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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

One Foot in the Grave? Never!

There IS a Paddling Life After 50

By Tamia Nelson

October 24, 2006

I sat on a gurney, wearing nothing but bike shorts and a flimsy hospital gown split up the back. I'd just completed a diagnostic double-header: a nuclear stress test and an echocardiogram. It was only precautionary, I'd been told. Nothing to worry about. But now my doctor's usually benign expression had morphed into one of deep concern. I figured bad news was coming, and I was right. The doc cleared her throat and started talking. It seems I'd developed something called "exercise hypertension." And that was just the beginning. The stress test also suggested that I had a "jeopardized myocardium." In other words, my heart's main pump wasn't getting the blood it needed to do its job. How wonderfully ironic, I thought. The muscle that moved my life's blood around my body was itself short of blood. Definitely not good news. But the doc was still speaking. She told me to see her in her office in three days, after she'd had a chance to review the test results in detail. Then the doc's gaze fell on my bicycle shorts. In the meantime, she added hastily, I was to make sure I didn't push my pulse rate above 120. Or else, was the unspoken warning. I gulped. Needless to say, I didn't set any speed records pedaling back home.

But even under the best of circumstances, it's a strenuous trip. In fact, it's a steady climb all the way, with two especially long, steep grades where an Ice Age torrent once dropped huge loads of glacial sediment on its rush to the sea. So I took it as easy as I could, grinding along in gears that were two or three steps lower than usual. It didn't help much. My heart seemed to pound more rapidly than it ever had before. My mind was racing, too. Was this The End of my active life? Had I run my last river? Bagged my last peak? Cycled down my last fire road? Was I doomed to spend the rest of my days in a La-Z-Boy®? It looked all too likely.

By the time I topped the last rise, however, I'd reached a decision. I might have one foot in the grave, but I wasn't about to jump in of my own accord. It would be better to check out doing something I loved than to die of boredom. But I didn't think my doctor would see it this way. So I approached my upcoming appointment in an unusually apprehensive state of mind. When the day came, though, I was in for a pleasant surprise. No, the doc didn't recommend that I ignore the warnings implicit in the test results. The danger to my heart was real enough. But her prescription proved easier to swallow than I'd allowed myself to hope. It had four parts. Medication to dampen the swings in my blood pressure. A wristwatch-sized heart-rate monitor to warn me when I was approaching my engine's Red Line. Less butter, beef, and cheese, along with more olive oil, fish, and salad. Plus exercise. Exercise? Yep. Regular, graduated exercise. Moderation was the only hard-and-fast rule. And nothing was off limits. Paddling. Cycling. Hiking. Climbing. Snowshoeing. Suddenly, all the things I'd always liked to do were much more than just recreation. They were now "therapeutic modalities," integral parts of my medical management. I'd entered the doctor's office feeling mighty low, but I left smiling.

That was two years ago. Today I'm fitter than at any time since I was skipping high-school gym class to climb nearby roadcuts.

What about you? Maybe we're in the same boat. Have you gotten bad news from your doc recently? Or have you just received your first junk mail from the AARP? (For any Gen-Xers out there, that's the American Association of Retired Persons. Don't kid yourself. They've got your birthdate in their database, too. You'll be hearing from them. Probably sooner than you like.) Either way, you're probably asking yourself…

Is There a La-Z-Boy® in My Future?

The answer? Only if you want one. Don't get me wrong. La-Z-Boy®s are great chairs. They're very comfortable. But you won't find them in many canoes or kayaks. Luckily, though, you don't have to be an athlete to paddle your own canoe. It doesn't matter if you're getting back on the water after several busy decades spent building a career and raising a family, or if you've never held a paddle in your hand before. Chances are good that you're up to the challenge. For evidence, consider my sixty-something Grandad, Tin Tank on his shoulders and pack basket on his back, jogging down the trail to his favorite beaver pond. (He'd probably still be jogging along if a lifetime of Lucky Strikes® hadn't struck him out at last.) And then there's my former flight instructor. He was taking college students on their first flights when he himself was in his 70s. Now, twenty years later, he's only recently turned in his wings — but he still paddles and portages along the routes he surveyed from the air when he flew for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Or how about the kayaking couple who joined our whitewater group back in the 1980s? She was a 60-year-old novice. He was at least 10 years older. Neither had any trouble keeping up with much younger paddlers.

Get the picture? Sure you do. Age alone won't keep you in a La-Z-Boy®. But that doesn't mean you can ignore the passage of the years altogether. Even people who've been active all their lives will have noticed the signs by the time they hit the mid-century mark. Maps are harder to read than they used to be. Rolling out of the sleeping bag in the morning isn't quite as easy as it once was. And familiar portages seem to have grown both longer and steeper since the last time you carried your boat and gear across them.

What's the remedy? Oddly enough, the best way to keep your body in working order is to work it. Often and hard. But not too hard. Just hard enough to break a sweat. And what's too hard? Here's one simple test: If you can't spare any breath to talk, you're over the limit. (Any doubts or questions? Ask your doctor. Before you begin.) Of course, if it's been a while since you did anything more strenuous than turn on the TV, you'll need to start slowly. Park at the outskirts of the lot at the HyperMart and walk to the door. Take the stairs rather than the elevator when you only have to go up a few floors. Bike or walk to work when the weather (and distance) permit. Go out for a short paddle before dinner at camp. It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you do it regularly. Every other day is good, but every day is better — though it won't hurt to take one day a week off for good behavior.

As valuable as it is, however, exercise can't cure every one of the ills that flesh is heir to, and it can't turn back the clock. We all have to accept our limitations, in other words. Fortunately, modern engineering can sometimes help out. So when nature lets you down…

Gear Up

What's the first principle? Small is beautiful, and light is right. Hoisting the 105-pound XL Tripper onto my shoulders was never exactly fun, but now it seems more like hard labor. Even short portages can be an ordeal. On the other hand, my 35-pound pack canoe is a joy to carry. For many trips, it's just what the doctor ordered. Then again, lightweight boats can still be awkward burdens, particularly in tight places like garages, crowded trailhead parking lots, and narrow portage trails. Hauling your boat from its storage rack to the car, taking it off the roof rack at the put-in, portaging over the height of land between watersheds — any one of these chores can leave you with strained muscles (or something even worse). But there's another way to go. Where regulations permit, a portage cart will carry the load, and a trailer spares you from having to lift your boat onto your car's roof. Even if you opt for a conventional roof rack (and there's no doubt that a trailer can be a pain to maneuver on serpentine forest roads), rollers will make the job of loading and unloading your boat much easier. And don't neglect the value of doubling up. Ask your partner for help when you need it.

Once your boat's in the water, you're done, right? Maybe not. If getting a boat on (and off) a roof rack can be a big job, getting into the boat itself can be every bit as difficult. Many Greenland-style touring kayaks are notoriously hard to enter, for example, as are some older whitewater boats. This is one place where open canoes enjoy a clear advantage over kayaks. Don't overlook sit-on-tops (SOTs), either. Whether you're paddling on Golden Pond or challenging ocean surf, there's a SOT that's right for you. No? You say you're a die-hard kayak fan? OK. Just shop around for one with a generously proportioned cockpit. That may be all you need.

There's more to aging than sore muscles and stiff joints, however. I've already mentioned that maps get harder to read. Even folks who've never worn glasses suddenly discover they can't get along without them. I'm in that camp myself. In addition to my expensive prescription specs, I now carry cheap drugstore reading glasses in all my packs. A lanyard with a breakaway clasp keeps the working pair around my neck.

Or maybe you're plagued by poor circulation: cold hands or feet, or both. Take heart. Help is at hand. Literally. There have never been so many choices for clothing your hands and feet. Don't neglect your head, either. The old mountaineering adage is still valid. If your hands are cold, cover your head. This is especially true if your hair isn't as thick as it used to be. And while you're at it, take another look at the clothes in your pack. If you're a died-in-the-wool traditionalist, you may want to reevaluate your outdoor wardrobe. It may be time to get fleeced, in other words — and to upgrade your foul-weather gear, as well.

All in all, there's a lot to be said for smoothing it in the backcountry, whatever your age. Examples abound. Hand warmers can restore life to wooden fingers on cold days, and a thermos flask of hot tea or cocoa can turn an icy lunch stop into a near approximation of a picnic. Padded seats and backrests mean that long hours battling headwinds don't have to be a pain in the butt (or back). Knee pads take the sting out of kneeling. And an extra-thick sleeping pad and a roomy bag insure a good night's sleep at the end of a hard day.

Speaking of bedtime, do you find that you're getting up more often than you used to in the hours between taps and reveille? Don't risk getting a twig in your eye as you stumble about in the dark. LED headlamps light up the night without eating up batteries. Nor is this the end of technological innovation. If you're an amphibious paddler and you're trailering a bagged boat to the launch, stow a CO2-cartridge inflator in your repair kit for the inevitable flat tire. It's a lot easier than grunting away on a mini-pump, especially when the weather's not cooperating. (But don't leave the mini-pump at home. In thorn country, you may run out of cartridges before you run out of flats.)

Good news? You bet. Still, it's best not to get too carried away with technological fixes. Preparation and gear are important, but they're only means to an end. Don't lose sight of the goal:

You in a Boat, on the Water

Sounds wonderful, right? Go for it! Start out easy and work up. If you're new to the sport, find a knowledgeable mentor — family member, co-worker, or a paid instructor. You say you don't know any experienced paddlers? Then ask around. Paddling shops, colleges, and groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club are good places to start. Even if you were once a whitewater ace, it pays to go slowly at first, and it's still not a bad idea to take a few trips with someone more expert than yourself. It may be true that you never forget how to paddle, but there's more to running rivers and cruising open water than simply stroking. Give yourself time to get up to speed. The penalty for error can be higher when you're fifty than when you're fifteen — and the object is to have a good time, not prove that you can still take hard knocks. Above all, listen to your body. If it says NO, don't argue. And if you have any doubts or questions…

Ask Your Doc

This is particularly important if you know that you have heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes, or if you're really out of shape, but it's a good idea for any paddler, whatever her age or health. Paddling, like any active sport, makes far more demands on our bodies than the everyday routine of getting in the car and driving to work. And while even aging bods adapt well to increased levels of activity when given time, it doesn't pay to take chances. The active life is only possible for the living, after all.

Nobody ever said that growing old was easy. But consider the alternative. This helps put things in perspective. In any case, we all have one foot in the grave from the day we're born. That doesn't mean we have to jump in and wait to be covered over, though, does it? No way! I know I'm not ready to give up paddling, hiking, or bicycling. You don't have to, either. And even if you've never done any of these things before, it's not too late to start. Life may not begin at 50, but it can sure get a lot more interesting. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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