Jackson Gray received his Miami University diploma in May and headed to Austin, Texas two weeks ago to begin a job and his life after college.
In addition to a carload of items he took with him for his new life, Gray also took a headful of memories, including the suicide of a high school friend and a rowing trip of the entire length of the Ohio River in answer to that tragedy.
Gray and two others took a kayak and a canoe and traveled the 981 miles of the river from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois last summer. The trip took 41 days.
Gray paddled a canoe with Tyler Brezina, who will be a junior at Bowling Green State University this fall, while Quenton Couch, a 2017 Miami graduate, used a kayak for the trip.
“It was one of the most life-changing events in my life, the amount of energy to pull people in. We thought if we raised a couple grand, it would be good,” Gray said of the fundraising part of the effort. “It was a great adventure, one of the hardest things I’ve done.”
Gray and Brezina are graduates of Canton McKinley High School, two years apart but when Gray was a sophomore at Miami, he learned of the suicide of a high school friend, James Halley, and wanted to do something to educate people about suicide.
He took part in a 150-mile “Paddle for Prevention” trip on the Ohio River in 2016 which started at the beginning of the river but ended in West Virginia. Wanting to do more, the idea of paddling the entire length of the river came into focus.
With help from interns in the Farmer School of Business, Gray put together a fundraising plan and a social media presence. Their goal was to raise $10,000, with $7,000 going to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The rest would cover their costs for the trip.
The AFSP calls suicide the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with 44,193 Americans dying by suicide each year.
Couch, a Ross High School graduate, overheard Gray talking about the trip in the Bagel & Deli one night and became interested in making the journey after graduation and before starting a job.
Sabrina Jewell heard about the effort and became their advisor.
“She put me to work to practice,” Gray said. He spoke to any group who would listen to him, and money began coming in faster than he had expected. “Before I knew it, we were half done, then three-quarters done by the river (departure).”
Gray estimates 30 of the 40 nights were spent camping by the side of the river, which meant lugging equipment uphill after a hard day of paddling, making dinner and many nights posting an update to their Facebook page before going to sleep.
They did have some breaks. One night, they were offered the opportunity to sleep in an air-conditioned RV. In Cincinnati, they took a day off to attend a Reds baseball game and spent the night with a friend.
One night, they were met by people who had been following them on social media for a year as they prepared. They paddled and invited them to camp in their yard rather than by the side of the river. Another night, they got to sleep under the stars on the two-story deck of a home.
Gray said they spoke to people they met about the reason for their trip and often heard comments like, “What you are doing means the world to us.”
One evening, they paddled across the river to camp on the other side after a long 35-mile day, but people there warned them the other side might be safer, so they re-crossed the river to set up camp under an overpass.
“We definitely looked homeless toward the end. Some guys came up and asked if we were squatters,” Gray said. “The neat thing is we got to see a new town every day.”
He said they tried to stay together, but the kayak was faster since the canoe carried two people and 200 pounds of equipment.
“I lost 26 pounds. I initially gained weight to get ready for the trip and was at 201 pounds. I got down to 176. We paddled all day and hauled 200 pounds of stuff, then get out of the boat and carry it. We burned more calories than we could ever take in,” he said. “The first night, it took two hours to set up, but by the end we were a well-oiled machine. We could set up and (tear) down in 15 minutes.”
After dark they would play word-association games, listen to music or just talk before sleeping.
Gray said he came to college hoping to do “outdoorsy stuff,” like skydiving, but the Ohio River trip taught him to believe in himself.
He takes his college experience into the work world with a job at Arrive Logistics, a freight broker in Austin, Texas, after earning his degree in civic and regional development. He had worked with the Fort Hamilton Foundation and the City of Oxford as a student.
Couch is living in Chicago, and Brezina returns to BGSU this fall studying aviation management.
Gray begins his post-college life with a positive outlook gained from his Miami experiences.
“In college, I learned a lot about myself. I can do whatever I put my mind to if I prepare. I set my mind to a goal and nothing can keep me from it,” he said. Reflecting on the 41-day trip, he said, “A lot went down. My girlfriend of five years broke up with me. Tyler’s parents divorced. I almost cut my toe off and had a bad reaction to the antibiotics. If it were not for the cause, we would have quit, but it was not about us.”