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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

The Other Ten Essentials —
Intangible Assets That Mean So Much

Part 2: The Final Five

By Farwell Forrest
farwell@paddling.net

December 12, 2006

Many years ago the Seattle Mountaineers hit upon a clever way to remind ounce-paring climbers that there were some things they simply couldn't afford to leave behind — a list of must-have gear that came to be known as the "Ten Essentials." It was a very good list, too, containing nothing that was superfluous, while including all things that were necessary. Not surprisingly, then, the list remains useful to this day, for climbers and paddlers alike. But it has its limitations. As important as the Ten Essentials are to all backcountry travelers, there are other things that are even more vital. And you won't find them on the Mountaineers' list.

What are these mysterious essentials? Nothing you can buy in any store, that's for certain. They're intangible assets, you see — qualities of mind and body, not things you can put in a pack. But they're no less important for all that. I call them the Other Ten Essentials, and I listed the first five a couple of weeks back. Now it's time to complete the inventory.

In a hurry? Want me to cut to the chase? Then you may need more of the first Essential on this week's list:

Patience

"Slow down," a song from the sixties counseled. "You move too fast." And so do a lot of paddlers. Yes, there are times when speed is of the essence, on the water and off. But far more often, it's best to make haste slowly. In particular, if there's trouble ahead it's usually a good idea to take your time getting to it — and to use the extra minutes to weigh your options thoughtfully. Yet even when no imminent danger looms, many paddlers feel compelled to rush pell-mell through the places they've gone to so much trouble to visit. It's almost as if their paddling holidays have become extensions of their work week, complete with performance targets, deadlines, and penalties for late completion. Why? Good question. Still, I've observed the same thing in myself, though only when I'm on a bike. It never happens when I'm in a boat. Put me in a canoe or kayak, and I'll dawdle happily through a long summer's day, going nowhere fast and delighted to get there. No beaver pond or mountain tarn is too small to occupy me for a weekend — or a week. Once I'm seated on my bike, however, I'm a different man altogether. I become obsessed with covering ground at the fastest possible speed, no matter how enticing the scenery. Go figure. I can't.

But I know this much: the habit of speed can be hazardous to my health. Not long ago, I was cranking down a rural byway at 20 miles an hour, my eyes glued to the road ahead, when a dog — a very large dog — suddenly materialized right under my front wheel. The bike stopped abruptly, but I didn't. And I landed hard, hard enough to leave a good part of my face behind on the asphalt. If I hadn't been wearing a helmet, I'd probably have left part of my brain behind as well. It was an eye-opening experience, and not just because I'd torn an eyelid off on impact. As I stood by the side of the road, spitting out bits of broken tooth like a character in an animated cartoon from the 1950s, it dawned on me that I needed to slow down.

So now I've entered myself in a competition that I call Farwell's Go-Slow Challenge. And as I'm the only competitor, I can't help but win. The object? Simple. I don't get any points for speed, on the road or off, but I get one point for everything I notice along the way — ten points for everything new I see on my daily commute and other familiar routes. The upshot? Patience is the key to victory in the Farwell Challenge. I relapse now and again, of course. But just as soon as I catch myself staring at the cyclometer and trying to push the numbers up for no reason except to see how high I can make them go, a quick poke of my tongue at the space where my front teeth used to be is guaranteed to slow me down. I figure I've learned something. Whatever my speed, I'll get where I'm going sooner or later. I might as well enjoy the ride.

Not that this knowledge didn't come at a high price. It did. To be honest, it was several days after the crash before I could get back on my bike, and the problem wasn't sore muscles. It was fear, pure and simple. And that fear is still with me. But I didn't let it keep me off the bike for long. I suppose you could call this…

Resilience

It, too, is a must-have. Talk all you want about Mother Earth. The truth of the matter is that Nature isn't a very loving Mum. She doesn't care what happens to us. It's not personal, obviously. But it sometimes seems as if it is. And any paddler who's spent more than a few sunny afternoons on Golden Pond can remember at least one time when he was certain that Nature was out to get him. Maybe it was a log hidden in the plunge pool at the bottom of a runnable falls, in just the right place to catch the bow of your boat and hold it under while you practiced breathing through your ear holes. Or a rogue wave that came from nowhere to tower over you, and then smashed down on your deck with a noise like the crack of doom. Or a sudden thunderstorm that struck with icy, gale-force winds and forks of white-hot lightning when you were still a mile from shore. Whatever the circumstances, the results were the same. You took a hit. You got hurt. But you survived — and you kept going. That's resilience. The ability to bounce back when Nature unsheathes her claws and strikes out at you. If your paddling career is going to last longer than a sultry summer's day, resilience is essential.

And so is another quality, one that's closely related to resilience:

Humility

No, I'm not thinking of Dickens' Uriah Heep here. You don't need to proclaim to all the world that you're a very 'umble person, while wringing your hands and bowing your head. There doesn't have to be anything abject or groveling about humility, in fact. It's nothing more than the recognition that however much you know, you've always got something more to learn, and that however strong you are, the forces of Nature are always stronger. Humility is the opposite of hubris, in other words. And that's a very good thing. Hubris, the overweening pride that almost always incited the Greek gods to jealous rage, has gotten more than a few paddlers into trouble over the years. Luckily, there's an antidote. Humility.

Of course, you can be too humble, as well as too bold. Too much humility saps confidence, and confidence, we decided last time, is also one of the Other Essentials. Confused? No need to be. It's all a matter of…

Balance

This is important in both the literal and figurative senses. Let's see how. In any small boat — and canoes and kayaks are the smallest of the small — you are the most important element in determining your craft's ultimate stability. Good boat control requires good balance. Your boat has to become an extension of your body, and if you want to keep your head above water you have to respond immediately to each impinging force, even as you anticipate the next. That's balance in the literal sense, and it's one of the many things that paddling and cycling have in common. But the figurative sense is more important still. Many of the Other Ten Essentials are subtly opposed. Confidence is at odds with humility. Curiosity and courage are often at war with patience. Strength is frequently invoked as a substitute for skill. And what's the key to resolving these apparent contradictions? Balance. Once you're ready to go beyond the mechanical drills and rote prescriptions of many how-to-paddle books and training classes, you have to embrace opposites and reconcile them, each to the other. Is this easy? No. But it's worth it, because the end result is…

Joy

And joy requires no explanation. At least it shouldn't. Make no mistake, though: it is essential. If being on the water doesn't bring you joy from the first moment you pick up a paddle, you'll be back in the La-Z-Boy® before the day is out. Joy is the alpha and the omega of paddlesport, the beginning and the end. For some paddlers, joy comes from pushing harder than they thought possible, going farther and faster than they've ever gone before (notwithstanding the need for patience). For others, it's enough just to be out on the water, magically suspended on the interface between two worlds. And for a happy few, there's joy aplenty to be had in simply contemplating the sweeping arc of a gunwale or the slim throat of an ash beavertail. Each of us responds according to his (or her) own nature. But first and last, there must be joy. Or there is nothing.

To the first five intangible assets — curiosity, courage, skill, strength, and confidence — we can now add five more: patience, humility, resilience, balance, and joy. Taken all together, these are the Other Ten Essentials. You probably won't want to add them to your gear list, but if you always bring them with you whenever you venture forth, you're not likely to find any challenge too great, on the water or off. That's a pretty big return on a small investment of time and sweat, isn't it? I think so, at any rate, and I'm betting you'll agree.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.
















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