“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences.” – Christopher McCandless (Alexander Supertramp)
When I read about the paddling adventures of Nigel Foster, Freya Hoffmeister, Don Starkell and others, I get the chance to live vicariously through them. I can’t even begin to image the courage it takes to embark on a two-year, 12,000 mile trip from Winnipeg, Canada to the Amazon! WOW! The thought of multi-day open water crossings that involve paddling, eating, sleeping and living without sight of land for days at a time leaves me feeling slightly light-headed and dizzy. Are these people crazy? Are they seeking fame and fortune? Or are they a throwback to a time when the world was a giant unknown? Like the early explorers Columbus and Magellan, do the paddlers of today go off into the wild blue to try to find something new about our world, or something new about themselves? Maybe there’s a little Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in each of us, just waiting to be turned loose?
True adventurers are driven by a curiosity of the unknown, and a little narcissism, I think. After all, it’s human nature to want to leave your mark, to “one-up” your fellow man. Look at athletes that are drawn to sports. The ones who excel have a natural talent, train to take the utmost advantage of that natural talent, and are “driven” to compete – even if it’s only with themselves. No accomplished athlete ever sets out to do worse than their last best. Paddlers, too, have a natural drive to want to be the first, fastest, biggest, farthest, most extreme. Take Freya Hoffmeister for example. When Iceland and New Zealand weren’t big enough targets, she set her sights on Australia. Paul Caffyn had been the only kayaker to previously circumnavigate the entire continent. Since Freya couldn’t be “first”, she decided she would have be the “fastest” and set a record by completing the trip in “just” 332 days! With Australia behind her, Freya is currently in the midst of a 2-year expedition to paddle around South America. Joe O’Blenis holds the current record for circumnavigating Vancouver Island by kayak in just over 16 days, whereas Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme set a different kind of record for taking 44 days to paddle around Vancouver Island in what was described as the “anti-fastest” trip around the island, proving that much could be achieved by slowing down and taking in all that the island had to offer.
I understand the physical demands of paddling, I understand the logistics of trip planning and route planning, but to plunge happily into the unknown is a personality trait I missed out on. I can only read in wide-eyed wonder about huge open-water crossings, encounters with polar bears, crocodiles, great white sharks and so much more. Don Starkell’s recounting of their run-in with red fire ants in the swamps near New Orleans hit a little closer to home – I once inadvertently stirred up a colony of these vicious little critters when we kayaked the Jon Lafitte National Preserve south of New Orleans ten years ago. I had the scars on my legs to prove it for almost two years later! But I also had a lovely evening of drinking hurricanes on a New Orleans courtyard patio to help numb the pain that evening. I can’t imagine spending two sleepless nights being mercilessly bitten by these ants, only to have to get up the following day sore and exhausted and start another 40-mile day of paddling in the heat and humidity! And his account goes on to explain that the people they met on their expedition were often more vicious and harmful than the wildlife!
When I think about the expedition around Ungava Bay and down the northern-most coast of Newfoundland undertaken by Nigel Foster and Kristin Nelson, as described in “Stepping Stones”, I can’t help but cringe at the sheer amount of time they spent being damp and cold. When I talked to Foster about the trip, he was very matter-of-fact about dealing with the elements. Remember, he was also the first and youngest kayaker to circumnavigate Iceland, and he cut his chops learning to paddle the North Atlantic around Britain and Scotland….. Call me crazy, I prefer slightly warmer climates! Nigel’s basic philosophy that a 5-week expedition is really a “series of day trips” is testament to his quiet approach to most things paddling related. He is a quiet, patient instructor, and I get the sense that few things really frustrate the man. I asked him if he thought there were any “holy grails” still out there for big kayak expeditions, given that paddlers have covered the Northwest Passage, the entire length of the Mississippi River, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia, more. Let’s not forget that Ed Gillett paddled from the West Coast of the United States to Hawaii, and Andrew McAuley fell just short of his goal to paddle from Australia to New Zealand. Wave Vidmar is set to follow in Ed Gillet’s footsteps and embark on a solo crossing of the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii this winter. Nigel’s reply was there were indeed some big trips out there for the brave and (fool)hardy willing to take them on. Maybe a circumnavigation of Madagascar or Japan or the Phillipines? You might think so, but a little further research finds that these destinations have already been explored by kayak! Perhaps follow the footsteps (paddlestrokes) of the original South Pacific tribes from Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Island, Fiji and the Cook Islands?
Before the days of modern technology, SPOT messengers, satellite phones, instant weather, and the internet, brave paddlers set out from the security of their homes to discover the unknown in boats we would consider insufficient, into conditions we would certainly call crazy. The islands of the South Pacific, including Hawaii, were populated by their indigenous peoples in this way. And let’s not forget that the known history of the kayak, which stretches back at least 5000 years, involves the originators of the baidarka and qajaq hunting and gathering from these small, closed-deck crafts which eventually evolved into the modern-day sea kayak. These hunters had no maps, no communication devices, just their familiarity with the waters they paddled and a strong survival skill.
This brings me back to the reasons that drive modern adventurers. Certainly the human survival skill is not what it once was. In modern society, we don’t forage for our food, we go to the grocery store. We don’t migrate with our food source. We don’t travel just to discover what’s around the corner. We turn on the National Geographic Channel, or we surf the internet. Google Earth has such incredible “street-level” views of the world, you can be there without leaving your chair. So why do some people put themselves into survival situations by their own choice? Why did Andrew McAuley put himself in harm’s way to prove that it was “possible” to kayak from Australia to New Zealand, a 1600 km open water crossing that ultimately took his life when he was just hours from completing the trip and in sight of his finish line? Much has been made of questioning McAuley’s motives given that he left behind a wife and young son. Does being a spouse and parent impart a greater social responsibility? Freya Hoffmeister has a young son who she left behind with his grandparents for a year during the Australia expedition, and for months at a time during the ongoing South America circumnavigation. The current trip has broken into 3 sections with a several week break in between. Does this make Freya Hoffmeister an irresponsible parent and irrational risk taker? Many thought so when she was paddling around Australia, and I’m sure she would have been remembered as such if she’d perished on that trip. The fact that she was successful does not in any way, shape, or form alter the risks that she faced on a daily basis.
Whatever the reasons and motivations, I applaud the explorers who continue to push the limits of sea kayak exploration.