The Perils and Pitfalls of Not Going It Alone
By Tamia Nelson
February 24, 2009
Paddling with other like-minded folks can be a richly rewarding experience. Sharing heightens the pleasures associated with nearly everything outdoors, whether it's catching a fleeting glimpse of a wading moose, discovering a perfect hideaway beach tucked back in a tiny cove, or scouting a clean line through a tricky rapids. It even adds to the fun of the post-trip debriefing. Paddling in company is also safer than going it alone, and this is especially true on any Big Trip. But what about less ambitious jaunts? It's easy—too easy, perhaps—to offer the familiar advice: "Never paddle solo." It's not so easy to find the right partners, however. Like fast-moving rivers, the deep waters of interpersonal relationships are roiled by…
No surprise there, I'm sure. You're lucky if your paddling partner is a spouse, a relative, or a close friend. Such partnerships can work out very well indeed. Of course, success isn't guaranteed. More than one marriage has foundered on the rocks of a turbulent river, and lifelong friendships have ended in disputes over who gets to paddle in the stern. Still, if your partnership first blossomed on land, you've got a head start. A very different state of affairs arises when a casual acquaintance asks to come along on a canoeing or kayaking trip. What then? Do you embrace the idea enthusiastically, glad to have any opportunity to share your love of paddling? Or do you reject it out of hand, fearful of the prospect of shepherding a novice—or worse, someone whose confidence exceeds her competence—through her first days? Or maybe you steer a middle course, making tentative plans to meet up on undemanding water, on some warm and sunny afternoon, sometime in the indefinite future. In any case, it's never an easy decision, but it's one that every paddler has to make sooner or later.
In the Same Boat readers are no exception. Not long ago, a North Carolina paddler found himself in exactly this position, and he wrote to ask me what I thought. At my request, he's graciously permitted me to reprint his letter in full, though I've edited it slightly to protect his privacy:
A neighbor down the road somehow found out that I kayak, and mentioned that he also had a kayak. He suggested that we ought to go paddling together sometime, but I made the usual non-committal response, "Sure, sometime." This is an older gentleman who I don't know at all well, and I know nothing about his physical abilities or paddling skills. I rate myself as an advanced amateur. I can get the boat pretty much where I want it to go, have had some instruction in self-rescue, and have limited but emerging skills. I'm in reasonably good physical condition—mostly from jogging—always wear my PFD, and always take a paddle float and a pump on my boat. I paddle most with my wife—we obviously are well aware of each other's personalities and skills.
So now I've got a broad, two-pronged dilemma. First, how should we make decisions about who we are willing to paddle with? What sorts of questions should we ask that potential paddling buddy to help us make our decision?
Second, what should be our responsibility for a paddling companion, and what should we expect of that other person? One angle on that is the degree to which we have an obligation to ensure the safety of that other person, and what should we be prepared to do if he or she gets into trouble. Similarly, what expectations should we have about the other person's responsibility for our own safety?
I'll close with an anecdote that perhaps illustrates the point. An acquaintance of mine—a dedicated, highly skilled whitewater paddler—and his wife (also quite skilled) went to California. They met some other paddlers there who were strangers to them, but they agreed to go paddling with this new bunch. Those folks took them to a tough whitewater river which was running at a fairly high level. At one point my friend's wife dumped out of her boat. My friend told me later that it was nearly an hour before he could catch up with her down the river—to find out if she was even still alive. Lots of points one could make about that, I suppose. But the central one seems to be that perhaps we need to make good choices about who we're willing to paddle with.
Best wishes—and thanks.
Whew! Our reader has clearly given this a good deal of thought. He asks a lot of pertinent questions, too. And even though Farwell and I have touched on this very topic before—in fact, it was the theme of one of our first columns for Paddling.net—when I sat down to answer the letter I realized we'd only scratched the surface. It was high time to revisit the topic, and I now had the perfect opportunity. So I jumped at the chance, beginning with the problematic issue of…
"The past," a clever man once wrote, "is a foreign country." The same thing can be said of other people. However close we are to others, we remain strangers, even to our best friends. We each inhabit a separate world, and though our private worlds often touch, they never truly merge. An unbridgeable barrier remains. That said, old friends surprise us less often than new acquaintances. The best paddling companions are therefore people you know well, folks whose judgment you've learned to trust. People you can rely on, in other words. To borrow a line from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, these are the people who, while they may present many known unknowns, pose the smallest risk of unknown unknowns.
This is important. Bad companions—and by this I mean individuals whose "unknown unknowns" turn out to be dangerous or disruptive or just plain off-putting—can ruin any trip, however well planned it is otherwise. These folks may not be bad people, of course. In fact, they probably aren't. But that's beside the point. Even a day trip to Golden Pond is rife with opportunities for conflict. Do we eat lunch here, or should we look for a less crowded beach, as stomachs growl and tempers fray? Should we head for shore right now, or can we weather the coming storm in mid-lake? And what happens if we misjudge the force of the wind? Oh, yes… While I'm thinking about it, you did remember to bring the insect repellent, didn't you? (There's an obvious corollary here. If you want to be sure that you'll always enjoy good company, you have to be good company yourself. It's a high standard, and one that few of us can meet 100 percent of the time. I know I can't. Still, I do my best.)
When all is said and done, the participants in a paddling trip enter into a sort of informal contract, in which each undertakes to discharge certain responsibilities in the interest of achieving a common objective. That objective might be a first descent of a Class VI torrent. Or it may be no more challenging than a picnic on a nearby island. No matter. You and your partners have signed on for the duration. And—as in all contractual matters—it's prudent to make sure everyone is capable of meeting her (or his) obligations. Call it due diligence, if you like. It's vital when your prospective companions include comparative strangers. So far, so good. But now comes the hard question. What should you look for? Well, I won't attempt to lay down universal guidelines. Instead, I'll tell you the things that I think are most important:
- Sound judgment
- Good humor
- Grace under pressure
It's a rare person indeed who embodies all these qualities in full measure, but anyone who's seriously deficient in even one of them is probably not the happiest choice for a paddling partner. You'll notice that I didn't say anything about skill level. This doesn't mean that expertise isn't important. It is. It must be equal to the demands of the trip. Period. If a novice asks to join a group of experts on a run down Hell's-a-Poppin' Creek in full flood, he should be discouraged—politely if possible, bluntly if not. But the bar needn't always be set this high. A summer afternoon on Golden Pond is within the reach of almost anyone. In fact, such a trip is a great way to get acquainted. A lot can be learned about a person's paddling ability just by watching her launch and land her boat, deal with powerboat wakes, and dodge submerged tree stumps. Yet competence alone is not enough, even when competence rises to the level of expertise. Other qualities are equally important. The paddling community has its share of world-class boaters who are also thrill-seeking jerks, with no thoughts for anyone but themselves. It's not a happy combination.
The bottom line? A paddling partnership is first and foremost a partnership. And what do I look for in a partner? You guessed it. Sound judgment. Good humor. Grace under pressure. An even temper. Given adequate boat-handling skills, these are the qualities I prize most highly. Are there other considerations? Yes. A host of little things, some of which loom large on long trips. For example: Do you and your prospective companion move at the same speed? Hares and tortoises seldom stay together for long. Is keeping to a schedule more important to your partner than getting a photo of a wading bear or soaring eagle? More important than testing the evening rise on a beaver pond, just when the mayflies are coming off the water? (Photographers and anglers often exasperate others who don't share their enthusiasms. I know. I've done it.) Or maybe you like to ride the big rollers in mid-lake, while your prospective partner is happiest when he's following every wrinkle and indentation in the shoreline. You get my drift, I'm certain. Your friends became your friends for many good reasons. And friends make the best paddling companions.
This brings up another question. How does a paddler who's new to an area (or new to paddling) find partners? That's a bit easier to answer. The same way you make friends at work—by talking to people and spending time together. Paddling clubs are great ways to expand your horizons. It was just such a club that introduced Farwell and me to the corporal's guard of whitewater fanatics who became our (almost) constant weekend companions for many years. Now let's put the shoe on the other foot, and address some of the questions raised by our reader. What should you do when someone you know—but whom you don't yet know well—asks to come along on your next outing? Here, too, the answer is pretty straightforward. Spend a little time getting to know him (or her). Find out where he's paddled, and with whom. You may have friends in common, and there's no better introduction. Compare notes on boats and gear. See if you share any other interests. Many paddlers are also anglers; most are photographers, though not everyone is a serious photographer. Risk a few pointed questions. If your new buddy has a dog, find out if it goes with him everywhere, and if so, ask if Fido is boat-trained. Meet up at a local lake for a short paddle. Is your prospective partner on time? Is he well-organized? Does he wear his PFD, or does he shove it into the bow of the boat? Little impressions soon coalesce to give the big picture, but the crux of the matter is easy to state: Do you enjoy spending time together? Are you unhappy to see the take-out loom ahead at trip's end? If so, you've found a new partner.
In any event, don't rush things. Paddling partnerships are a little like cheese. The best ones ripen slowly. But don't delay a decision when things obviously aren't working out, either. If the still, small voice in your head tells you that the relationship isn't going anywhere, don't ignore the message. Part good friends if at all possible, but make a clean break. It's for the best.
There's another consideration worth mentioning. Age. It matters. But how much it matters is up to the parties concerned. It's not that older paddlers are invariably enfeebled, of course, nor are all younger padders irresponsible adrenaline junkies—though the years do levy a toll on both muscle and bone, and young people are sometimes feckless. That said, a common love of paddling can bridge a considerable gap. Long before we joined the Over the Hill Gang, Farwell and I paddled regularly with a 70-something kayaker, and not a year went by that he didn't teach us a few new tricks. So much for stereotypes! Nonetheless, age differences can—and do—create barriers. Moreover, it's essential that any prospective companion be equal to the physical challenge of a trip. And that brings me to another important subject:
A team is more than the sum of its parts, and any group of paddlers is—or at least it should be—a team. Individual egos must defer to the larger interests of the group. You have a responsibility to your companions, and they bear a like responsibility toward you. This is true whatever the mix of abilities. No one, not even a total neophyte on his first trip, can dodge the obligation altogether. Here's why: Groups must travel at the speed set by the slowest or least able member, whatever the wishes of the fitter paddlers. Illness or injury may bring a long-anticipated expedition to an early end, disappointing the folks who may never again have a chance to complete the interrupted journey. This imposes burdens on the weak as well as the strong. Among the mountaineering fraternity, it used to be an article of faith that an injured or exhausted climber had a duty to apologize to his companions, since his infirmity imposed daunting burdens on the other members of the climbing party, often forcing them to abandon a climb well short of the summit goal. The obligation outlasted even life itself. When tragedy struck on the mountain and a climber died, his closest friends made his apology for him. Or so the story ran. Happily, I never saw this (possibly apocryphal) article of faith put to a hard test. In any event, it now sounds like a relic of a bygone age, and it is. Yet it still embodies an important truth—teams succeed or fail together. Individual members have a moral duty to do their utmost to achieve the common goal.
There's an important corollary. Teams should strive to be self-sufficient. You cannot rely on the kindness of strangers in the backcountry. Farwell and I once found ourselves in a situation almost exactly like that of the couple whose misadventure is so feelingly described in our reader's letter. We got in over our heads on a river—literally so, in my case, since I hadn't properly secured my PFD—and our companions proved unequal to the task of rescuing me, or even helping us salvage our gear. By far the greater fault was Farwell's and mine, obviously. We were cocky and careless and we paid for our hubris in full measure. But our companions came up short, as well. They were the more experienced paddlers, yet they were ill-prepared for the demands of a fast-water rescue operation. In the end, Farwell and I had to depend wholly on the kindness of strangers, and it's thanks to them that I'm alive today. It could have ended differently. If we hadn't been lucky enough to swamp right under the eyes of a strong team of expert whitewater boaters, I wouldn't be writing this, and Farwell would be a widower.
Wiser paddlers make their own luck. They don't tackle water they're not ready for. Moreover, experienced boaters don't lead less-expert paddlers into harm's way without taking proper precautions and acquiring the specialist skills needed to effect rescues under difficult conditions. The upshot? Though every member of a team is responsible for the welfare of each of his companions, some members—those who are stronger, more expert, or more experienced—bear a heavier burden of responsibility. All members of a team are equal, in other words, but some are more equal than others.
Don't think for a minute that this lets the novice off the hook entirely. It doesn't. Beginning paddlers, particularly those beginners who hope to accompany more experienced boaters (and that means every sensible beginner), have an obligation to be forthcoming about their physical limitations, if any, as well as their prior experience (or lack thereof). They should also be prepared to meet rebuffs with good grace. Not every old hand wants to take fledgling paddlers under his wing. He may simply not want the bother, or he may doubt his own competence to serve as mentor to a novice. Either way, his "No" should always be respected, never condemned.
Even a "Yes" isn't a blank check, of course. In the final analysis, each of us is responsible for her own fate. Each of us paddles her own canoe. And there's no denying the fact that canoeing and kayaking can be…
"Early and provident fear is the mother of safety." The words are Edmund Burke's, and truer words were never spoken. Risk is unavoidable. The gift of life doesn't carry a money-back guarantee. We roll the dice each and every waking day, and sooner or later we all crap out. But the house odds aren't fixed. Some things are riskier than others. Paddling can be either very safe or deadly dangerous, and although the danger can be minimized in any given set of circumstances—many writers on the subject now prefer "managed," perhaps to forestall arguments over what course of action does most to minimize risk—it can never be entirely eliminated. Rough water, bad weather, extremes of cold and heat, remoteness…all these figure into the equation, and each of us must solve that equation for himself. I know I've argued that every member of a team bears a measure of responsibility for the well-being of all other members, and I stand by my guns, but ultimate responsibility for one's own safety necessarily rests with oneself. It can never be delegated.
This raises a host of questions, both ethical and legal. Unfortunately, I'm neither a lawyer nor a sage, so I'll have to leave these for others to answer. There is an excellent discussion of both the medico-legal and ethical ramifications of wilderness emergencies in an appendix to Medicine for Mountaineering, however. (It's Appendix D in my fifth-edition copy; other editions may differ.) I'd urge every trip leader—no, every paddler, whatever his or her level of expertise—to read it. It's certainly not the last word on the subject, but it's a very good first step. There's one important question that my copy of Medicine for Mountaineering doesn't address, however, and it's a vexed one: the knotty business of assigning responsibility for any charges associated with evacuations and rescues, not to mention the cost of replacing lost or abandoned gear. This can be as simple as "You call, you pay" and "Your gear, your problem," of course. But the possibilities for misunderstandings are endless, particularly when strangers or casual acquaintances get together to paddle. It's too big a topic for me to tackle today, I'm afraid. I'll return to it in a future column.
Now it's time to sum things up. I've done my best to address the concerns raised by my North Carolina correspondent, but as important as these are, I'm afraid I've fallen well short of providing definitive guidelines. Maybe that's because there aren't any. After all, when Cain cried out, "Am I my brother's keeper?" he got no clear answer in reply. Perhaps the best that can be said is this: Mutual respect is the foundation on which most successful partnerships are built, and enduring friendship is a natural outgrowth of this shared regard. Choose your paddling companions from among your friends, then, and draw your closest friends from among your paddling companions, without regard to age or experience. If you do this and no more, I doubt you'll go far wrong.
Hooking up is always fraught with uncertainties, and that's as true for a weekend trip on a river as it is for a Saturday night date. Either way, a mismatch can leave you wishing you'd stayed home to watch a DVD. But there are ways to improve the odds. Forethought and honesty go some distance toward avoiding most of the perils and pitfalls. And who can tell? If you hook up with a partner on those terms, you just might land a keeper. I know I did.
Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.