Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age students. According to the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) database, this statistic has held true every year since 2011. This summer, three young men hope to do something about the growing incidence of suicide — by paddling all 981 miles of the Ohio River.

Jackson Gray of Canton, Ohio was only months into his freshman year at Clarion University of Pennsylvania when, in October 2014, he received a devastating phone call: his best friend, James Halley, had killed himself. Halley was 18 years old and attended the University of Akron. He and Gray had been friends since sixth grade.

“When I lost my best friend, I knew I wanted to do something, “ Gray said. “But I never knew what.”

Before he could puzzle out a plan, he had to adjust to a new environment after transferring at the end of the semester to Miami University, where he is now a junior civic and regional development major.

It would take Gray a year and a half after Halley’s death to formulate his idea. He had found the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in his research and saw that they sponsored walks to raise awareness and funds for suicide prevention. But Gray wanted to do something bigger than a walk to commemorate Halley.

In November 2015, Gray was working a late-night shift at Bagel & Deli in uptown Oxford when a customer came in and started talking with his boss about a 50-mile canoe trip they were going on.

That sounds like an adventure, Gray thought. After he clocked out, he went home and researched the logistics of such an endeavor until six in the morning. Suddenly, things clicked: he could use this adventure to raise awareness for suicide and create a positive impact.

That was the night Race the River 2017 began to take shape.

The project was too big for any one person to tackle alone. Gray invited Tyler Brezina, a friend from his high school swim team, to join him. Brezina, a student at Bowling Green State University, was also friends with Halley.

Brezina recalled a night at Gray’s house when Gray told him that he wanted to do something for Halley, “something that would make an impact.” He then pitched Brezina his idea to canoe the Ohio River and create a national campaign through AFSP.

“From that moment, I was sold,” said Brezina.

In January, Quinton Couch, a diplomacy and global politics major at Miami, was added to team as a kayaker. He works with Gray at Bagel and Deli and was drawn to his cause.

“My life and people I know have been impacted by mental health [issues],” stated Couch.

On Sunday, May 21, the three will set off from Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, where the Ohio River begins. In 40 days, they will paddle 981 miles west to Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi River. To keep pace, they will have to travel 25 to 30 miles per day.

It’s a race against time, and the river is more of an obstacle course than a track.

The Ohio River has a system of 20 locks and dams operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The locks are like water elevators; by raising or lowering the water level in a chamber, the vessel is raised or lowered to the water level on the other side of the gate. These aren’t a concern to Gray, who said that the process is usually very smooth.

He also isn’t worried about large cargo boats, which are easy to spot and move slowly. The canoe and kayak can navigate around by sticking closer to the shallow banks that barges and towboats can’t travel in. The trio will only be traveling in the daylight; at night, they will be camping at sites outlined in an Ohio River guidebook.

A little rain isn’t going to stop them either. Seaview Outfitters has partnered with Race the River 2017 and provided them with Columbia rain gear. In the case of hazardous weather conditions, they will wait on the riverbank for the storm to pass. Miami University’s Outdoor Pursuit Center is lending them top-of-the-line life jackets, along with the canoe, kayak and paddles.

According to Jim Noel, the Service Coordination Hydrologist at the Ohio River Forecast Center, the river is navigable throughout thanks to the implementation of the locks and dams, which help maintain the water levels.

“Unless it gets extremely dry or extremely wet, in general things are pretty good during the summertime along the Ohio River,” said Noel. Due to the late winter and wet spring this year, there is plenty of water in the reservoirs to supply water along the Ohio River for canoeing, he added.

Noel also predicted that rainfall will be slightly below the normal summer levels of three-quarters of an inch to one inch per week, but it’s not uncommon in the Ohio River Valley to see a few weeks without any rain and then experience a two or three week stretch with double the normal rainfall.

The team isn’t taking the demands of navigating the river lightly. Last July, Gray and Brezina went on a training trip and canoed 150 miles in five days. All three have been conditioning for the trip with an intense daily exercise regimen.

When Gray, Brezina, and Couch arrive in Cairo, they will reportedly be the youngest men in history to complete the Ohio River at 21, 19, and 22, respectively. Gray doesn’t view the achievement as a path to personal glory, but as a way to bring more awareness to suicide prevention.

“The biggest part of our project has just been meeting people [and] starting that conversation about suicide, because suicide’s not an easy subject to talk about,” said Gray. He hopes that Race the River 2017 will send a message to all those struggling with mental illness: “There are people out there fighting every day for you. You’ve just got to take it one step at a time.”

Race the River 2017’s goal is to raise $7,000 for AFSP. They also hope to raise $3,000 towards river expenses, such as food and gear, through a GoFundMe page. Bagel and Deli has partnered with this initiative by donating one dollar towards trip funds for every Stacy’s Mom bagel sold.

More information and updates on Race the River 2017 can be found on their Twitter (@RaceTheRiver17) and Facebook page or by emailing Jackson Gray at graytj3@miamoh.edu.

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