More Big Questions

I returned to the island yesterday after a brief trip to northern Minnesota. While visiting Ely (the canoe capital of the known universe!) I had the chance to talk with many old friends and co-workers from the Voyageur Outward Bound School. During the years I worked there, I watched as people have undertaken major expeditions: dogsledding across the arctic barrens, skiing to the north pole, canoeing from Minnesota to both oceans, and one pair that paddled the 4,000 miles from the headwaters of the Missouri River all the way to the Gulf. This group of people understand what it takes to go on an expedition and they had a lot of questions for me.

Many of the queries were technical: “What shelter are you using? How much food are you packing? What is your communication system?”  Some were personal, “How ready do you feel? What are your biggest hopes and fears?” But when I asked my oldest friend, “what should I be thinking about as I get ready?” her answer was immediate, and not what I expected: “what are your terms for this expedition?”

What she was asking was, “what are the underlying philosophies and rules for this trip? What is important to you”. She went on to explain that she had seen many expeditions struggle to decide what to do when faced with choices that get to the heart of what they are trying to accomplish. Do we accept outside help? Does this have to be completely human powered? Is it acceptable to take a break part-way through?

Most of the people I had talked to asked me about mileage each day, food choices, equipment... all important considerations, but this question really stuck with me. What was I trying to accomplish here? And more importantly, how will I do it?

 Where the water meets the sky on Lake Superior. 

Where the water meets the sky on Lake Superior. 

I’ve taken a few days to think about it, and am ready to proclaim the following:

  1. This expedition is around the main mass of Vancouver Island. That means that I am not going to take any shortcuts from vehicles. At the same time, I am not going to hold myself to going around every island group along the way. It is okay to take some inside routes and get respite from the coast.
  2. Human-powered travel only! No tows, motor vessel rides, or other motorized means.
  3. The trip is going to be continuous. I am not doing this in sections, but rather one continuous expedition that will start and end on Orcas Island, Washington.
  4. This is not a wilderness expedition that is focused on being self-sufficient in every way. Instead, I am thinking of it as a paddling adventure. Although I will be camping most nights, I am not intent on sleeping in a tent every night. I will stop in towns along the way to update the blog and shop for food.
  5. Safety is more important than mileage. This is a solo trip and therefore my margins of error are smaller when it comes to safety. Although I love doing high-mileage days, on this trip I have to prioritize getting to shore safely each night over getting somewhere further down the coast. This is not an attempt to break any kind of speed record.
  6. Record the experience in order to share it. A big part of why I am doing this trip, and why I am writing a blog, is that I want to share the experience with other people. Maybe it could serve as inspiration for someone else to go on an adventure. Maybe it will just be an interesting story to follow along with. Maybe it is simply a way for my family to know where I am (finally!). Whatever it is, I want to put time and energy into writing and taking photographs as I go.

 

Laying out these terms now, in a public way, gives me a feeling of accountability. That feels good, like something I may need along the way. Going on a solo trip does give you the freedom to decide everything without having to compromise with another person, but it also demands that you are completely responsible for acting on all those decisions without any help. I think that aspect of the expedition may end up being the hardest challenge I face. Having decided these basic terms ahead of times will help guide me when I have to make important decisions that come up along the way. Kind of like having an old friend to talk to in order to get advice on what to do.

 Already past paddling season in the Boundary Waters. 

Already past paddling season in the Boundary Waters.