Photo submitted Eric Jessiman stands next to his kayak along the Erie Canal.
By CAROLINE MURRAY
Seventy-four-year-old Eric Jessiman is raising awareness for autism, one paddle at a time.
In his bright red kayak, Jessiman's goal is to paddle the length of the Erie and Champlain canals, while educating people about autism and raising money for future research.
This past Saturday, Jessiman cruised down the Mohawk River past Amsterdam's Lock 11, with a paddle in his hands and his black labrador by his side.
"We are calling it 'Buffalo to Burlington & Beyond,'" Jessiman said as he was getting ready to leave Lock E-14 in Canajoharie, where he was docked Thursday night.
Jessiman is a resident of Burlington, Vt. He said his 44-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and her son, Christopher, were recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome -- an autism spectrum disorder.
Although Jessiman would like to have a kayaking companion -- other than his dog-- he said paddling the 1,000 miles solo gives him the opportunity to think about his daughter's situation.
Jessiman said for the majority of Elizabeth's life, her family was unaware of the disability and she was unknowingly coping with complications on her own.
He said Elizabeth has not had the best social life, struggled throughout college, and is in the process of changing careers.
"It has been a difficult journey for my daughter; that is what I am reflecting on. I think it will ease the tension between the both of us," Jessiman said.
With his family in mind, Jessiman will continue to spread awareness of autism and Asperger's syndrome with people he meets along the waterway. Such as the 35-year-old man he met last week while kayaking, who ended up traveling with Jessiman for a portion of his route.
Jessiman said the man had a Mohawk hair cut and was "covered in tattoos," but opened up to him about his personal battle with the disability.
"There has not been a person that does not know someone or has a relative with the affliction," he said. "He could relate to what I was saying."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
He said the disorder is prevalent, and the research is still in its infancy.
Another goal of his journey is to raise money for the cause.
Supporters can visit his website, www.paddlingforautism.com, to donate funds or order a t-shirt.
He hopes to raise more than $1,500 by the end of his trip.
Jessiman said his traveling expenses are roughly $2,000 to $3,000, but none of the money raised will compensate for the cost.
He and his wife Marilynn are funding their traveling expenses.
Although he is paddling solo, Jessiman said his family is driving ahead of him in a mobile home. He sleeps in the camper at night with whichever family member is along for the ride. Wife Marilynn updates their Facebook page, "Paddling for Autism," with her husband's successes and battles with the weather.
Attached to his kayak is a mast, which has a sail attached to it with his own autism awareness symbol branded on it.
As he traverses through each dam, Jessiman pays attention to the cities and towns surrounding the locks.
"You are paddling through history and seeing different topography," he said. "It has been a wonderful trip."
Jessiman spoke Thursday, 300 miles into his expedition, with 700 miles to go. He planned to dock at Riverlink Park in Amsterdam Saturday and enjoy lunch by the river.
Jessiman is a sailor at heart. In 1968, he made his first trip through the Erie and Champlain canals by boat -- he was 28 at the time.
For the past two years, he said he fantasized about making the excursion again, in honor of his daughter and his grandson.
And he was finally able to this year.
"It didn't work out last year, but I am 74, dammit, and I am going to get it done," he said.