Yukon's Indomitable Man
Darryl Tait was just 19 when he and his snowmobile crash-landed—the machine landing on top of the man—during an attempted back flip at a freestyle skills demonstration in New Hampshire in late 2009. Tait, who grew up in Atlin, Yellowknife, and Whitehorse, had been a young rising star in the sport, gunning to eventually compete in the Winter X Games. But the crash severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down, and his athletic future in jeopardy.
Tait had always been an athlete, riding snowboards, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, you name it—and he wasn’t going to stop now. After extensive surgery and months of rehab, he got back out in the trails as quickly as possible: by wheelchair, bike, snowmobile, and more.
This month, he’ll be in Greenland with Team Yukon, working as a judge for the Arctic Winter Games. We caught up to him to ask about his life as an extreme athlete in the North.
How did the judging gig at Arctic Winter Games come about? A few years ago I took a snowboard judging course—I was involved with that with Snowboard Yukon, doing some events, and then eventually did the Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse [in 2012]. And [this year] I just asked if there’s any opportunities to get involved in Greenland, and they said I can go. So that’s awesome.
Were you a big snowboarder before the accident? Yeah, I went to Arctic Winter Games in Kenai, Alaska  and Yellowknife , as well as Canada Winter Games in Whitehorse  and then a couple national competitions in Calgary and Vancouver.
What prompted you to get into judging? Just wanting to stay involved in the community? I used to compete, and just go out with an avid passion for snowboarding, but after my accident I wasn’t able to ride anymore. Somebody told me about judging and I thought that would be a great way to still see the sport and the progression, and keep involved.
Did I see a video of you test-driving an adaptive snowboard in a Facebook post a while ago? There was a person in a standing frame on a snowboard? That wasn’t me, that was a company that I thought was pretty cool.
It seems like adaptive sports are really growing, and a lot of possibilities are expanding. Oh, totally. Especially with technology the way it is nowadays. I feel like there’s a new outlook on people with disabilities—everyone’s able, it’s just a matter of buckling down and figuring out a way, and just doing it differently.
Are you working with younger kids who are doing adaptive sports? I’m part of WCMX, which is basically skateboarding in wheelchairs at the skate parks, so I’ve been involved with clinics where we teach younger kids how to ride skate parks in wheelchairs. We have a broad range of kids—they could be two, three years old all the way up to their early teens, learning how to jump in quarter pipes, and rip ramps, and jump off stairs.
Is that mainly happening down south? Mostly down south, in the States—Texas holds a world championship for it every year, in the spring, and there’s a couple [of events] out of California. It’s definitely a growing and evolving sport that’s starting to happen worldwide, and it would be great to have one up in the North but we don’t really have a whole range of adaptive athletes. I’ve done one in Vancouver – so there’s potential.
You’ve figured out ways to get back to a lot of your classic Yukon sports? Yep. Mountain biking, sit-skiing, riding my snowmobile adaptively.
Are you the only one doing that in the Yukon? There’s another guy, Devin [Brodhagen], he’s from Watson Lake. He races snowmobiles as a quadriplegic.
How does that work? In my case I’m a paraplegic, so I have full mobility in my arms and head, and him being a quad, he’s got loss of dexterity in his hands—so that’s why he can drag race: as long as he can punch the throttle and then grab the brake at the end of it, he’s pretty much good to go.
"It would be nice to be able to come apart from a 500-pound machine, since I’ve already been slammed by it once and caused a spinal cord injury."
And when you ride your sled, how does that work now? When I ride my sled, I have a custom modified seat that’s basically a go-kart seat, with a dirt-bike shock on the back of it that articulates on an axel that can go left and right, so I can bank in the corners better.
And for mountain biking, it’s a hand bike, I guess? Yeah, I have a three-wheeled trike, so it’s two wheels up front, one in the rear, powered by a hand-crank system to get around, and then as soon as you go to the downhill descents you just grab the handlebars and ride it like a downhill mountain bike.
Are there fat bikes yet? Actually the company that builds my bike just came out with a fat tire kit, and I’m super keen on getting into that so I can keep biking through the winter. Fat bikes are definitely trending in the North, and it looks like way too much fun to be sitting out on that.
I remember when you showed me some tricks at the skate park once, you strapped yourself into your chair and said that you’re safer in it than not. Is that the case when you’re doing these things too? For pretty much everything—to be more agile, I’m all strapped into all these devices. I’m definitely strapped into the snowmobile, but with some of the things I’m doing, it would be nice to be able to come apart from a 500-pound machine, since I’ve already been slammed by it once and caused a spinal cord injury. So, yeah—we’ve thought of having a roll cage around it because we can’t figure out how to have a release mechanism.
Are you developing this stuff yourself, figuring it out as you go? This doesn’t sound like it comes off the shelf. As far as the snowmobile, yeah—and just networking with other people who are looking to get into the sport too. But as far as the mountain bike, it’s built out of Poland... Most of the equipment, somebody’s doing it in the world, but as far as the snowmobiling, it’s not really a big sport for everyone. And mostly you can just jump on a sled and go, but since I want to be doing jumps and stuff we have to make those modifications.
So you’re doing some of your old tricks? Yeah. It’s been a couple years—I broke my pelvis last year so I wasn’t able to get out on a sled, and the year before I was in Hawaii, so I’m looking forward to getting back on a sled.
Is there anything, in terms of your sports you do up here, that you haven’t been able to get back to yet? I haven’t done it before, but I’m looking into doing it now—paragliding with [Whitehorse resident] Trevor Mead. He’s pretty keen on trying to get me paragliding so we’re just kind of networking and trying to figure out how to rig up a harness with the wheelchair and get me flying.
Had you done anything like that before the accident? No, never. My dad’s the pilot—he flies everything. When he was a teenager he was doing hang gliders, and eventually got into aviation, and flying planes, and now helicopters. So he’s definitely the pilot, and I kind of just flew things off the ground—but now, seeing that, and after skydiving one time, it just seems to give a whole new freedom. The chair doesn’t exist when you’re flying around in the air.
Did you ever think about moving south after your accident, where there are more facilities, more infrastructure, and a larger network of adaptive athletes? Lots of people pushed for it and encouraged it, but my heart’s in the North—I love it, I love the people, and I love the freedom of going out your back door and feeling like you’re in the middle of nowhere. That’s what keeps me here. It’s a hard place to leave once you’ve grown up and lived there most of your life. You go to the big city and you feel all confined and restricted—“I’ve gotta go how many hours out of town to do this? It only took me two minutes at home.”
AWG doesn’t have any adaptive categories, does it? No, they don’t. That was one of my first questions when I first came home from rehab, was to see if I could still [compete], depending on my age. I wasn’t sure if they’d allow me to ski in the Arctic Winter Games as an adaptive athlete, but then I was older and they didn’t really provide that. Maybe in the future. That would be awesome to have adaptive classes in the Arctic Winter Games.
Is there anything you’d like to see change up here? [Whitehorse is] an older town, so some of the buildings, how you enter them—Main Street alone, half the stores I can’t even get into because they’re mostly step in and step out. I can make it happen, but it’s definitely not an easy process. Working on accessibility, bringing awareness to make other people’s lives easier—not even just for [people with] disabilities but for the elderly, too. Because people who love the North want to stay in the North. I love showing people down south how much fun I have up North, even living with the disability, saying: it can happen.
Edited and condensed.