July/August 2008

“Live and Learn” or “Learn from Others”

Kayaking is a sport, and along with the idea of any sport comes the desire to explore. Not the exploring of your environment, but the exploring of yourself. That is what sports are all about; the chance to take things to new heights; whether those “things” are described by you as skills or as knowledge. Some people believe a sport is all about pushing one’s self physically to compete with or against other individuals; go faster; go longer; create a new record; go where no one else has been. Some people believe that a sport is about pushing the inner-self; examine nature; studying the design of a new craft; connecting with a new world; knowing yourself better. But however you see a sport, however you are pushing yourself over the time spent interacting with that sport, you are still moving forward into an unknown adventure.

Whenever you are moving forward into the unknown, you need to be prepared for what you will encounter. Now I agree that more often that not, it is the excitement of what you don’t yet know and what you may encounter that is the best draw to continue pushing yourself. Can you go faster than the last guy? Can you understand what you are seeking? But behind all that is the unspoken and undisputed fact that if you don’t prepare for the next thing coming and it gets the better of you, then you can go no farther! If you pull a muscle while pushing too fast, you’re out! If you swim in ice water while exploring that glassy calm wide bay, you’re out! We all hope that when this happens, we are not called out of the game for good; only that we are called out to sit on the side lines for a short period while we think about what went wrong and how we will do it better next time. We all hope that when we get called out, we can say, “Live and Learn.”

So that is all and good, and I think it is exciting to be able to say what you learned from your sport. That is what a sport is about. But let’s not belittle the super-significant fact that any sport can benefit from the ability to “Learn from Others.” Can you better prepare for the next thing coming as you push your abilities by looking at what others have done before you? You bet you can!

I went to a lecture by Charlie Walbridge just the other weekend. He is one of the fathers of whitewater kayaking. He has been a part of kayaking since people have had to design and build their own kayak just to get into the sport. He has made it his profession to examine the safety of the sport; all aspects of the sport, extreme and otherwise. To use one of his examples, he looked closely at when and how extreme kayakers decided to start running waterfalls. How much were they willing to push themselves, and how often did they get injured because of their attempts? Then he moved from the very start of this extreme sport to the present day and showed how participants are taking this challenge to heights that could not have been imagined by those who were there at the start. When asked how they succeed without getting injured or worse, the best enthusiasts today say that they have learned just how to position their body and their boat to best minimize impact. They could describe in detail what they had learned to do and how they had learned to redesign their kayaks to push the sport farther and farther with less and less injury. They admitted that it was done by watching and studying those who came before them.

Well, I am not advocating that you start throwing yourself off of waterfalls after watching others do it, but I am advocating the idea of studying what others have done before you and to apply what you can learn from them to your current sporting activity. No matter how you interpret the sport, kayaking is always going to be a physical activity, and there will always be a certain measure of danger involved. We should all take to heart the idea that we can be better and safer at our chosen sport if we only try to learn from those who have gone before us.

If you want to paddle better then read about paddle strokes and skills or take a lesson. The first thing that you learn in a kayak skills class is to use torso rotation to make your paddling stronger, longer and more controlled. If you want to paddle longer into the winter season, the first thing you’ll learn is to dress for the water. If you want to be safer in open water the first thing you’ll learn is how to do self re-entries and assisted rescues. If you want to do expedition trips you’ll learn to prepare for the unexpected. Now matter how you are trying to improve, whether you want to be faster or safer or more prepared for an accident, then be willing to learn. Be willing to absorb all the knowledge you can about the sport. Learn what others have done before you.

So go get ready for your sport and be ready for that unknown next-thing that will come next in your exploration. How can you do this? How can you be ready? Read some the great kayaking literature on the market; paddle with friends; take a class; leave a float plan with friends; bring extra clothes and food; take a spare paddle; see what others did before you to go father and be safer in their sport.

We can all help to make our great sport of kayaking more that what it was or what it is now. We can be better, safer, faster, and have more fun. We can do all this by being ready, and by being prepared. If you don’t know if you are ready, ask some who has been out paddling before you: “Do you think I’m ready? Have I though of everything? What did you do?” We can all “Learn from Others” who have been before us and in doing so we can make ourselves and our sport better and safer and always much more fun for everyone.

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