The Other Ten Essentials, Continued
Five More Things You Can’t Buy, From Patience to Joy
Farwell’s “The First Five Essentials” should be with everyone venturing away from home into the unfamiliar. But they’re not enough. You also should have “The Second Five Essentials” If you always have them with you whenever you venture forth, you’re not likely to find any challenge too great. 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.
by Farwell Forrest | November 17, 2017
First published, in somewhat different form, on 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: The Mountaineers compiled a list of must-have gear, the aptly named “Ten Essentials.” It was a very good list, too, containing — in an accolade borrowed from an early 19th-century seaman’s handbook — nothing that was superfluous, yet including all things that were useful. Not surprisingly, then, this list remains as valuable today as it was when first published, for climbers and paddlers alike. But it has its limitations. As important as the Ten Essentials are, there are other things even more vital. And you won’t find them on the Mountaineers’ list.
What are these mysterious essentials? Nothing you’ll see offered for sale 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 five of them in an earlier article. Now it’s time to round off the roster.
In a hurry? Want me to cut to the chase? Then you may need more of the first Essential on this week’s list:
“Slow down,” a song from the ’60s counseled, “you move too fast.” And so do a lot of paddlers. Yes, there are times when speed is of the essence, both ashore and under way. But far more often, it’s best to make haste slowly. Is there trouble ahead? If so, it’s usually a good idea to approach it at a leisurely pace — and to use the extra minutes to weigh all your options thoughtfully. And when no imminent danger threatens? Many paddlers still feel compelled to rush headlong through the places they’ve taken so much trouble to visit. It’s almost as if their paddling holidays have become extensions of the workweek, burdened with performance targets, deadlines, and penalties for late completion. Why is this? Good question. You could explain it as the malign influence of some nameless imp of the perverse, I suppose. I fall under the imp’s spell myself from time to time, though only when I’m on a bicycle. He never visits me 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. When I’m seated on my bike, however, I’m a different man altogether. I become obsessed with covering ground at the fastest possible pace, 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. Back in 2006, 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. (He’d been lurking behind a roadside hedge.) My bike stopped abruptly, but I didn’t. And I landed hard, hard enough to leave a good part of my cheek behind on the asphalt. If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I’d probably have left a bit of my brain behind as well. It was an eye-opening experience, and not just because the pitted asphalt tore away the lid of my good eye. As I staggered to my feet in the middle of the road, spitting out bits of broken tooth like a character in some animated cartoon from the 1950s, it dawned on me that I needed to slow down.
The upshot? I’ve entered myself in a competition that I call Farwell’s Go-Slow Challenge, and as I’m the only competitor, I’m sure to 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 that I see on familiar routes. So 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 my watch or cyclometer, I flick my tongue against the plastic tabs where my front teeth used to be. And then I slow down. I’ve learned an important lesson. Whatever my speed, I’ll get where I’m going sooner or later. I’m doing what I’m doing for the fun of it, after all. Why not 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 a bike, and the problem wasn’t sore muscles. It was fear, pure and simple. And the fear lingers. But I don’t let it keep me off the bike. You could call this …
It, too, is a must-have. Speak about Mother Earth in hushed and reverent tones, by all means. I often do. But the truth of the matter is that Nature isn’t a very loving Mum. She doesn’t care what happens to individuals, whether they’re microbes, mice, or men. It’s not personal, obviously, though it sometimes seems as if it is. Any paddler who’s ever ventured away from 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 his boat and hold it under while he practiced breathing through his ear holes. Or a rogue wave that came from nowhere to tower over him, and then smashed down on his deck with a noise like the crack of doom. Or a sudden thunderstorm that swept across a big lake on icy, gale-force winds, catching him a mile from shore as jagged darts of white-hot lightning illuminated the hills around him. Whatever the circumstances, the results are the same. The embattled paddler gets a mauling, and he’s scared out of his wits. But he keeps going. That’s resilience. The ability to bounce back when Nature unsheathes her claws and strikes out. If your paddling career is going to last longer than a sultry summer’s day, resilience is indispensable.
And so is another quality, one that’s closely related to resilience:
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 many paddlers into trouble over the years. Luckily, there’s a readily available antidote: humility.
Of course, you can be too humble, as well as too bold. Too much humility saps confidence, and confidence, as I pointed out last time, is also one of the Other Essentials. Confused? Bear with me. It’s all a matter of …
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 employed 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’ll 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 …
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 very different worlds. And for a few, 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, especially now that ash beavertails will soon be consigned to history. 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, resilience, humility, balance, and joy. Taken all together, these are the Other Ten Essentials. You probably won’t want to include them in your gear list, but if you always have 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.
* Paddlesport. You won’t see this word again, at least when I’m doing the writing. For no very good reason, at least no very good reason that I can think of, I’ve come to loath it. I prefer “messing about in boats,” even though it’s now the hoariest of clichés. But “messing about in boats” has too many syllables to squeeze into most sentences, so in future, whenever I need a portmanteau word to label the broad sweep of “paddlesport,” I think I’ll settle for “canoeing.” There’s ample precedent. The word has long been used in connection with small boats moved by paddle or sail, whether or not they’re open or decked (i.e., kayaks) — or even just slabs of molded plastic (sit-on-tops, aka SOTs). The only aspect of paddlesport not readily brought into the canoeing fold is SUPping, the growing fad for paddling while standing on a repurposed surfboard, an activity that I, in my carefully cultivated ignorance of the subject, regard as …er, well … perverse, despite the fun that gunwale jousting has afforded many generations of campers. So “canoeing” it will be from here on out. Whenever I’m at the keyboard, that is.