“To Be Out Is Enough”
I returned from an Allagash trip last week to the arrival of a book. This is always a happy occasion, but the timing of delivery for this one in particular seemed to have been ordained by something larger, or maybe I was just looking for the connection after our time on the river.
Let’s unpack that a little bit, starting with the trip. The allagash river is beautiful, and at times challenging, but overall a good introduction site for folks with some canoe experience, but looking to raise their bar. Our group had a wonderful time, and I was struck by the quietness with which they went through our times on the river. Sure, there was laughter and joking around while we paddled, but more often there seemed to be a solemn sort of joy at being out, at every eagle we spooked out of a tree, or scenery we stumbled upon coming around a corner. That sort of response to the outdoors seemed almost counter to some of the groups we encountered. It was all about “the push”. Long days, long miles, “Adventure” etc.
I’m on record as disagreeing with the idea of adventure. It’s not just me being a curmudgeon (it’s partly me being a curmudgeon). That stance comes from the idea of adventure, of making the trip about what you, the human being derive from it, takes all the subtlety out of the colors the experiences paint on the canvas of your time out. I don’t think it’s my place to tell anyone that they’re recreating incorrectly, but I do find it hard to watch groups so involved in how many miles they have left, or who’s fault it is that dinner isn’t ready that they miss what all the non human neighbors are up to. Trips on our programs are about getting AWAY from time tables and extra responsibilities. If your systems are good, and in place, there’s very little work to do, and that leaves bundles of time to sit and listen to the neighbors gossip. By neighbors of course, I mean the kingfishers telling you to move along, or all the birds and red squirrels going silent as a Merlin comes sweeping through the sky.
So lets bring it around to the book that arrived. “Paddling Pathways” is a collection of essays about almost exactly the ideas we’re talking about. The book is edited by my friend (and former podcast guest), Bob Henderson, and Sean Blenkinsop, a professor at Simon Fraser university in Vancouver ( and Hopefully a future podcast guest). The stories they bring together are all about the subtleties and small observations that go into making traveling in the back country special. I’ve been tearing my way through the book, and about halfway through realized something interesting. The different mentalities and interests of the authors shines through, but the common thread seems to be something along the lines of this. “To be out is enough”.
So often with outdoor writing I get a few chapters in and have a hard time finishing it. Not because what they’re doing isn’t interesting, but because they way that the places and activities described don’t line up with what I understand about being out, and make the idea of going on a trip with the writers sound exhausting and unappealing. I’ve never been in a remote place and felt like I was in constant danger, or fighting against the elements, but most north American outdoor writing makes it seem like it’s a constant struggle. Or worse, frames the stories entirely around what the human being needs, or is getting out of the trip. That’s not the tripping experience I know, and frankly, someone who views the outdoors that way isn’t someone I’d like to go tripping with in the first place.
The paddling trips I know are about feeling welcomed back to a way of life that makes sense. Of rolling with the changes in the environment just like everything else does. Of making decisions based on what’s good for everyone on the trip, rather than arbitrary time constraints. Talking to the birds for an hour over coffee, listening to the wind and wondering what she’s saying. Letting the mind wander to things OTHER than ourselves, instead of being focused on what we need in order for this experience to be “valid”.
Having said all that, and read the stories in Paddling Pathways, I can honestly say that if any of the authors in this book invited me on a trip, I’d go. I’d be willing to bet that if you read this collection, you’ll feel the same. The stories are intimate , and honest, and talk about time on the land in a way that resonates with anyone who thinks “To be out is enough”.