How to Paddle Into Old Age

A not-so-funny thing happened this year.  I turned 77.  That's seventy-seven!  Which is really old!  Well, maybe not.  The positives are: I feel great; my canoeing and camping skills have not deteriorated; my judgment (regarding river/wilderness dangers) may be sharper, and I continue to paddle and camp at every opportunity.  Admittedly, there are a few downsides to being a "senior citizen": my balance (which never was very good) has become "less good".  Nonetheless, I can still paddle my Bell Yellowstone solo canoe for short distances from the standing position.  And my whitewater skills are as sharp as ever.   But carrying heavy stuff on big, bad portages is another matter.  When I was 60 I could single-handedly shoulder my 75 pound Royalex, Dagger Venture canoe--from my off-side!  No longer.  But I can do it alone from my "on-side" if you bet me enough money!  

The point is that getting old doesn't have to shut down your trips into the wild outdoors.  I've learned that even the most rugged trips are possible at my age if I just slow down a bit (heck, I never was very fast!) and take it easy.  When I was much younger, 25+ mile days on a wild northern river were the norm.  Now,15 miles are plenty and 10 are better.  And layover days are just delightful!  My canoes are much lighter now--28, 35 and 42 pounds for my three solo's (two Bell Yellowstone solo's and a Northstar Phoenix), compared to the 75 pounders of yore.  I now consider any canoe that weighs over 45 pounds, too heavy.  My kit, on the other hand, has gained some weight, largely in "comfort" items that I feel I can't go without.  The new editions include a roomier tent, a thick, cushy sleeping pad, a folding stool with backrest, a nylon rain tarp with full bug-screen, better food and a satellite phone and SPOT for emergencies only.   

Recently, I've done a number of trips that younger folk might consider too difficult for a man my age.  These include both sections of the Rio Grande River (Texas)/21 days; San Juan River (Utah)/9 days; Buffalo River (Arkansas/10 days); Upper Missouri River/10 days; Frost River/BWCA/8 days (it was a killer!)--all in my Kevlar solo cruising canoe.  My age was not a stopper!  My experience suggests that these are the real stoppers:

~Get the BWCAW Tee~

With over 1,090,000 acres of wilderness area, the BWCAW is a paddler's paradise.

1.  A HEAVY OUTFIT:  Weight is a killer, more so, if you've never learned to use a tumpline.  Yes, a tumpline.  It stabilizes the load, especially on uphill grades.  More importantly, it holds the load tight against your back (no wobbling) so that aging bodies, which have lost some of their flexibility and balance, can succeed. The effect is immediate and reassuring.  I can confidently carry a 75 pound pack up a tortuous grade IF I use a tumpline (yes, I have to go s.l.o.w, but those who've tripped with me know I ALWAYS go slow!).  But give me a 75 pound canoe on shoulder pads and I'll be lucky to make 300 yards without setting it down on the nearest boulder.  Tumplines are magical; believe it!

2.  LOOSE STUFF.  Carrying a lot of loose stuff that's hanging and dangling, will play havoc with your balance--which, as stated--is one of the first things that go with age.  Portages will go much easier if everything is confined to packs.       

3. BE A SKILLED PADDLER.  Most Boundary Waters paddlers have minimal canoeing skills, or more accurately, none at all.  They can go straight and turn right and left, that's about all.  Put 'em on a river with rapids and they'll crash and burn; run 'em down a twisting stream and they'll wear themselves out in the turns.  The point is that if you diversify your skills (know whitewater, racing and FreeStyle procedures) you'll travel more efficiently (and conserve energy) on all types of water, and you'll be in control when demanding conditions arise.  Muscles deteriorate with age but polished techniques don't!  A competent young paddler will be a competent old paddler!  "Doing it right" dwarfs big muscles and bad technique.  Skill trumps age, size, sex...and gear!

4.. BE A POLISHED CAMPER:  Comfort counts, and "more comfort" counts as one gets older.  Eating bad food or suffering from the cold because you can't build a campfire won't make you a happy camper.  Horace Kephart, author of "Woodcraft and Camping" wrote:  "I come to the woods not to rough it, but to smooth it".  Ditto!  The better your camping skills, the more comfortable you will be and the longer you will want to continue camping.  An interviewer once asked me: "Cliff, when was the last time you were uncomfortable on a camping trip?"  I couldn't remember a single time.  I don't think the guy believed me.  

Ironically, years spent afield, or the number of days one has canoed or camped out, seldom translates into camping competence.  There's a right and wrong way, an easy and a hard way to do things.  You won't learn what's best by doing it wrong year after year and shutting your mind to the advice of experts.  Books, videos and attendance at outdoor seminars will shorten the learning curve.  You can learn the ropes very quickly, if you want to learn!  Problem is, most people--including hunters and anglers who spend lots of time in the outdoors--DON'T!

5.  LIVE FOR NOW: Five years ago, I had a heart attack and was out-of-commission (meaning no canoeing or camping trips) for several months.  The following year, I paddled 150 miles across the Everglades with friends.  No problems.  Earlier this year, I went to see my cardiologist, who began with, "How are you feeling, Cliff?"  I replied: "Well, I was great, doc until I got up this morning and realized I had to come and see you.  I forgot I had a heart attack!"

The good doctor smiled broadly and said: "Cliff, you're my hero!  Keep following your passion...we didn't save your life so you could sit around and watch TV."

I couldn't have been more proud!

So, my advice to all, who like me, are getting up in years is : Stop looking in the mirror--the wrinkles won't go away!  But your passion for canoeing and camping won't wane--that is, if you are a skilled paddler and camper--and of course, if you don't have a debilitating condition that precludes the light rigors associated with the wild outdoors.

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