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The Remarkable Gary Arbaugh

The prodigious runner and water-skier is redirecting his energy after receiving two difficult diagnoses

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Gary Arbaugh has led a remarkable life. He worked in sales at TV and radio stations for more than 30 years in the Boise area, and has become a recognizable face around town to business owners, charities, runners and many others.

Arbaugh made the most of his life during his career, and he was looking forward to throwing himself into his hobbies during retirement. Then things changed. In 2015, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. The diseases have altered his mobility in many ways, but even after the diagnosis, he continued to be as active as physically possible.

"It started about four years ago. I was diagnosed with Parkinson's, I had to sell my motorcycles, I didn't have balance any more. I was getting along pretty well with Parkinson's there for a couple years, I was taking about 10 exercise classes a week, which is good for Parkinson's. I was boxing, yoga, Tai Chi, weight training. I was really working out hard," he said. "And then I stumbled going into the house and broke my leg in three places."

After several months of suffering with a broken leg that wouldn't heal, Arbaugh finally went back to the doctor.

"They said 'the reason it won't heal up is because you've got cancer,'" he explained.

Arbaugh was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer.

"So I've got two diseases that don't go together well—I've got Parkinson's that makes you stumble and fall down, and then I've got the blood disease that weakens your bones," he said. "Not a good combination to have."

GARY ARBAUGH
  • Gary Arbaugh

The limited mobility was especially tough for Arbaugh, who had led an active life over the years racing sailboats, motorcycles, horses and on foot. He has run the Race to Robie Creek 13 times, the Sawtooth Relay nine times and Mount Hood to the Coast twice.

"I was just running to get into shape, so I started doing Robie Creek," he said. "I got hooked up with a bunch of guys and we started doing relays. We did every one of the Sawtooth Relays when they were from Boise to Stanley. I've done two Hood Coasts, which is Mount Hood to the Coast. I've done Rainier to the Coast. I've done Jasper to Banff up in Canada—the grizzly bear capital of the world.

Arbaugh's favorite race moments include running across the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of the night and being chased off the course by a grizzly bear during that Canadian relay.

He has also received notoriety for water skiing 861 weeks in a row (every week between 1999 and 2016). Most of those weeks were done out at Lucky Peak, but because of vacation, "I had to ski in Hawaii and Mexico and Grand Cayman, [as well as] back east a few times," Arbaugh said.

"I've actually had to hire guys to clean the snow off the ramp so I could get the boat in [at Lucky Peak]. If Lucky Peak is frozen like it has been I'd go down to Marsing: The Snake River never freezes."

Because he was always down at Lucky Peak on New Year's Day, Arbaugh got the idea 17 years ago to help others—and he and his wife decided to start the Polar Bear Challenge, benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"We were going to be up there skiing anyways, so we decided, 'let's go talk to Make-A-Wish,'" he said.

The 2020 Polar Bear Challenge will be the 17th year of the fundraiser, which brought out approximately 300 participants in 2019 and has raised an average of $35,000 a year for the foundation.

Arbaugh water skied during the Polar Bear Challenge nearly every year, but "now I just wade in."

For the last decade, Arbaugh has also run a neighborhood-wide (outdoor) Boise State Broncos watch party during every away football game, and an average of 75 people show up to each event.

"We had a Mexican food truck serve tacos one time and there were 115 people there," he remembered. "After a while it connected people."

Despite his new situation, Arbaugh does everything he can to stay active. He has been married for 38 years and spends as much time as possible with his wife, two children and two grandchildren. He rides his bicycle and hunts on his side-by-side, getting out as much as possible: "I've got to keep doing what I am doing."

Arbaugh is not someone to give up or feel sorry for himself, and he continually adds to his list of hobbies. He was taking art classes from the YMCA's Artist in Residence program when he got a new idea. He walks with a cane, and decided it would be fun to make himself a few canes, which he carves out of wood he finds. After receiving many requests from friends and family for their own canes, he has made it into more than a hobby—it's now a business.

"I got into this to keep me busy because I'm real antsy," Arbaugh said. "I just want to stay busy, and I liked it better than I thought."

He now takes requests and carves the canes with a drawknife once owned by his grandfather.

Arbaugh's canes are personalized for every person. He has built a Dalmation-themed cane for a dog lover, one with replaceable trinkets at the top for each holiday season, and a "blood" dripping cane with vampire teeth for a nurse during Halloween season.

"An 80-year-old lady came to me last week I asked her what she wanted and she said 'I don't know, I used to bicycle a lot.' So I put a bicycle belt on her's," he said.

Arbaugh has kept his humor, and built a few canes with a sort of "pee spout" in the middle—he laughed and said it's for old men.

Most of them have something extra attached, whether it's a piece of an antler, leather or a feather. All the antlers are from the deer, elk and other animals he has hunted. The canes also have a variety of finishes, including varnish, paint, sparkles or any other request he receives.

"I like them with a little character to them," he said.

His friends have started bringing him any wood they find, and he has since expanded production to include slingshots or replaceable heads to the canes. He also makes solar light stands and wine racks, including those made out of wood from different wine countries, including the Snake River region.

Arbaugh's canes are sold by word of mouth at this point, but he gets a lot of requests from nurses and doctors because of the amount of time he has to spend in their offices.

"I've been going to chemo for several months now," he said. "I've always had a different cane to take in and show them."

The medical professionals either buy them for their own patients, for their office use or for their own family members.

The canes are made out of a variety of woods, including pine, juniper, bamboo, and he even made one for a friend out of a sunflower stock. Although he also makes them for himself, he said he only has so many hours in a day to use a cane—so he now prefers making them for others. Arbaugh considered setting up shop at a local flea market, "but I can't keep up with demand now. I only want to make a couple a week."

Creating the canes is something that helps Arbaugh do what he did in his professional and personal lives—meet new people all over the Boise area. "Retirement is not what I thought it was going to be," he said, but he is in a position to help others and he enjoys every minute of it.

You can still see Arbaugh riding around town—although now it's on a 3-wheel bicycle instead of his motorcycles. He has given up the water skiing, but still has made an important impact on many lives in the Boise area. He plans to continue making that impact, just in a new way.

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