In Good Company
One for All, and All for One?
By Tamia Nelson
April 24, 2012
A couple of years back, when I was photographing creek boaters running a steep drop on The River, I helped a swimming kayaker who was struggling to reach shore with his boat before both plunged over a 25‑foot falls. The tale had a happy ending, but later, as I walked downriver along the portage trail, keeping pace with the unfortunate paddler's group, I soon reached the conclusion that "Phil" wasn't exactly a welcome presence. (NB I never learned the swimmer's name, but Philoctetes — Phil, for short — seemed a good choice under the circumstances.) Not only had his companions left him on his own above the falls, entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers (me, as it happened), but they ostentatiously shunned him during breaks. And later they dropped him without so much as a goodbye, leaving him to make his way to the take‑out alone.
Of course, I wasn't privy to the whole story, but from my spectator's seat, it seemed a mighty shabby affair. It was also an invitation to tragedy.
Was Phil's experience unique? I don't think so. Tensions often arise among groups of paddlers. Not that it isn't a good idea to paddle with a group. It is. A very good idea, indeed. Difficult water — and that includes big lakes and tidal reaches, as well as fast rivers — isn't a healthy place for lone paddlers. Yes, solo boaters frequently tackle steep drops or make long open‑water crossings and live to tell the tale. But going it alone can't be recommended to anyone who wants to stay around to see his grandkids grow up. Which is why most recreational boaters who aren't under the watchful eye of an outfitter or instructor choose to paddle …
In the Company of Friends
That said, friendships don't always wear well in the backcountry, particularly when fatigue and uncertainty begin to take their toll. Add an element of danger — something that's never far away on moving water — and trivial disagreements or minor irritations can quickly blossom into open discord. Farwell and I have seen this happen many times. Take the case of John and Jane, for instance. (No, their names weren't John and Jane. But I have to call them something. So John and Jane it is. The other names below are also noms de guerre.) They were casual acquaintances, not friends of long standing, but both were expert paddlers, and we got on famously during several short outings. Before we were even a week into an extended Canadian trip, however, John and Jane found the realities of wilderness travel not at all to their liking. Relentless headwinds, torrential rain, swarms of biting flies, rapids that demanded meticulous scouting, portages choked by blowdowns and logging slash… By Day 5 of the trip, the unhappy couple had decided they just weren't having fun any more. They wanted off the river. Now. But the river had other plans. The next flag stop on the rail line lay many miles downstream.
What was John and Jane's answer to this problem? Quicken the pace, that's what. Long lunches were now out of the question. Photography and fishing went by the boards. They even begrudged the time spent scouting Class III‑IV drops. The result was entirely predictable: We spent a day salvaging their swamped boat and retrieving what could be found of their gear from eddies and sweepers. Despite this setback, however, John and Jane caught their train, leaving us to continue the trip without them, a smaller and a weaker group, with the worst rapids and the longest stretches of open water still to come.
And then there was Ed. He accompanied us on a low‑water trip to the Bay. Make no mistake: Ed was a superlative waterman, with an unequalled eye and a faultless sense of timing. Again and again, when Farwell and I had grounded our heavy Tripper on rocks or were struggling to find an elusive thread of water to take us through a bony drop, Ed would drift effortlessly by, waving cheerfully. Yet Ed was also a very sick man, whose regimen of medications frequently left him weak, apathetic, and indifferent to obvious dangers. On long portages — and there were many of those — he struggled to heft a light rucksack. His partner then had the job of lugging Ed's boat down the trail, not to mention his heavy marquee tent and most of his personal gear. We helped, but many carries still took almost twice as long as they would have done if Ed had been able to shoulder his share of the load. The result? A leisurely trip soon turned into a race against time. Had we known about Ed's infirmity before we started, we could have altered our plans accordingly. But Ed had chosen to keep shtum.
The same thing couldn't be said about Larry. He never stopped talking, and it was soon apparent that he was a great believer in the power of positive thinking. In fact, it was a point of pride with him that he never packed a first‑aid kit. That would be inviting trouble. Or so he said. Often. I paddled with him on several short trips, but his que sera, sera approach soon persuaded Farwell and me to back out of a much‑anticipated wilderness excursion, one that we'd had in the works for several months. The trip went ahead without us, and I confess we had second thoughts in the weeks that followed. When the group returned, however, it was with tales of multiple near‑disasters and constant rows, many of them triggered by Larry's teenage son, a last‑minute addition to the party who'd insisted on playing a boom box at all hours of the day and night. By journey's end, almost no one was on speaking terms with anyone else, and what was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime had instead become an ordeal, something to be forgotten as quickly as possible.
I could go on in this vein, but I'm sure I don't have to. If you've been paddling long, you've almost certainly witnessed one or two occasions when friendships crumbled under the stresses and strains of backcountry travel. As unpleasant as such incidents can be, though, the real tragedy lies in the fact that they are — in most cases, at any rate — avoidable. It takes a little effort, to be sure, but there's no denying that …
Prevention is Better Than Cure
Clichés are clichés for a reason. Sometimes they're just clever wordplay. More often, however, they embody a measure of true folk wisdom. As in this case. But don't be fooled. Friendship can't be reduced to a formula, and forestalling interpersonal conflict among traveling companions is never easy. Still, it's always easier than dealing with the consequences.
And just how do you go about avoiding trouble? By asking hard questions. Questions like these:
- Are my buddies capable paddlers?
- Do I trust their judgment?
- Do I enjoy their company?
- Do any of them have health problems that impair their abilities?
- Can I trust my life to them?
The last question is the most important by far. The language may seem melodramatic, I suppose, but it's not. When you paddle with others, there's always the possibility that your life will depend on their competence, good judgment, and physical strength. Of course the converse is also true. Your buddies' lives may someday rest in your hands. Which is why, before you join a group, you have to be strong enough to turn your high‑powered questions on yourself, as well. (If this turn of phrase seems familiar, thank Thomas Harris. I lifted it from Agent Starling.) Here are few important things to ask:
- Can I keep up with these guys?
- Do I have the right stuff for this water (or this trip)?
- Am I good company?
- How do I feel? Any problems that aren't under control?
- Can my buddies trust their lives to me?
If you can answer yes to all these questions, you're good to go. And what about those times when you can't? That's when things get difficult. If you're the one who doesn't make the grade, however, the remedy is easy. Make your excuses, then come back only when you're ready. This may mean spending more hours on easy water, taking a course from a skilled instructor, or working out at the gym. No matter. If paddling with your buddies is important to you, you'll want to do whatever it takes to earn a place on the team. It's that simple. Or that hard.
But what if it's one of your buddies who falls short, at least in your estimation? What then? The safest course is the obvious one: stay on shore. Wait for another day — a day when the water is lower, or warmer, or when anyone who isn't up to par is feeling better. And what's the worst course? Pretending to yourself that it doesn't matter, that's what. It's always a mistake to ignore the small, still voice in your head that warns of trouble to come. Nobody ever saw things more clearly by closing his eyes, after all. I touched on this problem briefly in an earlier article:
But what if you have doubts — if, say, you're paddling with people you don't know well? Then don't hesitate to ask your questions out loud, and if you're not happy with the answers, consider suggesting another place or another time for the outing: a less challenging river, for instance, or the next weekend, when the water level's dropped a bit. This is easiest when you're the group leader, of course, but it's the duty of any paddler who cares about safety. Smiling acquiescence in the face of obvious danger is folly. … Never forget that moving water is an impersonal, elemental force. It isn't swayed by bluster or bravado or good intentions. Only competence counts.
This won't be news to most paddlers, of course. The really hard cases are those that fall between the two extremes — the times when there's no question of closing your eyes to danger, but when you can't just make your excuses and stay home. Perhaps a sick friend who you know will never get any better wants to spend one last day on a favorite river. Or a trip starts to come apart only when the way back is longer and harder than the way ahead. There's a saying among lawyers that hard cases make for bad laws. On the water, hard cases make for hard feelings. But what's the remedy?
That depends. If there's a clearly established hierarchy in a group — a pecking order based on experience, demonstrated competence, or something else — the acknowledged leader can simply lay down the law. Some folks won't be happy, but at least everyone will be singing from the same sheet. Even when the leader makes a bad call, the initial decision will have been reached swiftly, and good leaders are quick to alter plans if things don't work out. In the absence of an agreed‑upon "command structure," however, you'll have to fall back on consensus decision‑making. This is probably the norm. Few groups of friends have a formal leader, after all. But it can be time‑consuming, involving a lot of discussion and frequent disagreements. And all too often, consensus ultimately proves elusive. That's a problem. There are many times when doing something quickly, even if it proves to be a little less than optimal, is far better than doing exactly the right thing, but doing it too late.
Which brings us back to prevention. Perhaps the best way to ensure that trips with friends go smoothly is to take time to get to know each other — to learn each other's weaknesses as well as each other's strengths. Club get‑togethers provide such opportunities. Most scheduled outings have an experienced leader who calls the shots. But these outings also give paddlers a chance to make friends. Often groups of like‑minded souls meet on club trips and then plan outings of their own. This happened to Farwell and me early in our paddling careers. We hooked up with an established club that offered a comprehensive whitewater training program, learned the ropes and strokes, and went on as many club trips as we could. Before long, we found ourselves hanging out with the same small group of paddlers from the club, a motley collection of boaters (canoeists, kayakers, even a renegade C1 fanatic) who hankered to run more challenging water than the Class II‑III fare that made up most of the club's schedule. The upshot? We soon started running informal trips of our own.
The experiment was a success. We'd paddled together in all weathers — the club didn't often cancel trips just because the water was high or sleet was falling — and we'd seen each other in action many times. We also shared the same goals. None of us hankered to run killer drops, but we were happy to push the envelope every now and then, taking the open boats to their limit (and sometimes beyond) in Class IV water. Unfortunately, we were never able to go on longer trips together. We all worked at demanding jobs, and we didn't have extended summer holidays. But we made the best of the time we had. If we'd ever gotten the chance to mount an extended expedition, I'm confident it would have gone well.
Failing such a happy scenario, though, what's …
The Secret to Getting Along With Each Other on the Water?
Simple. The Golden Rule is a pretty good guide, or — if that familiar maxim smacks too much of drowsy days in Sunday School and you hanker for something more nuanced — just invoke Kant's Categorical Imperative. If you're a member of a group and you plan to venture forth onto troubled waters, you have a responsibility to everyone in your group. If you're not equal to the challenge, say so at the outset, before you put someone else at risk. On the other hand, if you're in the best shape of your life, but if you suspect that one of your buddies is having an especially bad day, don't cut him (or her) adrift at the put‑in with a few curt words. Stay flexible. Suggest that you all go somewhere else. Or reschedule the trip for another time. You'll have plenty more opportunities to prove yourself.
Most importantly, if trouble strikes on the water, never abandon a companion to his fate. While I may have had good reason to question Phil's judgment back on that day two years ago when I helped him escape The River's clutches — he was clearly out of his depth on Class V drops— I can feel nothing but contempt for his buddies. They were better boaters, perhaps, but they left a lot to be desired as human beings.
In the end, it all comes down to personal responsibility, and that cuts both ways. In my climbing days, it was understood that if you endangered another climber by some ill‑considered action, you owed him an immediate, heartfelt apology. This obligation remained even if your folly cost you your life, though it was then up to your buddies to make your apologies for you. At the same time, however, you were expected to do everything in your power to help a fellow climber in trouble, whatever the cause. One for all, in other words, and all for one. That's not a bad maxim for climbers. And it works for paddlers, too.
There's general agreement that boaters are wise to paddle in company, but there's much less consensus on how groups of boaters — whether good friends or merely chance acquaintances — should resolve the conflicts and uncertainties that arise in any collective enterprise. It's a vexed issue, but no less important for all that. So this week I've done my best to tackle it head‑on. Do I have all the answers? Certainly not. But I think I'm asking the right questions. As for the rest… Well, I couldn't hope for better company than I find right here, could I?
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