Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Physical Risk and Spiritual Reward

I recently took a Learn to Row class so it wasn’t long afterward until I dusted off Rowing to Latitude: Journeys Along the Arctic's Edge by Jill Fredston which had been sitting unread on my bookshelf. What do avalanche experts in Alaska do in the summer “off season”? At least two of them take to the water in very small boats. First, the boats. Jill uses a rowing shell which means she is always facing backwards to the direction of travel; and her husband, Doug Fesler, goes along in a kayak facing forward. It seems to work for them. Second, the water. - in this case, the Arctic. In 15 years, they have rowed more than 20,000 miles: from Seattle to Skagway; the lengths of the Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers; the entire coast of Norway; the western coast of Greenland; the coast of Labrador; and around the island of Spitsbergen, among others. To appreciate fully the enormity of these undertakings you really need to look at a map (which is provided in the book).

And then there are the weather conditions. In Jill’s own words: “To appreciate the conditions, try spending the day lying fully clothed in a bathtub, under a steady shower of cold water. For realism, add a fan to simulate twenty-mile-per-hour winds.” But believe it or not, she writes so well that I found myself actually considering such an adventure as a possibility (never mind the physical strength required and the dangers from wind, water, icebergs and bears).

Jill informs us that the word “travel” comes from the French root “travail” meaning hard work or arduous effort. That is certainly true for these excursions. You might be asking yourself as I did: Why, if it is so bad, do they keep doing it? Jill has an answer but I’ll let her tell it.

Most of us will never take to the seas in a small boat but each of us will face challenges either for ourselves or those we love. So does a book like this have any lessons to offer us? Absolutely. “Don’t think about the icy surf, the cliffs, the ‘what-ifs.’ Take it one stroke, one mile, one hour at a time. Be patient, let events evolve, take things as they come…Breathe, find a rhythm, stay loose, balance the boat, keep pulling.”

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