The Match Game; or, the Art of Picking Paddling Partners

In Monday’s SameBoat Short, Tamia had a few suggestions for would‑be paddlers who are just starting out, as well as veterans now thinking about returning to the sport after a long absence. And as it happens, the two seemingly disparate groups have a lot in common, including the need to find compatible paddling partners, something that’s not always as easy as it sounds. Which is why it’s Tamia’s subject today.

The Match Game, or the Art of Picking Paddling Partners

by Tamia Nelson | December 1, 2017
First published, in somewhat different form, on August 15, 2017

Never go alone. This has long been one of paddling’s ten commandments, and though, like every commandment in the original Decalogue, it’s often ignored, it’s very good advice, indeed — and not just because it’s a comfort to have someone with you when things go wrong. Man is a social animal. Most things that are worth doing are more enjoyable when done in the company of one or more like‑minded souls. And there’s the rub. Finding such kindred spirits is easier said than done. Friends from work and neighbors you meet only at weekend barbecues can prove tedious bores in the backcountry. Even the folks you know from your church or union hall — people with whom you thought you saw eye to eye on nearly everything — may have very different ideas on the best place to camp for the night. There’s also the vexed question of competence. While it can be a pleasure to show novices the strokes on Golden Pond, especially on smiling summer days, it’s not much fun to find yourself facing a long open‑water crossing in a rising gale when you’re partnered with a paddler who thinks that a brace is something you wrap around an injured knee.

My conclusion? It pays to be picky. Choosing a paddling partner is at least as chancy as agreeing to a blind date for an evening out. Chancier, actually, since most first dates end after just a few hours, but a weekend trip means you’ll be in each other’s pockets for the better part of two days. That being the case, what should you look for in a prospective partner? Every canoeist or kayaker has her own answer to this question, I’m sure, but I’d venture to guess we could all agree that four things are paramount, beginning with …

Good Judgment. This is the most important quality in a paddling partner, and in my experience it’s the rarest. Some superbly skilled boaters are also compulsive risk‑takers, courting death every time they wet a blade. That may not matter much when they’re paddling with a strong group, on water where help can be summoned in minutes, but such a devil‑may‑care attitude on a wild river can be a killer, and there’s no guarantee that the risk‑taker will be the only one to pay the price for her folly. The familiar maxim among fliers — there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots — is more than just a clever turn of phrase. It embodies an essential truth.

The other side of the coin is also true. Many novice boaters have excellent judgment. They know their limits, and they defer to the veterans in the party in matters outside their experience. They also keep their eyes (and minds) open, seizing every opportunity to learn new things and practice new skills. If I had to pick a partner for an extended backcountry trip, and if the choice lay between a level‑headed novice and a risk‑taking hotshot, the decision would be an easy one. I don’t imagine I have to tell you whom I would choose.

And what comes next, after good judgment?

Good Humour, that’s what: the ability to laugh at life’s many small discomforts and frustrations. No backcountry trip is without plenty of both, after all. Blackflies bite. The wind is usually in your face, and it always grows stronger as you tire. The portage trail lies 10 feet below your feet, while you teeter tentatively on an unstable heap of logging slash with an 80‑pound canoe balanced on your back. Smoke from the campfire follows you around, no matter where you sit, and flying embers burn holes in your hat. Tant pis, as the French say. Whatever the misery of the moment, a ready laugh always clears the air, and now that I think about it, good humor is also closely allied to the third essential quality in a paddling partner:

Grit. It’s not a word you often hear today, perhaps because it’s conspicuous by its absence in public life, but grit embraces both physical and moral courage, along with simple endurance. The backcountry is no place for whiners and wimps. Does this mean that only hard men and athletes need apply? Certainly not. I learned the finer points of handling a kayak in moving water from a man who was in his ninth decade. I doubt he could do ten pushups. But he knew how to husband his strength for the times when it was most needed, and not once did he have to quit the river before the end of a trip — trips that often left me sore‑limbed and exhausted. Which goes to show that good judgment plays a role in endurance, too. Know thyself. Gnōthi seauton. The Greeks cut these words into the stones at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Clever chaps, those Greeks.

That’s three essentials accounted for. What’s the fourth? An equable temper and …

A Cool Head. Panic can kill, as writer and Outward Bound Sea School instructor J. D. (“Des”) Sleightholme pointed out in his tongue‑in‑cheek advice to new sailors: “If in danger or in doubt, shout and scream and rush about.” Most of us know people like that, I suspect, but few of us would choose to paddle with them. Rage can also be deadly. Eric Sevareid and Walter Port, finding themselves alone in a canoe on the Hayes River with winter setting in, attacked each other in a blind fury of frustration. If they hadn’t already been close to collapse, one of them would have finished the other off. Luckily, such incidents are very, very rare. Still, differences of outlook and opinion are inevitable in any social grouping, and groups of paddlers are no exception. But whatever the provocation, it’s important that traveling companions bottle up their anger until they’re off the water. If they can’t do this, it’s best to leave them (and their rage) behind when you travel to the put‑in.

So much for first principles. But how do they work in practice? Each of us will have her own approach to the match game, but here’s how I go about picking paddling partners: To begin with, I look for companions among people I’ve already paddled with. Making new friends is wonderful. It’s one of the joys of club outings. On the other hand, if you’re going to be spending days or weeks in someone’s company, with little or no respite, it should be someone you know well. And the best way to get to know anyone is to spend time with her beforehand, on the water and off. Begin with day trips, and then progress by easy stages though weekenders and beyond. This gives you a chance to find out if your interests, temperaments, and outlooks are compatible. Hard chargers who like to put as many miles under their keels as possible in any 24‑hour period will resent having to wait around for a painter’s canvas to dry, while serious twitchers won’t be happy if they’re denied a chance to add a new species of bird to their life lists, even though this means lengthening the lunch break by an hour or two. On extended outings, compatibility is everything.

Does sex matter? I’ll leave that one up to you, but there’s no reason for women to shrink from partnering with men they’ve no interest in bedding. (And vice versa, of course.) But it’s important — make that essential — to be sure you’re both of a mind on this point. That’s another reason to spend a little time getting to know one another before you head out.

And then there’s age. What about age? I don’t think this matters much at all. Like I said, I learned to handle a kayak under the watchful eye of a man who was nearly half a century older than I was, and though I’m now closer to 80 than I am to 30 myself, this hasn’t changed my opinion. I find the company of many 20‑somethings far more congenial than that of some of my contemporaries. Outlook, interest, and enthusiasm are the most important things. Age is just a number. That said, only a Pollyanna would argue that the years don’t take a toll on paddlers’ ability to go the distance, and this is a legitimate concern for anyone who’s planning an extended backcountry trip. But while a correlation between age and stamina certainly exists, it’s not especially strong. An active 70‑year‑old will likely prove a more reliable partner than a 17‑year‑old kid who spends most of his waking hours playing World of Warcraft. And the old guy will probably be better company than game boy, too. Paddling partners are like good wines. If they’re not mishandled, they usually improve with age.

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Finding a paddling partner isn’t as easy as filling an empty chair around the table at a dinner party. It’s more like getting engaged. I’ve described the things I think are most important, but that’s not the whole story. Paddlers who travel together, whether close kin or casual acquaintances, are family, and most families have ground rules. Call these the paddlers’ code of conduct, if you will. And that’s my topic for next Friday. See you then!

Read more: Friends and lovers | Staying out of trouble | Lessons learned

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