Kayaking for Cancer covers 73 miles, raises $25,500

SPARKSVILLE — Some 15 members of Team Toby — cousins, friends, wife Samantha, son Chase and daughter Olivia — stood cheering and waving from a tall bridge across the East Fork White River.

Some chanted “To-by!”

Toby Stigdon was on the final stretch of a 73-mile kayak ride, dipping his paddle, left, right, left, right, exhausted, but still flexing with economy of arm motion with his 230 pounds and with a smile.

Stigdon tilted his head back in the kayak to look up at them all with the finish line in sight just beyond. Bright sunshine lighted spots on the water surface a glittering diamond-like and the cool breeze felt gentler. It was a freeze-time moment.

Soon after, Stigdon and paddling partners were off of the water on dry land again. After sitting hours daily since early morning, Stigdon’s first steps were a stumble — right into hugs of well-wishers.

“I am wore out,” Stigdon said. “I am ready to do it again — next year.”

If he is healthy and able. Stigdon, 43, a 1998 graduate of Seymour High School who lives in Columbus, is a man living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and he cannot bank on next year, even with determination and spirit, medical aid and prayers of area supporters.

To see him in public paddling a kayak and raising money for a good cause, Stigdon seems to be coping well. He tries to be strong for his family, but sometimes alone, he cries for himself. Then he goes on.

Part outdoors adventure, part charitable endeavor, what was supposed to be a 66-mile kayak trip from Columbus through Seymour, Brownstown and Medora to Sparksville, according to one website measuring stick, turned out to be 73 miles, and Stigdon would like to have a few words with those map-makers.

What was originally intended in August to raise $6,600, Kayaking for Cancer has raised $25,500 for the Schneck Foundation in Seymour. Donations arrived from around Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Colorado and South Carolina. It might more aptly have been called Kayaking Against Cancer.

None of the money goes to Stigdon, who says he has sufficient medical coverage. All of it goes to Schneck to assist patients at the Don and Dana Myers Cancer Center with bills, transportation, food or other needs.

“I am in awe of what he has accomplished,” said Stephanie Flinn, executive director of the foundation. “He said, ‘I just want to help the patients.’ There are not many people in his situation who would be so focused on everyone else. It’s never about him.”

In one sense. In another, Kayaking for Cancer has been all about Stigdon. It happened, it existed because of his May 2021 diagnosis of poorly differentiated thyroid cancer that spread and created tumors in his lungs.

He is fighting, 40 pounds trimmer and athletically in better shape, taking certain radioactive iodine treatments and medication and spreading the story of those suffering with cancer who face financial difficulties.

Based on doctors’ statements, there is a vague finish line to Stigdon’s lifespan. But as in the paddle, there may be some turns lengthening the route.

Starting out

Stigdon dreamed up a kayak paddle, as opposed to a running race, walking event, bicycle ride or anything else, to highlight the world’s — not his own — struggle against cancer. It best fit him because he loves the outdoors and loves being on the water.

He and cousins B.J. Strong and J.R. Strong shared many childhood outdoors activities, especially fishing and camping, but Stigdon only became enamored with kayaking the last few years.

Since he has inconsistent strength, he figured he could make the alleged 66-mile journey with their help and decided rounding up 100 people contributing $66 each for a worthy cause was not too much to ask.

By last Thursday evening’s kickoff party at Upland Pump House in Columbus, things had mushroomed. Stigdon’s promotional flyers had been distributed way beyond the neighborhood. B.J. even wore a T-shirt featuring the same design as the flyer. Corporations donated more than the minimum, and a check for $2,500 from Centra Credit Union was revealed at the party.

Others wanted to accompany Stigdon. Levi Stigdon, Toby’s brother, was in. Brandon Brewer, another cousin, wanted to go. Greg Foley and Rex Thompson, both of whom live in Columbus but work in Seymour, were in.

Deliberate in his speaking, Stigdon, who has worked as an activity director at senior citizens homes, attended Indiana State University, where he met Samantha. They married 15 years ago.

Flinn believes Stigdon’s sincerity comes across to people.

“I have said multiple times Toby has impacted so many people with his unselfishness,” Flinn said.

Thompson, 57, described himself as a kayaking addict, whose longest paddle is 80 miles on the Current River in Missouri. He works for Cummins in Seymour and saw the flyer.

Foley, 52, works for Bob Poynter GM in Seymour and said the dealership digital marquee advertising Stigdon’s paddle hooked him.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to be part of that,’” he said.

Perhaps 100 people appeared at the party to greet the paddlers. Stigdon, who developed a slogan, “Sharing and Caring,” for the quest to raise $6,600, said, “From there, it went crazy.”

“This means the world to me,” he told the crowd. “Thank you for sharing and caring.”

The game plan, modified slightly, called for Stigdon and his cousins to put into the water just before dark and paddle a mile to a sandbar to camp. Daily pausing at dark from paddling, camping and fishing were scheduled, expanding the outdoor activities.

There were two worries. Temperatures were forecast to drop to the 30s overnight. Also, the water level was low, and no one wanted to be hopping on and off the river to portage.

By the time Stigdon thanked supporters, night was falling fast. As Stigdon took his first strokes on the river in downtown Columbus, he shouted back to the watchers, “See you in three days.”

On the river

The first night camping, Stigdon and the Strongs spent more time talking about old times in the outdoors than sleeping.

“Just a lot of reminiscing,” Stigdon said.

They only got about three hours sleep. Good thing they took advantage. Not much farther down the river, both Strongs were headed home. B.J.’s kayak dumped twice. He lost supplies and his phone and may have hurt ribs. J.R. injured his right knee and needed a cane to walk. Brewer exited. Brother Levi made the call not to go because he has an artificial hip and doesn’t do well in cold.

Thompson kept track of progress on a GPS, and the group advanced 27 miles. The second day, when they saw 26 miles registered, they wondered about the original math.

As some paddlers stopped, Chrissy Wicks, 43, a friend of Thompson’s from Evansville, joined in at Brownstown.

“I lost my dad to cancer,” she gave as motivation for her involvement.

One day, supporters caught up, delivering peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and homemade chili, but Stigdon said he ate mostly a lot of beef jerky. He caught a couple of fish, but the real angler was Foley, who brought in 20 smallmouth bass, one estimated at 2 pounds.

“A monster,” Foley termed it.

On the last night camping, Stigdon, Thompson and Foley talked about the future of Kayaking for Cancer. They all wanted to do it again, maybe on a different route, maybe with shorter segments so some could come along for something like 5-mile stretches instead of going all of the way.

Just maybe, Stigdon said, fundraising will catch on in an even bigger way, and Hoosiers might donate $50,000.


It was 32 degrees and frost coated everything Sunday morning when the crew rose for the last paddle.

However, only once were the kayakers forced to climb out of the river, and it was not for low water but because a fallen tree blocked the way.

The biggest obstacle on the last day was wind blowing into paddlers’ faces as they negotiated the river. They slowed to 1 mph for a time. But they finished kayaking at 3:45 p.m. in Sparksville, pretty much on schedule, ready to adjourn for another party at Perry Street Tavern in Medora.

When Stigdon stepped ashore, Samantha gave him a big hug and said, “You did it, baby.”

Son Chase, 13, presented a handmade necklace he and sister Olivia, 8, made. The siblings gathered shells along the White River while their dad paddled and manufactured a commemorative piece of jewelry.

Chase linked the necklace around Stigdon’s neck. The bottom shell facing out was inscribed “Kayaking for Cancer 2022.”