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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Art of Planning a Big Trip

Part 6: Friends and Lovers

by Farwell Forrest

As the water rises in the rivers near my house, so too does the flow of boat and gear catalogs through my post office box. Not a week now passes without my receiving half a dozen or more, and I doubt that I'm alone.

These catalogs are wonderful things to look at. Glossy photos. Evocative text. Yet another generation of miracle fabrics and engineered materials. Progress given tangible form.

I have to admit that I'm a hard sell. My newest boat is ten years old, and much of my gear has seen several decades of use. I even have canvas packs. Still, I love to browse through the catalogs. Like old maps and the dusty volumes on the back shelves of good libraries, catalogs, too, give birth to pleasant dreams of far horizons.

Of course, all catalogs lie. No surprise there. So do maps and books, at least now and again. Happily, the lies retailed in catalogs are always comforting, and usually benign—rather like the excusable exaggerations and small embellishments of a skilled story-teller.

There's one exception, however. Pull any catalog off the pile on your desk. Now look at the faces of the people in the glossy pictures. They're all smiling, aren't they? There's not a grimace or a scowl to be seen anywhere, let alone the ugly, convulsive rictus of real rage. Not only are the catalog folks impossibly clean and improbably good-looking (you're right, I'm jealous), but they're all having the time of their lives, and they're never—never!—angry at their companions.

If only this were true. Unfortunately, even canoeists and kayakers are still human. On day trips and whitewater outings, most of us can keep our tempers under control most of the time—though not all of the time, certainly. Tamia and I have had more than a few heated exchanges from the opposite ends of a canoe. They usually begin with something like this: "Whaddaya you mean you didn't see that rock?" Or, in what Tamia likes to think of as a high, ironical tone, "It may have escaped your notice, my dear, but the river is over there. This, now…this is what geologists call a gravel bar."

Happily, such storms usually blow over as quickly as they blew up, and few people quit the river at the end of a day's run feeling anything more unpleasant than sore muscles. Big Trips are different. On Big Trips, you push harder, and the cost of mistakes is higher—sometimes much higher. Nor do you leave your companions behind at the riverbank put-in when the sun goes down. Fatigue, the need to keep to a set schedule, even fear—all these play their part, as do insects and bad weather. Old friends can fast become new enemies, and lovers can quickly learn to hate.

Examples abound. Eric Sevareid and Walter Port were schoolboy pals who, in 1930, found themselves alone on the Gods River with winter coming on and an unknown number of miles still to go to York Factory. Exhausted and close to despair, they started quarrelling, and then began to fight in earnest. One terrible morning, each awoke determined to kill the other. Neither succeeded, but not because they suddenly came to their senses. They were simply too weak to finish each other off.

Such stories aren't confined to the dim, historic past. A few years ago, a friend and his wife signed on with a rafting company for a Grand Canyon float trip. The trip was everything the brochures promised. State-of-the-art gear. Expert guides. Wonderful food. The trouble lay elsewhere. Among the other folks on the trip was a politician from a western state, a man once mentioned as a possible presidential candidate. He had a larger-than-life ego, and a voice to match. He was patronizing, sarcastic and snide. He delighted in telling people off. His son, who accompanied him on the float trip, was even worse. So poisonous did the atmosphere become, that by trip's end hardly anyone was speaking to anyone else.

Tamia and I have our own share of such tales, of course, but these will have to wait for another time. What's important, after all, is to avoid this sort of thing in the first place. That's what planning is all about. As the many cautionary tales illustrate all too well, John McPhee was right: "When trouble comes on a canoe trip, it comes from the inside, from fast-growing hatreds among the friends who started."

You don't want this to happen. What can you do? First, when you sit down to plan a Big Trip, choose your companions carefully. Travel with people you know well, folks whose company you enjoy and whose judgement you've learned to trust. In a boat or on a trip—or in life, for that matter—a sense of humor and an even temper are every bit as important as technical competence. Not that skill is ever unimportant, though. A long wilderness trip is no place for the complete novice. Experience and skill each contribute to good judgement, and there's no simply no substitute for that.

Next, once you've gotten your group together, be sure that everyone knows what to expect, and make certain that you agree about the pace of the trip. If half of you want to take it easy, while the other half want to push hard, arguments are inevitable. It makes no difference if you travel fast or slow, but it is essential that you all travel together.

Lastly, leave the children at home. No, I'm not putting down those folks who take their kids with them on wilderness holidays. I wish there were more like them, in fact. The "children" I'm talking about can be any age from six to sixty, and they're easy to spot. They're selfish, whiny, and bad-tempered. They're never happy, and they're always bored. They're not without virtues, of course. Some of them are superlative paddlers, and many of them have nothing but the best (and newest) gear. No matter. Play the rivers with them on the weekends, by all means, but when you head out on your Big Trip, leave these children behind.

That's all there is to it. A few simple rules. A little luck. And, then, who knows? You may come back from your Big Trip looking just like the folks in the catalogs—all smiles and happy memories. The success of a trip isn't determined by the number of miles travelled or the number of rapids run, after all. It's truest measure is good friends grown even closer, and lovers yet more deeply in love. Who could ask for more?

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

It's time to take a break from planning, though it's a subject we'll return to often in future columns. Next week, Tamia will offer a few words of advice to folks who are shopping for a boat for the first time. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at sameboat@paddling.net. (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.









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