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Volunteer made it SoFAR in his quest to help those with disabilities


Joel Johnston made it - reaching his physical destinations if not his financial goal - on his sojourn to help the cause of outdoor recreation for people with disabilities.

On June 3, the 60-year-old Regent Square man embarked on SoFAR, or his Sojourn Funding Adaptive Recreation, a month-long trip of 440-plus miles crisscrossing Western Pennsylvania by kayak, hiking shoes and bicycle. Johnston, a substitute school teacher who volunteers as a trip leader with nonprofit Venture Outdoors, decided to do bucket-list adventure in his home state to raise money to buy adaptive paddling equipment and train people to help people with disabilities use it.

Recently, he finished paddling down the Allegheny River from Freeport, the last of 10 water or land trails in his journey. He decided to stop at Venture Outdoors' new kayak rental spot at Aspinwall Riverfront Park rather than go all the way to the Point to avoid the crowds and traffic from the Kenny Chesney concert. He raised more than $6,200, not quite half of the $15,000 he'd hoped to raise via GoFundMe.com. But the site will continue to accept donations at gofundme.com/sofar2016.

He was lighter than he started, by about 20 pounds, and with more facial hair. But he was feeling pretty good.

"I'm glad I did southwestern Pennsylvania," he said. "There is some cool stuff here."

The trip had its literal ups and downs. At one downhill stretch there was a broken arm - that of his friend Bob Rock, who'd joined him to bike the West Penn Trail to Saltsburg. (Rock is doing fine, he says.)

Blisters caused Johnston to wear a pair of Crocs sandals while traversing the difficult Slippery Rock Gorge Trail, and that caused him to put on knee braces for the steep climbs and descents on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. He had to endure a good bit of rain. Ironically, one of the things the trip made him miss was water that he didn't have to filter before drinking. He also missed having ice.

"It was not a good time sometimes," he says.

But he also saw some beautiful scenery, lots of wildlife including bald eagles and red spotted newts, and met some beautiful people along the way. The "trail angels" who helped him included the Beaver County couple who not only let him camp in their yard but also had him in for dinner, drinks and breakfast. He also got assists from his friend and "trusty Sherpa," Geoff Suiters, who helped shuttle equipment.

Perhaps his favorite part was hiking the North Country National Scenic Trail from Parker to Moraine State Park with his wife of 30 years, Alice, and spending a couple of nights with her in the Davis Hollow Cabin. As he noted on a photo of them together that he tweeted from the trail, "Doing it with someone you love (is) priceless."

Donna Bour, Venture Outdoors' director of development and communications, said this was the first time someone took it upon himself or herself to do a fundraiser for the group like this. "We're thrilled with the amount," she said.

While he didn't raise as much money as he'd hoped, he said, "I think we did a lot better than some people thought we would do."

(c)2016 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at www.post-gazette.com.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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