Kayak adventurer Jake Stachovak, teacher from Wausau East dies of cancer
WAUSAU – Students, friends and family will gather on January 9 at Wausau East High School to honor the life of a technical education teacher who has kayaked from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico and back again.
Jake Stachovak, 46, died on December 19 at his home in Wausau from cancer, with his wife lying beside him and his family surrounding him.
The disease was first discovered in his prostate in March 2020, and Stachovak underwent intensive treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He received chemotherapy and radiation therapy which choked the disease, his wife, Marit Haug said, and in February 2021, doctors could not find any traces of the cancer.
“It was clean. We took care of it,” Haug said. “We thought, great, this is how it should be.”
But the cancer reappeared in June, this time on Stachovak’s liver. He again opted for aggressive treatment, but the disease did not respond to intensive chemotherapy.
Stachovak could be a study of contrasts. He was a sweet, laid back guy who worked hard and embraced outdoor adventures that required discipline and overwhelming resilience. He did not like school and fought as a student himself, but became a teacher without a teaching qualification. He has always followed his own path, never that of conforming to the norms or expectations of society.
Stachovak started working as a carpenter / builder with family members at the age of 12. He told Haug that he never felt out of place at school, even though most of his family found their profession in education. It has found its place outdoors, in the woods and on lakes and rivers.
“Hunting was like a religion,” Haug said.
When he was young he canoeed the entire length of the Wisconsin River, and it sparked a passion for canoeing that has never left him.
After graduating from Wausau East High School, he attended Northcentral Technical College and earned associate degrees in business management and residential design. He then pursued a career in the building trades, punctuated by periods as a kayak instructor in Florida and southern California.
He returned to Wisconsin around 2009, in part to play a larger role in the lives of his four nephews and a niece. He also had an epic long-standing and long-planned kayak trip in mind.
This trip involved paddling from Portage along the Mississippi River, through the Gulf of Mexico, to the East Coast and back to Portage through the New York Canal system and the Great Lakes. He recorded and wrote about the trip in an online blog he called “Portage to Portage Paddling Project”. It was a 5,740 mile trip; he started the journey in December 2009 and finished it in September 2010.
It was a rewarding adventure, but the navigation was not easy. He was plagued by a winter storm at the start of his trip. His equipment was stolen (and subsequently recovered by the police). He was the victim of an attempted assault. But those hardships, Haug said, were overshadowed by the kindness and generosity of so many other people, many of whom invited him to their homes or gave him walks or food.
The kayak trip led Stachovak to connect with Haug. In 2011, she worked for canoe and kayak retailer Madison Rutabaga Paddlesports. Haug had heard of Stachovak’s trip and he spoke at Rutabaga’s spring paddling rally, Canoecopia.
They got to know each other better later that year at the Door County Sea Kayak Symposium in Rutabaga, where Haug ran a small retail store and Stachovak was an instructor. Haug remembers telling him that he was wearing his shirt inside out.
“He takes it off, and… he’s in pretty good shape, right? I was like whoa,” Haug said.
They started dating and spending time together, and soon after, Haug remembers telling her mother that she had met the man she was going to marry. They got married in October 2018.
Stachovak’s entry into teaching was also unorthodox. He was working as a renovator and home builder in the Wausau area when he learned he needed a technical education teacher in Wausau East. The standards for technical education teachers had recently changed to allow experience to count towards certification in teaching. Stachovak impressed his interviewers enough that they immediately offered him the job, Haug said. It started in the fall of 2018.
He got into work, befriended colleagues and won the dedication of the students. A group of them rallied around him after he was diagnosed with cancer and started a GoFundMe.com fundraiser to support him in his fight against the disease.
It hasn’t always been easy, said his colleague, East Tech ed department chairman Mark Poppe. When Stachovak started the job about four years ago, he had a group of students who were picky, Poppe said.
“They weren’t the best bunch of freshmen,” Poppe said. “They would have put most people packing.”
The fact that Stachovak came from an industrial background rather than a traditional school background, which tackles topics such as classroom management, made his challenges more difficult. But Poppe said the two have worked together on these issues and that Stachovak has the patience and the ability to connect with his students as people. It helped him to be successful as a teacher.
These freshmen matured and became close to Stachovak.
“They’ve become a really wonderful bunch of guys,” Poppe said. “And a lot of it has to do with Jake.”
The entire Wausau East community supported Stachovak, Haug said. “They are like family.”
A longtime substitute took over Stachovak’s daily chores, but even though his health was declining, he enjoyed going to school to make contact with the students and help the younger substitute.
Poppe said that Stachovak’s dignity and drive towards the end of his life, along with his willingness to share in the fight against his illness, was a profound example to everyone.
“I think one of the reasons Jake didn’t complain and wasn’t bitter,” Poppe said, “is that he lived to the end. I think there is a really important lesson for all of us. “
This is why it is fitting that the Stachovak memorial takes place in East, Haug said.
“I wanted the kids to be involved; they definitely made it last a bit longer,” she said. “They were just very special.”
The January 9 event will feature a tour from noon to 3 p.m., followed by a service where most people will talk about their memories of Stachovak.
Contact Keith Uhlig at 715-845-0651 or [email protected] Follow him on @UhligK on Twitter and Instagram or on Facebook.