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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

The Other Ten Essentials —
Intangible Assets That Mean So Much

Part 1: From Curiosity to Confidence

By Farwell Forrest
farwell@paddling.net

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 larger-than-life adventures of Nessmuk and Rob Roy. After all, the molded paper canoes that made headlines in the sporting press more than a century 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? Vital as it is, gear isn't the most important thing in the paddler's world. 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 broken stub of 1x6 for a paddle. How do I know? Easy. I've done it. Admittedly, it was a while back: fifty 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, 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 rickety 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. Better yet, 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. Period. But what is it? The answer isn't simple. It's not just one thing. It's several. And you won't find these things in an outfitter's catalog. None of them costs you any of your hard-earned cash, but none is exactly free, either. All of them have to be paid for, one way or another. With sweat, perhaps. Or time. Or humility. But at least they don't weigh anything, nor do they take up any space in your pack. Call them a paddler's intangible assets, if you will. Or call them the Other Ten Essentials. I do.

And what are these essential intangibles? Let's begin at the beginning, with…

Curiosity

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 any of us would ever want to leave the comfort of a La-Z-Boy®. It's no surprise, therefore, that I've never met a paddler who was totally incurious. Of course, curiosity without…

Courage…

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 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, and to do so 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…

Skill

There's a word for attempting things 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 pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. Skill makes 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 her lessons into practice. And even with the best instruction money can buy, there's no shortcut to competence. It simply can't be rushed.

Yet skill alone can't make you a "complete" paddler, either. No matter how skillfully you can maneuver your boat, you won't get very far without…

Strength

No, you don't have to be Sampson. Or Delilah. (There's more than one kind of strength, isn't there? Delilah was no wimp.) But when you're paddling your own canoe, you can only travel as far as your muscles will take you. And a paddler can't tap a drum of fossilized solar energy to take him where he has 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 add up. There's no gain without some pain. The bottom line? You won't get any stronger sitting in that 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 you're talking about intangible assets, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Here's a for-example. 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:

Confidence

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 Essentials down. There are five more to go. Two weeks from today we'll finish the list.

Curiosity. Courage. Skill. Strength. Confidence. You're not likely to see these Other Essentials 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. Luckily, 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.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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