Wednesday, December 15, 2004


It may seem hard to get away from the crowd when you try to play outside in populated settings, but isolation is relative.

I used to climb at Carderock. It’s hard to imagine a more crowded setting. Rope hangs beside rope and climbers queue up at the base of almost every route. Rappellers hurl themselves down between climbers, sometimes face first. But by hiking the river bank, climbing ropeless and alone on the most obscure outcrops I could find, a kind of solitude was available. And on busier routes gravity provided the isolation.

With no belayer, with no one there who even knew my name, I might as well have been a speck on the immensity of Half Dome. The only difference was that I wouldn’t make as big a splat mark on the ground and the squeegee patrol would arrive sooner. As far as the rock was concerned, it was a personal, one-on-one relationship. When you’re climbing, you have to focus only on that. You couldn’t be more alone.

The water provides a similar solitude. You may see other vessels from a kayak or small sailboat, but little boats make even medium-sized water feel big. And I don’t like to bother other mariners with my problems, so if something does go awry I’ll probably try to cope with it myself until it’s too late. I just have this notion that if I’m out there for idiot fun I shouldn’t trouble the professionals who earn their living on boats and ships. A DNR (Do Not Rescue) attitude serves to keep me cautious and sane.

I failed to note the author’s name, but I read about a ski writer who went out with Telemark ski legend Steve Barnett. The writer noted that Barnett didn’t pull any bold moves, because he was used to soloing. A soloist can’t risk injury the way a rockstar hero with a film crew can. No one wants to get hurt, obviously, but the traveler alone has no safety margin except what he creates through prudence.

Of course it’s imprudent to be there at all. That’s another whole topic.

As a solo boater I face a higher level of risk at all times, so I will choose my conditions carefully. I don’t do white water, so my hazards stem mostly from the weather: wind and wave.

Soloing might not be my first choice, but going alone is better than never going. My father, bless his heart, chose a small sailing dinghy designed for two people. He always needed a crew, and he wouldn’t go if it meant leaving his family behind. His personal sailing ambition was less important than sharing it with one of us. Unfortunately for him, his bright, curious children had a wide range of interests, and the most nautically talented wanted to skipper his own boat. I filled the breach, but was not lavishly talented in the racing department. And eventually I moved on. That left him beached. For the most part I have avoided getting boxed in that way. But the price has been soloing and the risks it entails.

There have been some great rides. On a foray in the Snipe, around Casco Bay in Maine, I had installed a roller furler on the jib to reduce sail, but I didn’t have my reefable main yet. The sea breeze picked up while I was outside the row of larger islands, out in Hussey Sound. I bore off to reach Whitehead Passage on a beam reach. Crossing the path of the waves at a shallow angle, hiking out for all I was worth, I would alternately sense a low wall of water coming up behind me and be lifted suddenly by it to fly forward, four or five feet above the trough, counting wave height and the boat herself, heeled over.

I was a mile from shore, barely a speck to the nearest boat. It was do or die on a beautiful summer afternoon. Focus. Concentrate. The forces of nature are impersonal. That’s why I like them so much. They never cheat. They don’t have to. They’re powerful enough to destroy any human. You don’t beat forces like that. You negotiate them. And sometimes even that is not enough. You either break even or you lose. What you win is the experience you take away with you.

Once in Whitehead Passage I had to break out the jib so the boat would drive against the ebb current pouring out the gap between rocky islands. I was sheltered from the steady wind, but strong downdrafts would suddenly swat the water as turbulence made its way over the island to windward of me. The changes of wind velocity and direction kept me switching rapidly from leaned in to hiked out, working the sheets to keep her sailing against the tide. It was great one-on-one.

On a smaller boat, designed for single-handing, it would have been a little more casual. But I was trying to manage a fairly large rig for one medium-sized guy.

Sometimes you bite off more than you can chew. That’s your cue to start chewing harder.

Every so often someone has to saw off his own arm to get out of a solo jam. I really don’t know if I could do that. On the plus side, most of my current activities don’t carry a high risk of that kind of entrapment.

Much closer to shore, paddling on the Severn River in Maryland, isolation was as easy as paddling from one shore to the other. I was in a borrowed whitewater boat, not a good tracker for fast paddling. So I made a series of sprints beneath the big Route 50 bridge, from one bridge pier to the next. At each stop I would scan for motor boat traffic before making the next hop. I figured some throttle-monkey might not see me out in the open, but they’d probably try to avoid something as large as the bridge. Nothing is guaranteed, of course.

Solitude also awaited in the shallow ends of the many branches of the Chesapeake’s tidal creeks. Go where other people think it’s boring, or where they just don’t fit.

Just by going slower, by a different mode, one can be alone. Biking to work along the highway I am exempt from most of the stress of driving because no one tailgates me and no one goes too slowly in front of me. Skiing cross-country I can separate myself by my pace, staying in the long gaps between other trail users and then passing quickly when I do catch up to someone. Faster skiers do the same thing to me.

If you figure out how to work all the angles, it’s like a parallel universe.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Being in the business

The down side to being in the gear business is that I have to spend a lot of time studying the new gear. I have to try it out if I can. I certainly need to develop an opinion, because someone is bound to ask. To complicate matters, sometimes change really does represent improvement. I stress sometimes.

These may sound like crocodile tears, but gear is just what gets you outside. It needs to be well designed, well built and preferably affordable, but once I own a piece of it I tend to use it without thinking much about it. If it calls attention to itself by breaking or failing to live up to my needs I will look for alternatives. If not I'll happily play outside with it for years.

Customers require answers for two basic reasons. Either they need to acquire gear just to be able to do the activity in question or they're gear weenies who just want to acquire gear gear gear. Among the gear weenies there are also those who just want to talk about gear.

When someone starts to talk to me about gear, I don't know which category they're in. And they might change categories as time goes by. I can't afford to brush anyone off. A perennial pest may get less of my time than a known buyer or a stranger, but I can't assume that someone is always just wasting time.

I frequently forget to delve into catalogs, magazines and websites. I'd prefer not to read about someone else's boss trip to someplace exotic and distant, or the latest, greatest must-have pack filler or rack ornament. I would rather be out using what I have. But I'm in the business. Someone will call my attention to it sooner or later.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Kayaking started out as a nocturnal activity for me. Someone had a kayak at a sailing club party after Thursday night dinghy races. I was 14, so I wasn’t drunk, like most of the adults.

When they decided to hold time trial races around the speed buoy and the can buoy off the club basins, I posted a respectable time. I also had a lot less trouble straying upright than they did.
After the wet grown-ups retired back to the cooler and keg, I asked if I could take the kayak out again. The owner said I could.

It was Annapolis harbor, a June evening, back when the Naval Academy held graduation exercises that late and called it June Week instead of Commissioning Week. The sun had set, so I paddled very carefully across the channel, knowing I was completely invisible. I must have seen “Cockleshell Heroes” on the late show, because I felt that kayaks were in their element in the dark

It was also the height of the Vietnam War. Warships often visited for the graduation week. An old diesel sub was tied up at the corner of the seawall, armed guards on deck. As I paddled along the seawall, someone offered me five bucks to go bang on the submarine. I counted the men with M-16s on deck and declined the offer.

Midshipmen were making out with their girlfriends in the darkness on the shoreline stone work. One of them winged a bottle at me when he saw me coasting silently past, a few yards away.

After a circuit of the harbor I came alongside a lighted buoy, tied the boat to it and climbed up to sit on top of it. I was careful not to obstruct the light. I doubted if that subtle detail would make a difference to the marine police, but I knew I looked young enough to get away with pleading ignorance. Meanwhile, I wasn’t so ignorant as to endanger people by interfering with the buoy’s designed function.

Darkness cloaked me. No one chased me from my perch. Too soon I had to return to the sailing club.

That experience linked the stealthy kayak to the night for me. I did not sit in one again until 14 years later, having done all my boating in sailing or rowing dinghies in the interim.

The boat I borrowed was black. Dusk and darkness beckoned from the tidal creeks of Annapolis, where I had once again fetched up.

Not that I had anything against paddling in daylight, but I had to work. Much of the year, darkness was falling or had fallen by the time I got out.

At off hours, in off seasons, peace reclaims the waterways. I saw lots of wildlife above and below the surface. Deer sheltered in small scraps of undevelopable land cut off by highways laid out before rampant development made land so valuable. Accidental wilderness was left behind. Fish dimpled the water’s surface or churned up jets of mud as they raced out from under me, paddling through the shallows. Turtles plopped off logs.

In the years since, my daylight forays now outnumber my nocturnal missions. But I still like the stealthy slide of a sleek kayak gliding through the darkness, alone or in the company of other commandos.

Adventure nearby

Strip away the exotic locales and adventure is just days and days in the same underwear. You can do that at home!

In one apartment, my room mate and I decided we weren't going to knuckle under to the suits who run the electric company, so we refused to run the electric baseboards that were the only source of heat. It would have been cheaper just to burn the money itself. That was adventure. In the middle of winter, the soap froze to the soapdish in the shower. A glass of water on the windowsill developed a skin of ice by morning. We slept in our winter mountaineering sleeping bags.

I guess it wasn't really adventure, because we both had jobs and therefore changed our underwear daily. And hot water was included in the rent, so we could at least get clean.

That was in Maryland's more southerly climate. My adventures in New Hampshire's winters have run closer to the edge.

Adventure also usually involves the risk of death. That, too, is often conveniently available. Can't get to real cliffs? Climb buildings. Some are built of such rough stone that they even offer a variety of holds, not just repetitive motion over a uniform structure.

Annapolis offered a wide variety of water adventures. Risk of death on any popular waters is provided not just by the objective hazards of wave and wind but by the fleets of powerboats. In my borrowed kayak I kept a 360-degree watch, like an old open-cockpit aviator flying into enemy territory. Only the enemy has jets.

Looking for outdoor recreation locally gives you a keener appreciation of what's being done to your local environment. Go stick your face in the water if you dare. Play in the shrinking tracts of woods. Or maybe you're lucky enough to live where the water's still somewhat clean and the tracts of undeveloped land aren't shrinking quite so rapidly. Don't be lulled. Pay attention now, not when the problem becomes obvious.

By adventuring nearby you not only get a close look at how your habitat is being treated, you also save lots of money and keep your adventuring skills ready in case you do get a chance to go someplace more exotic.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Moving through Space

The concept took shape years ago, when a friend and I were sitting around after a day of biking or sailing or climbing.

"It's all about moving through space," he said. "We find these different ways to move through space."

When the leader of a mountaineering group asked each member why we climb, I said, "For the scenery."

That may seem like an inadequate reason to undertake the inconvenience and risk of a mountain journey, but it's a very survivable one.

I did poorly at sailboat racing because I enjoyed the ride more than the race. Going fast was nice, but the tactical side just got in the way of appreciating the scenery. Every sailing venue was different. Even the routine venues would be different on different days.

A little competition added some enjoyment as long as we didn't eat our guts out when things didn't go well. But then gut eating is the mark of one who truly cares. Winners devote themselves to winning. Even if they don't let themselves get destructively upset by a setback, they do everything in their power to avoid that setback in the future. Focus on the event. Banish the peripherals.

In a touring mentality one can take some of the efficiencies of the racer and use them to travel more effectively. No point wasting energy. But the tourist has the freedom to lighten up, to look around and notice what would be unimportant details to the competitor. The trophies one gains by that never need dusting.