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.

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