The Other Ten Essentials
Five Things You Can’t Buy, From Curiosity to Confidence
You won’t see these offered for sale on any outfitter’s shelf, and you probably won’t find them in anybody’s gear list. But just try embarking on a journey — any journey — without them. Happily, though, they’re free to everyone. The only requirements? A little time and a lot of sweat.
by Farwell Forrest | November 14, 2017
First published, in somewhat different form, on November 28, 2006
Paddlers — most of the paddlers I know, at any rate — are gearheads. We memorize whole sections of outfitters’ catalogs. We devour pages of Web copy describing whatever is newest, lightest, fastest, or coolest. We read accounts of other paddlers’ trips from back to front, beginning with their equipment lists. And this makes sense. Despite the lip service we give to the traditional aspects of our sport, its evolution is driven by advances in technology. It always has been, right from its beginnings in the well-publicized adventures of John “Rob Roy” MacGregor and Nessmuk. After all, the molded paper canoes that made headlines in the sporting press a century and a half ago were no less revolutionary in their day than the latest carbon-fiber confections are in our own.
So it’s easy to see why we’re infatuated with gear. It’s important to us. To our safety. To our comfort. To our sport. Anyone who’s ever found himself up a creek without a paddle understands this. But our infatuation also has a downside. (What infatuation doesn’t?) It confuses means with ends. Canoeing is something we do for fun, and you don’t need the newest gear — let alone the lightest, the fastest, or the coolest — in order to have fun on the water. You just need a boat, a paddle, and a life jacket. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to have a great time maneuvering a caulked wooden crate around a flooded city street, with only a stub of one-by-six for a paddle. How do I know? Easy. I’ve done it. Admittedly, it was a while back (60 years ago, give or take), and it’s true that I didn’t bother with a life jacket. Even if I’d known that such things existed at the time, I couldn’t have afforded one. Then again, the water under my homemade boat’s keel was only about a foot deep, so I really wasn’t running much of a risk. And I had a wonderful time. For as long as my leaky barge held together (and it lasted longer than I’d thought possible), every summer thunderstorm transformed the street fronting my tenement block into a waterway that rivaled the canals of Venice, at least in my imagination. Best of all, I was free to explore that waterway at will.
The conclusion is obvious: There’s something more important than having the latest gear. More important than any gear, come to that, even the aptly named Ten Essentials. And what is this mysterious something? The answer isn’t simple. To begin with, it’s not just one thing. It’s several things. And you won’t find them on any outfitter’s shelves. None of them costs you as much as a penny of your hard-earned cash — that’s a plus, surely — but none is exactly free, either. All of them have to be paid for, one way or another. With sweat, perhaps. Or time. Or simply by heeding the still, small voice that speaks to everyone who bothers to listen. So the price can be high, even if your wallet stays in your pocket. The good news? Taken all together, these vital “somethings” don’t weigh more than an butterfly’s wing, nor do they take up any more space in your pack than a grain of sand. Call them a paddler’s intangible assets, if you must. Or call them the Other Ten Essentials. I do.
And what are these intangible essentials? Let’s begin at the beginning, with …
However you came to paddling, you started somewhere. And most of us started by wondering what lay around the next bend of a river — the one we couldn’t see from the highway — or outside the bar at the mouth of a harbor. Without the goad of curiosity, there’s no reason why anyone would ever want to abandon the comforts of his or her* home, even for a day. It’s no surprise, therefore, that I’ve never met a paddler who was totally incurious. Of course, curiosity without …
Leads nowhere. It’s not enough just to wonder what lies around the bend — or across a continent. You have to have the grit to go and see for yourself. At best, you’ll need to hazard discomfort and disappointment, not to mention the occasional disapproval of your nearest and dearest. At worst, you’ll risk the despair that comes when long-held dreams collapse around you, because not every discovery is a happy one. I still remember how I felt on a brilliant autumn afternoon when I paddled round a familiar bend in a fabled trout stream and met a bulldozer in midriver, gouging a channel in a gravel bar and turning the dancing water from emerald green to dirty brown. It took all the courage I could muster to continue downriver on that day, to confront the damage done to “my” stream without flinching or turning aside. And it required even more courage to return several days later to inspect the scars.
That said, courage isn’t enough by itself. You also need …
There’s a word for attempting feats that you know are beyond your ability: folly. Admittedly, it’s often difficult to know exactly how much you can do until you try, but only fools imagine that boldness is a substitute for skill, and fools don’t fare well in a small boat. The oft-repeated pilot’s adage applies to paddlers, too. There are old paddlers and there are bold paddlers, but there are few old, bold paddlers. Skill makes all the difference. It takes time to develop, and it can’t be purchased. To be sure, you can hire an instructor with a wave of your credit card. But in the end it’s still up to you to put his lessons into practice. And even with the best instruction money can buy, there’s no shortcut to competence. You can’t make the jump from novice to expert in a weekend — or a year, for that matter.
Yet skill alone won’t make you a “complete” paddler. No matter how adroitly you can maneuver your boat, you won’t get very far without …
No, you don’t have to be Sampson. Or Skaði. But when you’re paddling your own canoe, you can only travel as far as your muscles will take you. A paddler can’t tap a drum of fossil sunlight to take him where he wants to go. He has to be strong enough to get to his destination under his own power, even when wind and current are working tirelessly against him. Skill helps you make the most of whatever strength you have, of course, but you still have to be strong enough to get the job done. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to harden muscles. Nobody else can do it for you. Sweat equity is the key. You have to invest in your body, particularly as the years take their relentless toll. There’s no gain without strain. The bottom line? You won’t get any stronger by lounging in a La-Z-Boy.
You knew that already, though, didn’t you? Sure you did, and now we’re on a roll. As luck would have it, synergy is on our side. When speaking of intangible assets, the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts. Here’s a for-instance: Skill is useless without strength, and strength without skill is often impotent. But practice sessions — whether they’re in a YMCA pool or on a river — build both strength and skill simultaneously. And once skill and strength are wedded, the result is a foregone conclusion:
Is confidence important? You bet it is. In fact, it may be the most important intangible of all. You won’t travel very far if you aren’t confident that you have what it takes to get where you’re going — and then get back again. And confidence can’t be faked. You can’t con a contrary current into letting you pass, or calm a choppy sea with a few well-chosen words. Moreover, you have to develop confidence the old-fashioned way, through a combination of experience and effort. It’s worth whatever it takes, though. Without confidence in yourself and your abilities, you’ll have a hard time getting up the nerve to shove off from the put-in at your local park.With it, however, you’ll find that the whole world has come within reach of your paddle. How’s that for expanding your horizons on the cheap?
OK. That’s five of my “Other Essentials” down. There are five more to go. Next time, I’ll finish the list.
Curiosity. Courage. Skill. Strength. Confidence. You won’t see these offered for sale on any outfitter’s shelf, and you probably won’t find them in anybody’s gear list. But just try embarking on a journey — any journey — without them. Happily, though, they’re free to everyone. The only requirements? A little time and a lot of sweat. The road from curiosity to confidence is open to all travelers. And that open road beckons each of us onward every day. The first steps are the hardest.
* “His or her”? You won’t see this clumsy device often in my writing, nor is it likely that I’ll clamber aboard the “epicene they” juggernaut as it lurches unstoppably onward, flattening dissenters beneath its wheels. Instead, I’ll mostly follow the formerly well-trodden path and use “he” to mean “he or she,” and “his” to signify “his or her.” It sounds better (to my inward ear, at any rate), and it reflects the fact that mine is, unavoidably, a masculine outlook on the world.
But what of Tamia? She’ll mostly employ “she” in a similarly inclusive sense. After all, Tamia views the world from a very different vantage point than mine. And vive la différence, I say.