Yukon adventurer Shawn Kitchen can challenge your neighbourhood alley cat on number of close-calls survived. He’s been shot at by Zapatistas, skidded on a motorcycle through a busy intersection in Luxor, Egypt, and even been swept under a fearsome logjam on a river. And then, as an avid paraglider, he’s been strung up on power lines and knocked down by thunderstorms. He’s even been mowed over by a semi-truck on the highway.
Yet the man lives on.
“I don’t know why I’ve had so many near-death experiences,” says Kitchen. “Like so much else in life, it’s a mystery.”
One thing’s for sure: it’s not because Kitchen lacks judgment, intellect or experience. Since 2001, he’s flown his paraglider on over 1,200 flights and, until recently, held the unofficial national free distance record. His 245-kilometre soar from Whitehorse to north of Pelly Crossing in 2015, for instance, required the sharpest high-altitude acumen to accomplish. “I have always taken a cautious and calculated approach to high-risk adventure,” he explains.
Kitchen has been carrying lucky charms in his pocket since childhood. As a three-year-old boy, he survived a near-drowning in a public swimming pool. At 10, he dangled from a suspension bridge over a waterfall before finally righting himself. Then, in his twenties, a bus ride through the hills of Chiapas, Mexico, brought him face-to-face with a Zapatista’s bullet. The thick window glass miraculously rerouted the bullet off-course from his head. Later, in Egypt, the faulty front brakes of a borrowed motorcycle sent him skidding through a busy Luxor intersection, narrowly missing any collisions. A few years later, paddling on the Yukon’s challenging Kathleen River, his canoe flipped, pinning him under an enormous logjam. Grabbing one huge breath, he pushed off and successfully swam clear under the tangle of woody debris—unscathed.
In 2001, he learned how to paraglide. One summer day, early in his career, Kitchen flew from Whitehorse to Carcross, the first time that flight had been accomplished. High in the air, he continued on toward Crag Lake and noticed a big storm building in the distance. “At the time, I was naive. I thought I could go around it,” he recalls. “But then the cell unleashed.” Hit by a massive gust front, Kitchen started flying backwards. He had two options: crash on Crag Lake and potentially drown, or crash in the forest and maybe break his body.
Choosing the latter, he crashed through the canopy, legs-first. “It was just like snap, snap, snap, snap, snap,” he says. “Then I bang up against a tree and grab it, and I’m like, ‘I’m OK.’” After falling to the ground, uninjured, Kitchen bushwhacked out to the Tagish Highway in the pouring rain to hitchhike. Picked up by drunk drivers, Shawn’s trial continued. “They’re swerving all the way to town and I’m like, ‘I’m going to die inside this vehicle.’”
A few years later, he danced with death again. While attempting to land just outside of Whitehorse, the sun was glaring in such a way that he could not see the power lines in his path. Kitchen found himself dangling a mere eight feet off the ground, watching the connector explode on the nearest pole. “There were two lines, one above the other, but luckily I only hit one,” he says. “Had I hit two, I would have created a circuit and electrocuted myself.”
A few years ago, his personal guardian angel made another showing when his wing suddenly collapsed and he dropped 30 feet out of the sky. He could have badly broken himself or died if it weren’t for the soft branches of a spruce and a deep pile of soft snow to break his fall.
Then, in the summer of 2016, Kitchen had the mother-of-all freak accidents. But this time, he got hurt.
Flying tandem with his girlfriend out of Jake’s Corner, 100 kilometres south of Whitehorse, they were coming in to make a routine landing on an old airstrip beside the Alaska Highway when something went wrong. His wing collapsed from thermic turbulence and they began to spiral 50 feet out of the sky straight down toward the highway. Moments before crashing to their death, a semi-truck travelling over 100-kilometres-per-hour caught the glider across its windshield and swung the pair on their lines around to smash into the side of the cargo trailer. “The funny thing about the semi-truck is that ironically it actually saved our lives,” says Kitchen. “Essentially, the glider took the brunt of the kinetic energy.” Though not without injury: Kitchen hit his head and his girlfriend badly injured her leg. A year-and-a-half later, he’s still healing from his traumatic brain injury, off work and likely retiring the paraglider.
“Apparently, I didn’t learn any lessons until I actually badly injured myself,” he says. “Now my whole life has been turned upside down.”