summer when she and her team will attempt to climb Mt. Katahdin. UMPI student Chris Bowden will document the climb.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — If she had her way, Jacquelyn Lowman would banish the word “can’t” from the dictionary.

It’s a word she’s heard a lot, but the University of Maine at Presque Isle associate professor of communications is on a mission to show the world exactly what is possible.

Lowman, a paraplegic who was born with spina bifida, gets around just fine thanks to a wheelchair and her service dog Saint.

This summer, she and Saint, along with a 17-member team from UMPI and the northern Maine community, are planning a July ascent of Mount Katahdin. Lowman and her crew members believe this will be the first time a paraplegic attempts the climb.

“I’ve had people say ‘no’ to me my whole life,” Lowman said from her office in UMPI’s Normal Hall last week, Saint snoring audibly on the floor beside her. “Ever since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to start some sort of nonprofit to help people meet goals.”

But life and a career always seemed to get in the way of founding any kind of organization, she said.

Then three years ago Lowman found herself hospitalized when a major artery in her abdomen burst, causing substantial internal bleeding. Lowman, 63, survived, but was shaken and said that was when she resolved to finally put her plans into action. Last year she began Beyond Limits, a nonprofit that partners with local organizations to bring adaptive sports and recreational activities to Aroostook County.

Beyond Limits is about showing anyone that all things are possible when done in a supportive environment, Lowman said.

“Last summer I went whitewater rafting,” she said. “People asked if I was scared and I really was not [because] all I had to do was sit in the middle of the raft and they told me if I fell out, they’d pull me back in [and] I believed them.”

After conquering the Class V rapids out of The Forks and learning to ski using adaptive equipment this past winter, Lowman set her sights higher.

“I decided to climb a mountain,” she said.

And not just any mountain, but Maine’s iconic Mount Katahdin, widely regarded among the more challenging hikes in the state.

“This is not about disabilities,” she said. “This is about unleashing the inner child, being a problem solver and not accepting ‘can’t.’”

Though she may be the first paraplegic to try to climb Katahdin, Lowman stresses that is not what the adventure is all about.

“This is not about this little paraplegic wanting to climb a mountain,” she said. “It’s about demonstrating very concretely anything is possible.”

Possible with the help and support of a great team, she said, whose members are putting in a lot of work and training before they even get near Baxter State Park.

Lowman has been working on her upper body strength so she can propel the wheelchair, which is outfitted with oversized mountainbike-like knobby tires, herself.

“I may not ever be a black belt in anything else, but I have worked my way up to using the black theraband,” she joked of her ability to complete upper body resistance training sessions using the large rubber band.

When the trail becomes impassible by wheelchair, Lowman’s “sherpas” will swing into action, placing her 100-pound, 5-foot frame into a modified backpack originally designed for carrying toddlers.

Working in shifts, the sherpas will carry Lowman as far as they safely can.

At other times, she will be transported by litter or in a specialized wheeled cart.

Lowman, who is personally funding the $5,000 expedition, said the team has reserved a seven-day block of days on the mountain to complete the three-day climb.

The group will hike to Chimney Pond on Day One and rest for at least a night, staying in the bunkhouse and in lean-to’s.

Day Two is a 3 a.m. push to the summit and return to Chimney Pond and Day Three they will hike back down the rest of the way.

Earlier this year Lowman met with Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell to discuss the logistics of the climb.

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with groups that are making unusual attempts to climb,” Bissell said Monday. “There are rules on group sizes and numbers at camp sites [but] we have talked to these folks and have been assured they will be mindful of the rules. I hope they are successful.”

Lowman said they also will be very sensitive to not interfere with other people hiking on the mountain.

In addition to the five “very strong” sherpas, Lowman said the 18-member team includes porters, a cook, a ropes expert, medical staff and a photographer.

“I got involved when [Lowman] first started talking about the possibility of such an endeavor,” said Lenny Cole, team ropes’ expert.

Cole will scout the trail ahead of Lowman and identify areas where belay or fixed ropes are needed to assist the person carrying the UMPI professor.

“I think this is a very doable venture,” Cole said. “Most people are capable of doing more than they feel they can accomplish [but] for whatever reason they are often unwilling to stretch their personal limits, be it physically, emotionally or socially.”

Everyone faces some sort of mountain at times, Lowman said, whether it’s real mountains like Katahdin or intangible personal challenges.

Beyond Limits, she said, is all about helping people find the tools and support needed to conquer their specific mountains.

UMPI student Chris Bowden will be documenting the climb with video and still photography.

“What she is doing is amazing,” Bowden said. “It’s almost overwhelming, but is Dr. J going to make it to the top? Of course she is. We will get her there.”

The climb also is serving as a fundraiser for Beyond Limits, which has a GoFundMe site online at www.GoFundMe.com/katahdinadventure.

Lowman would like to purchase additional adaptive recreational gear for Beyond Limits and see it grow into school and business programs that teach team building, problem solving and communication through recreational activities.

All of it, she said, is designed to show people that there are many different ways to get to the top of a mountain, and most require support and encouragement.

“I want this climb,” she said, “to be the ultimate message about hope.”

Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified Dr. Jacquelyn Lowman’s age, the month the climb will take place and where the proceeds raised will fund adaptive recreational gear.


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