October 2008

How do you serve your adventures? Well Done?

There is a quote I think about all the time when I’m climbing or on expeditions. It’s by the great polar explorer Vilhájlmur Stefansson: “Adventure is a sign of incompetence.” Stefansson was a guy who bragged that he never had adventures. He said that if you have an adventure, you’re doing something wrong, that if you really plan things out in the vein of Amundsen, you don’t have adventures.

— Jon Krakauer

Everyone has heard of Jon Krakauer. He is everywhere in adventure literature anymore. He is an adventurer, and explorer, a writer extraordinaire; a guy who’s words I listen to. I am taken by what he says in his latest video journal of his quest to summit Antarctica’s highest peak, as he talks about those great explorers who came before him.

Just to explore this strange idea of Adventure without the adventure, I poked around a little farther to see what Stefansson actually did say:

Having an adventure is a sign that something unexpected, something unprovided against, has happened; it shows that some one is incompetent, that something has gone wrong. For that reason we pride ourselves on the fewness of our adventures; for the same reason we are a bit ashamed of the few we did have. An adventure is interesting enough in retrospect, especially to the person who didn’t have it; at the same time it happens it usually constitutes an exceedingly disagreeable experience (on the part of who is experiencing it).

— Valhjálmur Stefansson, 1913 (from My Life with the Eskimo)

When I hear what these two great adventurers have to say, I know that they are not talking about extreme adventure only; they are talking to all of us who take adventure in doses fitting to our individual sports. We all serve up adventure whenever we go out and experience the world from our kayaks. Perhaps our servings are not as large as Krakauer’s or Stefansson’s have been, but it is not about the size, but rather about the way we serve our adventure which they are talking about.

We are all looking for adventure when we go out paddling. It may be for a few hours on familiar waters, were we want to feel our muscles pulling, or where we are looking for sites we haven’t yet seen but imagine in our mind’s eye. It may be for days on a camping trip, where we want to make more distance than we have done before, or get to places we have not found yet. It may be in a more challenging water condition, waves, wind, or cold. However we serve it to ourselves, we are looking for adventure in some measure.

We want to find and experience adventure, but we want manageable adventures. We want adventure that we can deal with, that we can cope with, that we can survive and that we can appreciate afterwards. We do not want the “unexpected and the unprovided against”, where “something has gone wrong”.

It is the smart adventurer, the wise paddler who knows what they will find along the way. Maybe we call this good preparation, trip planning, dressing for the water, etc. But we know what we will find, or what we hope to find. We are ready for the encounter. It will not be dealing with the unknown that will be the adventure. We will be prepared!

So how does this relate to us everyday paddlers who are facing the same waters every week as we paddle with the Piracies or as we join in on the Elk Neck camping weekend? Well, even if we paddle in the same place every week, there will always be a challenge, an adventure, something new. The weather will vary. The water temperature will start to get colder as the seasons change. The amount of traffic will differ on holiday weekends. Accidents will happen. Can we deal with these changes? Can we minimize the adventure we face with these changes? Can we eliminate the “unexpected and the unprovided against”? Sure.

As paddlers we face questions like the list below all the time. We start to answer these questions without even thinking about many of them. They become our habit, our way of planning for what we will encounter out on the water every day. By knowing the answers to questions like these, we eliminate more and more unexpected scenarios and can focus more and more on the experience of paddling.

Do you ask yourself these kinds of things before you go paddling?

  • Did you tell someone where you are going?
  • What is the weather going to be like? How about the tides and currents?
  • How many people are in your group?
  • If your trip takes longer than you expect, would you go hungry, thirsty?
  • Could you communicate for help if it was needed?
  • Are you going to be able to take out along the way?
  • How fast does your group travel?
  • If you fell out of your boat, could you get back in in the waters you are paddling on?
  • Have you practiced on water that you know is well within your abilities before venturing to more challenging waters?
  • Have you tried out your gear. Does your cold water gear really work for you in water you consider cold?

I like to think of the list of things you prepare before every paddle as your way of seeing that you are growing as a paddler. The more things you think about and check off before you get on the water, the more you have experienced and grown. Consequently, the less likely you will come across an experience which is totally unexpected.

Stefansson was talking about an unexpected experience he had with a polar bear in his quote. I hope that none of you have the same experience, but then again I also hope that none of you have an unexpected and disagreeable experience with unmanageable cold water or boat traffic or bad navigation.

Challenge yourself with adventures on the water, but don’t make them adventures that you did not plan for. Make all your adventures safe, successful, fun, and well done!

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