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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

One Foot in the Grave? Never!

Paddling Life After 50 —
Finding Your Comfort Zone

By Tamia Nelson

October 9, 2007

My horse-wrangling aunt still works as hard as she did when she was a girl, but the years have taken their toll. "A long day leaves me feeling like I was hit by a truck," she writes, "and on the worst days I'd swear I was still under the wheels." Does this sound familiar? It does to me. For many active folks who've seen the half-century mark come and go — and for quite a few younger paddlers, too — no day passes when something doesn't hurt. It takes us longer and longer to plod across familiar portages. Our legs protest after just an hour of kneeling. Our favorite canoes grow a little heavier each year. Sleep comes slowly. Dawn arrives too soon. And landmarks that we once recognized at a glance now appear as dim and distant wraiths, visible only through binoculars.

The obvious conclusion? Life's "third age" isn't for sissies. Still, it doesn't pay to cry about it. Consider the alternative. And don't put your paddle in the box with stuff for the next garage sale, either. You may not be as young as you used to be — who is? — but there's no need to surrender to the calendar. You just have to …

Adjust Your Expectations

To begin with, leave roughing it to the Ironmen (and Ironwomen) who enjoy that sort of thing, and who are young enough to bounce back from any injuries. Smooth it, instead. It's more fun, and it puts less strain on your frame. Start by listening to your body. It will usually tell you when it's happy. Then do whatever you need to do in order to stay in your Comfort Zone. Lighten up on the portages, for example. Make two or more trips instead of one. Enjoy the opportunity to take a longer walk in the woods, instead of cursing the extra time it takes. After all, slowing down has its compensations. You see more, for one thing.

The upshot? If any single principle of Comfort Zone paddling stands tall above all others, it's this (with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel): Whenever you find yourself moving too fast — and you won't need a heart rate monitor to hear your blood pounding in your ears! — don't keep on keeping on. Slow down or stop, instead. Better yet, anticipate problems before they happen. Stop paddling before your arms are tired. Sit and stretch before your knees protest. (Deep vein thrombosis doesn't just strike air travelers, you know!) Beach your boat and take a walk on the shore before your back contorts in a knot of pain. And make camp early in the day, before you're exhausted. 'Nuff said, right? But what if you injure yourself despite everything? That's easy. Concentrate on getting back in the Comfort Zone ASAP. Don't tough it out and hope for the best. Get advice from a pro — and without delay. A prompt visit to a physician or physical therapist may cost you an afternoon (and a few hundred bucks), but it can also save you from months of enforced inactivity, not to mention years of misery. That's a pretty good bargain.

It's an easy prescription to follow, too. Learn your limits and adjust your activities accordingly. Let comfort be your guide. But don't imagine that this means collapsing in a La-Z-Boy® and never stirring again. It doesn't. The process of adjustment isn't static. In fact, whatever your age and condition, you can do a lot to expand your Comfort Zone. In other words, no matter how far up life's mountain you've climbed and how strenuous the trip you have in mind, the odds are that you can still …

Adapt to the Challenge

This won't appeal to the lazy, of course, but that shouldn't be a problem. How many lazy paddlers do you know? I can't think of many. In any case, adaptation is active, not passive. You can't buy strength and flexibility at the HyperMart. Sweat equity is the only form of payment your muscles recognize. Our bodies thrive on use, in other words. Use. Not abuse. There's no need for heroics. Just regular, moderate exercise. And that can make all the difference. Finding the time is the only tricky bit. The key? Incorporate your workout into your daily routine. Instead of driving off to the gym and running on a treadmill with one eye on your watch and the other on a TV game show, walk or bicycle to work. Or if that's impossible, at least walk or bike part of the way. (If you're really lucky you might be able to commute by canoe or kayak.) Instead of waiting for the elevator to take you up to your office, climb the stairs. Eat lunch in a nearby park instead of joining the line at The Bigger Burger, and while you're at it, walk to the park! Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that this will always be a piece of cake. Adaptation requires change, and changing the habits of a lifetime is never easy — particularly in a world where cars take priority over people. But it can be done, and it's worth the effort. You're likely to lose a few unwanted pounds in the process, too. It's a loss that most of us can bear. And this brings me to the bottom line: When you hit the water, your body will thank you.

Have I painted too sunny a picture? Will there be potholes on the road to Wellville? You bet! But once you've gotten your doc's OK and overcome the time barrier, most exercise-related problems fall under the heading of minor aches and pains. A case in point: Bad backs keep many canoeists and kayakers on shore when they'd rather be out on the water. Even paddlers with six-pack abs aren't immune. This is one place among many where it pays to expand the scope of adaptation. You've worked on your bod. Now it's time to work on your gear. Customize your kit to make sure you keep paddling in the Comfort Zone. Runners are always tinkering with their shoes, and cyclists spend hours (and hundreds of dollars) on their saddles. (Amphibious paddlers take note!) Canoeists and kayakers can benefit from the same sort of commitment to comfort. Knee pads are must-have accessories for canoeists, of course, but that's just the start. Is your bum sore? A new seat for your sit-on-top or kayak can make all the difference. Now let's get back to backs. Is your lumbar region aflame with pain? A backrest for your canoe seat could be just what the doctor ordered. (But be sure you check with your doc if you're in doubt!)

These miseries don't end when you haul out, of course. Just ask any voyageur you meet on the trail. Portages are probably the most difficult and dangerous legs of any expedition. Luckily, walking sticks and trekking poles can help. So can padded portage yokes. And portage carts — where they're legal — go yokes one better. Or do you think carts are for wimps and wusses? Think again. Carts are a Canoe Country tradition. The voyageurs used Red River carts to carry the load whenever they could, not to mention rollers and rails. And don't spurn a helping hand if one is needed. The voyageurs didn't. It sometimes took half the crew to get a single canot de maître across a difficult portage. If it takes two of you to portage your canoe, kayak, or SOT, so what? You're in the best of company.

And what happens at the end of the day? The search for comfort continues even then. Don't just squat on damp ground in front of a smoky fire and grumble while your knees crack in protest. That's no fun! Adapt your camp for comfort, instead. Buy (or make) a portable camp chair. Then lean back and relax, and do your cooking on an efficient stove. (A bonus: camp chairs keep your bum out of the mud!) While it's a Very Good Idea to chill out in camp, however, you don't want to overdo it. Canoe Country days are often delightfully warm, even in fall. But the nights are frequently cold — too cold for comfort unless you dress for success. Pay special attention to your head, hands, and feet. A windproof anorak and a fleece pullover won't go amiss, either.

There's more at stake here than mere comfort. (But when is comfort merely "mere"?) Cold muscles are tight muscles, and tight muscles are easily injured. Conclusion? Comfort is too important to be ignored, and keeping warm is critical. A hearty meal and a hot shower at the end of the day help a lot. So do a warm sleeping bag and a comfortable camp mattress. In fact, these latter two items are essential. The Comfort Imperative doesn't end when you turn in. A good night's sleep is the key to enjoying the next day. You might even want to bring a pillow!

Adjust. Adapt. What's next? That's easy:

Improvise at Will!

I'll keep this short and simple. Only you know when you're in your Comfort Zone. Treat every outing as an experiment. If something works for you, contrary to any and all expert opinion, do it! And if something doesn't, despite recommendations from all and sundry (including me), don't. Keep an open mind. Learn from experience — yours and that of other paddlers, as well. And never be afraid to improvise.

Comfort's a much overused word these days. But that doesn't mean it's not important. Yes, the active life inevitably brings aches and pains in its wake. But they're no reason to give up paddling. Listen to what your body's trying to tell you. Then adjust your expectations. Adapt. And improvise. That's the key to finding your Comfort Zone.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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