During a snowy day in February in South Anchorage, Ira Edwards uses a built-in crane to remove his wheelchair from the cab of his Chevy Silverado. The vehicle is hard to miss around town with its large Rossignol logo wrapping around the truck's body. Edwards has come to Goldenview Middle School to run a ski waxing demo for the cross country team.
"Waxing is the least important thing about going fast. Waxing is behind your fitness, your technique, having properly fitted skis, having the right structure on your base," Edwards says to a group of teenage skiers. "Wax is the last thing to help you guys go fast."
Demos and lectures before young skiers are a few of Edwards' many community outreach efforts. A Palmer native, Edwards is known within numerous circles for his many passions, including skiing, gardening, fishing, canning, home-brewing and coaching. Clearly, Edwards is the epitome of a Type A personality, and the 40-year-old says he needs two of him and 30 hours in the day to get all the things he does, done.
His output is prolific despite challenges few of us encounter. Edwards is paralyzed.
'Pretty bummed out'
One November day in 2010, Edwards was cutting a tree as part of his work as an Alaska State Parks ranger. The tree fell the wrong way and hit him across his jaw and back.
"I knew right away ... that I had broken my back. All of a sudden I couldn't move or feel my feet," Edwards says. Lying facedown in the snow at minus 10 degrees, stranded a mile back in the woods, Edwards and his crew had to wait more than an hour for EMT paramedics to arrive and transport him to the hospital. After a month in the intensive-care unit, Edwards was moved to Denver for rehabilitation. It was a long, slow recovery, but over the past five years Edwards was driven to get back to living fully again, which meant getting back to being exceptionally productive.
"I was pretty bummed out for a while," he says. "Obviously, it's a life-changing experience. And I know it's horrible to say, but when I was in the hospital, there were a lot of people that were a lot worse off than me. … So no matter how bad I felt, someone had it worse, so I was very thankful for what I had left."
Gardening, fishing, hunting, sewing, cooking
Edwards started snowboarding in junior high and got into skiing through the Palmer High School running program. He was a cross-country ski racer in high school and college, and after college in 1998 raced for Rossignol semiprofessionally.
Edwards has coached little kids, Junior Nordic and high school students since 1996. "Teaching people is fun, seeing the joy on other people's faces," says Edwards. In March he sat patiently in the stadium at Kincaid Park during a Ski 4 Kids event, with adaptive nordic gear he brought for the kids to try out. Edwards' thinking is that if able-bodied youths try out sit-skis and understand that it's just a different way to slide on the snow, they might encourage their disabled friends to give it a whirl.
Growing up in the Mat-Su, Edwards' family didn't have much money -- but everyone was resourceful. Edwards participated in 4-H Club, gardening, and learned to fish and hunt. Other skills he acquired along the way included sewing, cooking and canning. I've "always lived that survivalist mentality," he says.
Today, Edwards sees his spinal cord injury as a setback, not a game-changer. He remains full of enthusiasm for his many hobbies and invites friends along on his recreational pursuits.
"It was a huge change in my life both mentally and physically. I went through a pretty painful divorce after getting out of the hospital," Edwards says. "But life is good again." He's maintained some childhood friendships, has made numerous new friends and has his trusty sidekick -- an 11-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever named Chase -- by his side.
"Every year I get to do more and more things I used to do," he said. "It's just a matter of figuring out how to do them."
Since his injury, Edwards has returned to Mount Alyeska, carving turns on his sit-ski and competing in races. He fishes the Kenai River from his boat and has taken up pressing homemade apple cider.
He has also become active doing community outreach, working with Challenge Alaska, the adaptive ski program at Alyeska, and his nonprofit "Team Gimp Squad," which donates time and equipment to the Anchorage School District. Edwards visits with hospital patients who have recently become paraplegics to show them that not only does life goes on, it can be fun and fulfilling. His motivational talks on the positive power of sport in overcoming adversity can be an inspiration.
His latest project? RoosterSkier Brand Beard and Mustache Products — homemade hair-care products made with recipes he has cultivated over the past decade using Alaska-sourced ingredients. All RoosterSkier profits go to Team Gimp Squad to help other paraplegics get back to living active, healthy lives.
Tara Young is an Alaska Dispatch News video journalist.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing