Lessons Learned

First, let me get something out right now. I spend an unusual amount of time thinking about boating. Some people think this is very strange. The folks that know me best understand that for better or worse, rafting and kayaking rivers is a big part of my life. I often wonder why. I know when I first started boating I viewed boating primarily as a way to get out and be a part of moving water; something that has always fascinated me. And of course river canyons are some of the most beautiful places anywhere. And while those early motivations still are important, particularly when I’m rafting, there are times when I know there must be other, stronger motivations for kayaking.

Maybe an example would be helpful. The last 8 years or so I’ve been increasingly drawn to the exploratory aspect of kayaking. That is, trying to find new creeks and rivers to kayak that haven’t been documented. Part of this process is understandably interesting; the mapwork, hiking through the woods, seeing new places. These are things that many normal people like to do. It’s when you decide to bring a kayak into the picture that everything can get a little skewed.

My last exploratory trip with my friend Jason involved hiking through the snow for 4.5 miles or so before getting to the river. After that it was 2 miles of shallow boating with many portages until we ran out of light and had to hike the remaining 2 miles down the river dragging our boats with us. This was probably the most mentally and physically draining trip I’ve ever been on. It took us 4.5 hours to hike the 2 miles. Because we only had small headlamps lighting our way, it was very difficult to judge how far we had gone or how much further we had before we got to the end. This took a huge emotional toll on both of us as our spirits would soar when we thought there was a landmark indicating we were getting close only to have our spirits plunge when another landmark indicated we still had a ways to go.

The author just about ready to give up and spend the night on the creek

So why were we out there exhausted and emotionally drained when we could’ve been with our friends splashing through rapids and enjoying some spectacular scenery? And why, despite the trauma of this experience, do I find myself, even just a week later, dwelling on the experience with almost a sense of accomplishment? I suspect what appeals to me most about exploratory kayaking is that it allows me to test my ability to maintain mental focus under duress, overcome physical challenges and confront my fear of failure. But after several similar experiences, what did I learn from this latest debacle that I didn’t already know?

I’ve certainly been involved in many successful exploratory kayak descents, and because of that, it seems fairly obvious when one trip is going to turn out badly. There is a fairly predictable series of events; late start, more time spent getting to the river, inadequate pre-scouting, etc. But despite the recognition of the beginning of this error chain, there is something in me that doesn’t allow me to quit and say “Enough is enough. We’ll try again another time.” But rather, I can’t help but believe and strive for that moment of brilliance when, if I just push hard enough, I’ll succeed by the thinnest of margins. Navigating this razor-thin margin of success is what, in the end, is so addictive. And, even just the day after an unsuccessful trip, makes me start playing the “what if” game and thinking about another trip.

It certainly has occurred to me that I could simply avoid a lot of pain and trauma by focusing on the more enjoyable and predictable qualities of kayaking and the vast majority of my days on the river reflect those qualities. But, in the end, the epic trips, whether highly successful or wildly unsuccessful, are the trips that resonate with me the longest. Somehow the struggle and risk of failure make me feel more alive, more true to myself.

Because of this, I have to wonder, what role do I play in making any particular experience successful? Is there something in me that is quietly waiting, secretly hoping that things will take a turn for the worse so that I can once again test my mettle and maybe pull off another success or have a good story to tell? Possibly. But after a 24-hour debacle in the jungles of Costa Rica last year, I think what my most recent debacle taught me was the difference between the life-threatening debacle and the debacle that make good stories. And I think I recognize better now where the line is that separates the two.

So despite the fact that I think both Jason and I really felt dumb for not approaching our latest adventure with a little better preparation and foresight, when we recognized that we had a choice between real disaster and a painful, exhausting hike in the middle of the night, we chose what would make a good story. And maybe I also learned that the struggle and pain of these trips which make for good stories, better prepares me for the unfortunate trip when there won’t be a good story to tell.