THOUGHTS ON SOLO TRIPPING
When I told people about the trip I was planning, everyone thought it sounded very interesting. Then the question would arise, "Who are you going with?" When I said it was a solo trip, most people responded with, "... oh. Is that safe?" A reasonable question.
Frankly, I was more concerned with the car drive than with the paddling. There are many more factors I can control in a boat than in a car, including breakdowns. But this is not to say I took solo tripping lightly. I spent months researching the area, the tides and currents, the weather. I ordered a GPS and a storm paddle and learned how to use both. I pored over the nautical charts, set waypoints for the islands on the GPS, learned how to read latitude and longitude (somehow I hadn't expected it to be broken down into 60ths, even though it is called "minutes" and "seconds". ) Most of all, I paddled a lot in as varied conditions as I could find. I practiced rolling and bracing in whatever conditions arose, in the cold New England ocean. I prepared myself as best I could.
Did this make it safe to paddle alone? Safer, yes. Safe, no. Nor was the drive up there safe. In any pursuit, there's a tension between the fear that comes from risking one's safety, vs. the desire to find out what it is like to do the risky thing. Too much fear paralyzes and holds one back from activities that could be enjoyed. Too much desire to find out can place one in harm's way. Part of being safe is knowing oneself well enough to recognize that this balance must be respected. Another part of being safe is honestly evaluating one's skills and then paddling within those skill levels. I'm not an expert kayaker, nor am I particularly strong or have better-than-average physical conditioning. I make my decisions with these facts clearly in mind. The danger is in not knowing the right questions to ask about the conditions and location. I didn't know that the weather could change so quickly at Mingan, so I couldn't properly answer the question of whether or not to paddle downwind away from my campsite. I didn't know the southern shorelines would change so much in strong winds. The more experience one gains, the better the range of questions one can ask. As with any learning, there's always the chance that a mistake will be made before one gains the necessary experience. I try not to press my luck, but I also try to find situations from which I can learn.
Why do a solo trip? Partly because my paddling partner Jim has been out of commission with tendon injuries and couldn't join me. Partly because I didn't want to open the trip to anyone I didn't know well, since I'd be several days in a car and many more days on islands with him or her. It's also logistically simpler. I could change plans in an instant without group consensus. I could decide that crackers were an acceptable breakfast for that morning. And the stink of a body unshowered for 6 days would offend no one. But most of all it's because there's something special about doing a trip alone. If you are scratching your head about what would make it special, I don't think I can explain it to you. But perhaps you are thinking, "Yes, I know how that is."
Increasingly, as the trip went along, I realized that there really isn't any such thing as a solo trip. The mechanics checked over my car ahead of time to be sure it would get me there. The Park Service rangers spent much time with me to give me as much info as possible. The Canadian Hydrographic Survey created nautical charts. I took along with me all the people who taught me to paddle and to roll, all the people who were on trips with me where I learned about currents and tides and conditions. There was a very real sense of the presence of those who cared about me and wanted me to return unharmed. I made the best decisions I could, knowing that they would be hurt if I didn't. The Coast Guard was at the other end of my VHF radio. The paddle I used (bless you, Don Beale), the boat I paddled, the gore-tex drysuit, the simple alcohol stove, the many bits and pieces of gear that other people designed and tested and made - I was grateful for the contributions of all these people. And I was grateful for the steadfast reliance of the Avocet and the bit of wood used to propel it, for the gear itself, right down to the matches that started the fire in the stove. All of these people and things kept me good company. I was never alone!
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