Knowing Your Limits

It's very important for us to know and consider the limits of all of our paddling partners. Beginners (and sometimes  experts) will sometimes find themselves in problem situations because It's important to know the limits of your skill and equipment they have exceeded  their skill levels. We have to take the time to have a good, realistic look at ourselves and the people we will be paddling with. Everyone should give us an honest appraisal of the skills which will affect how they perform on the trip.

  • Paddling Ability
    How much experience does that person have? How long have they been paddling? What type of paddling experience do they have - lakes, rivers or whitewater? Are they used to paddling bow or stern? Would they know what to do if they capsized?
  • Swimming Ability
    Does this person consider themselves to be a strong, average or weak swimmer? Do they know what it is like to swim while wearing a PFD? Are they comfortable in the water? Would they be OK if they got dumped and had to spend half an hour floating in the water before help reached them?
  • Outdoor Skills
    How much time have they spent in the wilderness? Can they start a campfire? Can they prime and light a stove? Can they cook over an open flame? Can they act as a navigator? Are they used to reading a map or using a compass?
  • General and Personality
    How physically fit are they? Are they compatible with everyone in the group? Do they cope will with stress and adversity?

Any one of these factors may affect the comfort and convenience of others in your group. Some may have a direct affect on group safety. We have to remember that the strength of our group is equal to that of the weakest member in all areas. For example, the performance and safety of your group is a three-hour battle into strong headwinds may be compromised by someone who is not physically fit, or who panics at the thought of capsizing.

If we don't know our fellow paddlers well enough to make a realistic personal assessment while we  are planning our trip, we are going to have to ask enough questions to satisfy ourselves about their abilities. Someone who claims to have experience "running whitewater" may be speaking about a technical Class III rapid with large standing waves, or they may be referring to the little swift or chute they ran on a previous trip. In the same way, as you speak about the portages on your trip, the paddlers may be getting a mental picture of the short, groomed trail they portaged in a Provincial Park rather than the grueling 1500m up and down steep hills and through mosquito-infested swamps that they will encounter on your trip.

There is nothing wrong with taking along paddlers who do not have much experience. At one time, we were all taken on our first canoe trip. The real problem lies in the mismatching of routes and abilities. If we take an inexperienced paddler into an area which calls for experience, we are asking for trouble. We must be realistic and recognize the limitations of both ourselves and our fellow paddlers and make allowance for these limitations when we select our route.

A wilderness trip is not the time to learn whitewater skillsA wilderness trip is not the place to get an initiation to running whitewater. Running rapids is a skill to be learned gradually, under controlled conditions with an instructor present. If there is whitewater on our trip, we had better ask ourselves if the people on that trip can handle it. Even if we plan to portage every rapid, there is still the possibility that someone will get caught in a strong current and swept down the rapid. Does everyone know how to eddy out of a fast-moving current if they have to?

Even if it isn't our nature, we have to sit down during the planning stages of our trip and be a pessimist. We have to sit around for a few minutes and play "what if?" What should we ask ourselves?

  • What would happen if I lost my map? Do I have a spare copy? Could I find my way through that maze of islands and still finish my trip on time?
  • What would happen if my group got socked in by bad weather? Do I have a contingency plan? Will the folks back home start to panic if I don't show up exactly on time?
  • What would happen if a member of my group got really sick? How would we get that person out? Is that person one of your strongest paddlers? Is that person the only one with good map-reading or first-aid skills?
  • What would happen if we got lost or in some type of trouble? Does someone know the exact route we're taking, including an approximate camp location for each night? Do they know when we're supposed to be finished the trip?
  • >What would happen if we broke a paddle? How about if a canoe is lost or destroyed? Could we handle the situation if we lost a tent during a capsize? Do we have the skills and resources to make a fairly extensive canoe repair if one of them gets badly damaged?

Odds are very good that none of these things will happen on our trip. We have to keep Murphy's Law in mind, though. Just about any problem can be dealt with if we have the right equipment and mental attitude. A leaky canoe is a minor annoyance if you have a roll of duct tape in your equipment pack - without that tape, we may have a serious problem.

Thoughts ...

The wilderness has little compensation for those who place ego ahead of humility, bravado before prudence.

Hap Wilson

Adversity is the state in which a man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free from admirers then.

Samuel Johnson.

My fingers were stiff and red with cold, and my nose ran.  I had forgotten the first Law of the Wild, which is "Carry Kleenex."

Annie Dillard