Adventures big and small…
Last Sunday I decided to go for a paddle. I’d just finished up kettlebells. It was about 11 o’clock and the tide was looking pretty high. If I hustled I could be on the water at the top of the tide and up the back river before it started to run against me.
Wind was out of the east, which set up a tailwind for most of the zig-zag course toward the Bull River. I figured if I timed it right I would be hitting Bull River as the current started to pick up. I could ride the current down to Wassaw Sound and then paddle back to Tybee frontside.
By 11:30 I was pulling off the beach and upstream toward Lazaretto Creek. The wind was over my right shoulder and I was moving along at a good clip keeping one eye on the chart and the other open for boat traffic.
I hadn’t paddled up the Back River beyond the eastern tip of Long Island and that only once. At high water the channel is opened way up and it can be a little confusing to find your way. Especially for someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time in the marsh.
There was one spot in particular that I wanted to be sure I hit correctly. There’s a three-way junction where Tybee Creek hits Lazaretto Creek. If you go right you head out toward Lazaretto Creek Bridge. Hard left takes you up into a dead-end in the marsh. Left is the right way, in-between these two channels, toward a long hammock that forms a bend in the creek.
I didn’t want to waste a bunch of time with a wrong turn so I did some careful piloting, keeping an eye out for features I could match to the chart. The tank farm over on the Savannah River, the Lazaretto Creek bridge and the series of sharp turns on the creek.
As I came up to the junction a couple powerboats cruised out the correct channel and speed by on their way down to Tybee. I took the turn and headed upstream, cheating the current by hugging an eddyline on the inside bend.
It was about 12:30 when I pulled up on the sand at the north end of a small hammock near the junction with the Bull River. I had beat the tide and was about to start downhill toward the sound.
A quick snack and a drink got me back on the water. At the Bull River the channel opened up and I turned left, trying to keep myself well out into the current to get as much push as I could from the increasing flow.
With the current behind me it only took about a half hour to drop down to Beach Hammock at the south end of Little Tybee. From there I worked my way across a broad section of shoal water and small surf. My tailwind was turning into a headwind. A small swell rolled in from my right. Quartering off the bow.
By about 1:30 I was well around the corner and working my way toward the opening of Tybee Slough. The paddle was turning into a bit of a grunt. Nothing for it but put your head down and grind it out. One stroke after the next.
An hour later I was closing in on the slough. I caught a wisp of smoke coming from Myrtle Island. Too far off to see what it was. Likely a campfire.
A pod of bottlenose dolphins joined me. Hunting back and forth in the shallow water off the beach. I passed the entrance to the slough well off shore and started working my way back toward Myrtle. There was a cramp in my left foot. My butt was getting a little sore. Arms. I’d been pushing into the wind for about an hour-and-a-half. Hadn’t been out of the boat for an hour longer.
Close into Myrtle I started fighting the outgoing tide. About four hours after high water it was running near peak. I pulled into an eddy behind a mudflat near the beach. On shore I could see the source of the smoke clearly. A brushfire had broken out and was climbing the trunks of a few dead trees. Already too big to put out with my remaining water bottle.
I worked up through the bone yard at the corner of Myrtle and stopped for a quick break before the final push. Half hour later I pulled onto the beach. Circle closed. Four hours. About 16 miles. A nice little adventure.
Selling the Experience
The outdoor industry is about adventure. Of course, it’s about selling stuff too. But people wouldn’t buy outdoor gear if they didn’t want to use it for something.
It’s common for those of us who have worked on the sales side of things in the outdoor biz to focus on this frame as a sort of soft sell. Sell the experience, not the gear. Those who sell for a living know that you can encourage someone to purchase a more expensive piece of equipment by helping them imagine themselves using it on a big adventure.
Like hiking the PCT. Backcountry hunting in Alaska. Climbing the Nose on El Cap. Sea kayaking in the Aleutians. These kind of trips require a certain kind of gear.
A 100 liter backpack.
You don’t buy a portaledge to camp in your backyard. You buy a portaledge to have an epic adventure on a big wall. To see that fish-eye view of the wall falling away below you while you brew up a coffee on the hanging stove. Feel your cracked and taped fingers as you sort the rack for the last pitch of the day.
You don’t buy an expedition pack without an adventure in mind. Yes, you can take that backpack on a weekend trip, but you bought it to hike the PCT, or hunt backcountry elk or spend two weeks climbing in the Winds.
Sea kayaks are the same. You can paddle your sea kayak on a small inland lake for exercise. But that’s not what its FOR. It’s for adventures. A sea kayak is for flying off a standing wave in the Penrhyn Mawr tide race. For circumnavigating Isle Royale. For soloing the Inside Passage. Expeditions to Alaska. Open crossings. Wilderness camping. Adventure.
Those are the stories we tell in the shop. The articles published in magazines. The presentations we watch at the kayak show.
They’re the kind of adventures we aspire to.
A good sales person can use your aspirations to guide you in the direction of a serious piece of outdoor gear. Get you “thinking past the sale.” Imagining yourself using that sea kayak on Lake Superior or that rack of Camelots at Smith Rock. Loading your sub-15 pound kit into an ultralight pack and hiking the AT.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
We all need dreams. Aspirations. A lot of our outdoor gear purchases are aspirational. We buy them for what we hope to do someday. Or what we wish we could do if we had a different job. Or different responsibilities.
It’s OK to buy a piece of gear because you want to have an adventure.
It’s OK if it drives you. Helps you learn. Puts you on the path toward that dream.
What’s not OK is letting that gear sit in your garage while you sit on the couch.
That’s a waste.
What Makes an Adventure?
In 2001, Stan Chladek and I put our sectional Nordkapps on a plane and flew into Dutch Harbor, Alaska. We loaded four weeks of food into two small sea kayaks and set out on the Bering Sea coast of Unalaska Island. Our goal was a circumnavigation.
The first day it blew so hard the surface of the sea turned to vapor. Stan lost his Thermarest to katabatic winds and spent most of the trip sleeping on the ground. The third day we tried grunting into the wind and made 8 miles in 8 hours. Our Bibler tent filled with water from condensation every morning. We were constantly wet. At one point, we turned a headland at the end of a long day and were hit in the face with a headwind that I thought would blow us off into the Bering Sea. I got the feeling Unalaska was trying to kill me. Deliberately.
It’s the kind of place that makes you feel small.
In the end our trip turned from a circumnavigation to an out-and-back. We spent 24 days on a remote coast at the far end of the world. A lot of things went wrong, but we made it through and had some amazing experiences.
It was an adventure.
Novelty. Complexity. Challenge.
What makes something an adventure?
Yvon Chouinard famously said that a trip isn’t an adventure until something goes wrong. In one interview he joked that the only way to purposely plan to have an adventure would be to leave some essential piece of equipment at home. And there has to be risk. Every definition of adventure, he said, includes risk. You can’t have an adventure without it.
But risk alone doesn’t make an adventure. There’s more to it than that.
After all, we face risk in our mundane lives all the time. Heart disease kills more than half a million Americans every year, but you wouldn’t call eating fast food every day an adventure. Or driving, which accounts for about as many deaths every year as guns in America. These activities have risk, but they’re mundane.
Adventure isn’t mundane. It’s fresh.
Adventure is exploring. Seeking. Going to a new place for the first time. Figuring things out. Learning by immersing yourself in a situation that requires your engagement and effort.
I think that all adventures have at least three things in common: Novelty, Complexity and Challenge. In an adventure you’re going somewhere or doing something new. That something is complicated enough that you have to pay attention. And it’s hard. At least a little bit. Mentally, physically or both.
Along with these, of course, comes risk. If there’s a challenge, there’s always going to be risk. At a minimum a risk of failure. So it’s built into the process. But risk isn’t necessarily paramount. It’s a side effect of adventure.
An expedition to the Aleutian Islands is an obvious adventure. But few of us have the time or ability to take a trip like that more than once or twice in a lifetime. We might aspire to a big trip like that, but that aspiration alone won’t keep us in the sea kayak learning and growing.
Most of the time, we need to have adventures closer to home. Adventures that might move us in the direction of a big trip over time. Adventures that allow us to put that sea kayak or backpack to its proper use, even if it’s only in a small way.
Something like my paddle last weekend. A nice little adventure. It took me someplace new. Required a little route finding. Had a bit of physical challenge. Got me in the boat and left me feeling good when I got back to the beach.
If we don’t have little adventures like this from time to time we’re likely to get bored. That’s how the kayak ends up sitting in the garage collecting dust. If you want to keep enjoying your sport you have to keep it fresh.
You can do that by adding Novelty, Complexity and Challenge to your outdoor experiences.
Keeping it Fresh
Every person has a unique set of skills and experiences that influence what feels like an adventure. You know yourself better than anyone and are the best judge of what to try to engage your brain and body and reconnect with the outdoors.
For myself, I know that I can make an outdoor experience into more of an adventure by tweaking a few factors. Here are a few ideas:
Commitment: Try setting up a trip that you have to finish. Get a shuttle and hike back to your car. Paddle around an island. Hike an ambitious loop trail in a single day. Increasing commitment makes the familiar seem more adventurous.
Night: If you’ve done something a dozen times before, try doing it at night. Night adds a level of complexity and challenge to any outdoor activity. It adds a touch of risk too of course, so you’ll need to focus on safety and make good decisions.
Weather: Hike in the rain. Paddle in the wind. On purpose. Deliberately put yourself out in conditions that you would rather avoid. Just make sure not to get struck by lightning.
Season: Take a familiar trip at an unfamiliar time of the year. Hike your favorite weekend trip late in the fall. Or do it on snowshoes in winter. You’ll need to learn a lot about staying warm and comfortable. Start small.
Seeking: Go someplace completely new. Explore a new trail. Drive a few hours to paddle a river you’ve never seen. Seek out new places and new experiences.
Solo: Take a trip by yourself. Even if it’s only a day paddle or an overnight. To go solo you’ll need to rely on your own skills and judgement. You’ll have to be more careful about your travel choices and more engaged mentally.
Equipment: What about Chouinard’s quip about leaving some important gear at home? Well, if you forget the map you’ll likely have an adventure. But you don’t have to take it to that extreme. If you simplify your gear you’ll need to develop new skills to stay safe and comfortable. Learn more. Carry less.
We all need dreams. I say the bigger the better. There’s nothing wrong with buying a piece of outdoor gear as a step toward those dreams. Just make sure you take the rest of the steps on the path.
Dream big. Start on the path. Add a little novelty to the familiar. Complexity to routine situations. Challenge yourself physically and mentally.
Seek out everyday adventures. Expand your skills. Learn and grow.
Get that kayak out of the garage and onto the water.
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