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Taking the scenic route: CentraCare physician paddles to work

Published in For the Health of It, Exercise Author: Alexander Schad,MD Author: Alexander J. Schad, MD

Like many St. Cloud Hospital employees, nephrologist Alexander J. Schad, MD, commutes about 15 minutes from his home. But his includes the only whitewater rapids on the Mississippi River. And he needs an extra large parking space once he arrives.

Dr. Schad is an outdoor enthusiast who doesn’t slow down when the Minnesota weather gets cold. We recently sat down with him to talk about his experiences and how he uses them with his patients.

Q: How long have you been paddling to work at the St. Cloud Hospital?

Dr. Schad: I’ve been paddling to work regularly for about four years. I start as soon as the ice melts and continue until things freeze up.

Q: How long does it take you to paddle downstream to work? And how about the trip upriver back home?

Dr. Schad: It takes me about 10 minutes of paddling time to get to work, plus 5-10 minutes to walk up from the river and to get changed. About the same time as if I were to drive.

Paddling home is a little more work and usually takes around 20 minutes — depending on how high the water is. There are a couple small rapids I have to negotiate coming upstream by paddling hard and trying to tuck into eddies behind rocks.

Q. How long have you been paddling?

Dr. Schad: I started going on trips to the Boundary Waters when I was 7. As a freshman in high school, I paddled the same stretch of a river in a big yellow kayak. I participated in Les Voyageurs on a month-long Canadian Canoe expedition at age 16 and guided trips for Les Voyageurs for two summers in my early 20s. I have been a fairly regular paddler since then. For several years I was more intensely into whitewater kayaking but as I’ve aged prefer the mellower adventures. I’m enjoying teaching my kids to paddle, continuing the family tradition of a week-long canoe trip at age 7 for each of them.

Q: What other outdoor activities are you involved in?

Dr. Schad: I’m an avid cyclist and runner. Last year, I also started swimming regularly. I have several triathlons and 100-mile gravel bike races planned for this summer.

I also enjoy sailing and I have a 13-foot cedar-planked lapstrake sailboat which I built with a friend of mine while in medical school and residency. It took about four years to build. We cut down the trees for this boat ourselves.

Q. Your canoe also is a handmade boat. What is its story?

Dr. Schad: My friend with whom I built my sailboat works with at risk youth in St Paul at an organization called Urban Boatbuilders and I purchased it from them. The nylon “skin” is stretched over steam bent oak ribs which are lashed together. The nylon is extremely tough and the boat weighs only 20 pounds. I brought my daughter to the Boundary Waters in this boat.

Q. What activities do you enjoy when the weather gets cold?

Dr. Schad: In the winter, I continue to ride my fat tire bike and I also do some skiing and running.

Q. Working in nephrology, you care for patients who have kidney diseases or kidney failure. Are you ever able to share your outdoor experiences with patients?

Dr. Schad: I often tell patients about paddling to work. I ask the hospital patients to watch for me out the windows. Discussing the outdoors and my interests often helps me to connect with my patients on a more personal level. Many patients ask me if I’m still paddling whenever they see me.

Q. Whenever you hear someone say that they don’t have time to exercise, what’s your reaction?

Dr. Schad: I counsel patients on the importance of maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle and I try to be a role model. I do feel I have more credibility discussing this if I’m actually following my own advice. Life is stressful and free time is difficult to find but developing routines and finding those 20 to 30 minute opportunities is helpful. Since I’ve started swimming at 5:45 a.m. twice a week, I’ve felt great and I feel I have more energy throughout my day.

Q. What would you tell others who aren’t familiar with the area about the outdoor activities available in Central Minnesota?

Dr. Schad: There are great opportunities here. Locally, there are several swimming, running and cycling clubs with some incredible athletes and a great sense of community. The variety of local races are great fun. The natural resources from the local lakes to the Mississippi River to the rolling plains around St. Cloud provide lots of adventure.

Q. What is the strangest thing you’ve seen when paddling on the Mississippi River?

Dr. Schad: I’ve retrieved two basketballs this year. And last year, I found a picnic table.

Q. Have you ever fallen in? Do you keep a dry set of clothes in your office?

Dr. Schad: Early this year, the banks were covered with ice and I attempted to sled in my canoe down into the river. But, it was a bit too shallow for this and I suddenly stopped at the bottom and my canoe tipped. I did not go completely in, but I soaked my shoes and pants pretty well. On windy days, I will sometimes take a wave over the bow. I generally change into dress clothes when I get to work and I keep a couple pair of pants and a new pair of shoes in the office. I have been a little frightened on high wind days but I’m pretty confident in my canoeing abilities and do not really anticipate that I’ll have to swim. I do wear my life jacket though.