Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Houston, We've Had a Problem."

On the St. Croix River, WI.
Life is a journey, not a destination. That’s also a basic truth about doing a paddling trip. The greatest joys go beyond arriving at Point B. Included are things like enjoying the minute-to-minute pleasures of water, sun, birds wildlife, and flora. Beyond the day by day challenges and pleasures of the trip, there are two other elements that should bring as much satisfaction. The first of these is successful problem solving.

It was April 14, 1970, when Jim Lovell sat aboard Apollo 13 and uttered those now famous words into his mike, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.“ Unless a solution to the problem was found, the end of the trip may well have been that moment. On any long trip, the journey is little more than a sequence of problems and obstacles. Like chapters in a book, episodes in a series, or prerequisites in a course of study, getting successfully to the finish means facing and completing each challenge in turn before continuing on. At the end of a successful trip, there’s great contentment in looking back at all the problems you’ve met, analyzed, decided how best to negotiate, and conquered in turn. The real reward from that is the confidence that develops to face the next problem, and the next trip.

When ocean sailing, there was great joy in calculating the time when a mountain, lighthouse, or sea buoy should appear over the horizon, and at the appointed time climbing on deck to discover it sitting right there on the bow. Of course it’s not that simple. There’s a lot that goes into such things. It amounts to more than the hundreds of celestial observations and reductions you’ve performed, but also calculating current set and drift, estimating leeway, managing adverse weather, anticipating and managing emergencies, dealing with crew personalities and fears, making sound judgements on how to meet and negotiate vessel traffic, knowing what hazards exist around you, or worse yet, how to survive if the rig falls overboard, the engine dies, or you realize you’re suddenly taking on hundreds of gallons of water from some hidden, mysterious source.

Handling the problems encountered in paddling are no different, and the consequences may be no less dangerous. The good news is they are also no less manageable. Here, we’re dealing with reading the river, beating hypothermia after a dunking, dealing with wildlife, orienting or navigating to avoid becoming lost, managing a serious injury like a broken leg, or an axe cut, and so on. The key to managing these and other situations is approaching them in a cool, rational manner. Hysteria or panic make problem solving almost impossible, causing paralysis in both thought and action. You have undoubtedly noticed that you almost never hear of policemen, firemen, or military personnel panicking in the face of crisis. Notice the matter-of-fact calm in Lovell’s statement. We heard the same calm in Capt. Sully Sullenberger’s announcement that he was about to crash his airliner in the Hudson River. The reason is that trained responders subscribe to the PTA. No, that’s not the parent-teachers’ association, but a regimen of Planning, Training, and Anticipation. We’ll get to planning later.

Training doesn’t just mean having the tools at hand, but the knowledge of how to use them in dealing with the situation. This not only means having a first aid kit, but having taken courses in administering first aid. It means knowing beforehand how to properly use a knife or axe so you don’t get in trouble with one, or deciding to carry a saw instead. It means not just having a compass but knowing how to navigate with it. It means not just having a signal mirror, but having learned how to use it and practiced with it. The common question is what items should be included in a paddling/camping kit before taking off on a trip. That’s the wrong question. The greater concern is if you really know what to do with it all. Having emergency flares are of little help if you don’t know how to light them or set your boat or yourself on fire with one. Yes, that actually happens.

Anticipation is vital to dealing with any emergency because it eliminates surprises. Eliminating surprises goes a long way toward eliminating panic. Part of anticipation is that even if you’ve never encountered the situation before, you’ve been there and experienced it before. How? The greatest tool for those anticipating emergencies, or adventures where emergencies may occur, is the “what-if” game. Learn from others about all the problems they’ve had, the crises they’ve managed, and the emergencies they’ve faced. The first couple ways of doing this is to take guided adventures, or training programs in expedition paddling, and joining those with much greater experience. The first two can quite costly. While of value, especially in the beginning, this approach must also be augmented with independent study, particularly if you’re diligent about it. You do this by sharing the experiences of anyone and everyone who has ever dipped a paddle or pitched a tent. Read the accounts of their trips, and every time they are faced with a problem, ask yourself, “What if this happened to me?” Am I prepared to handle it?” Don’t just read for armchair pleasure, but actually study the accounts. Answering such questions honestly will immediately reveal the deficiencies in the tools or knowledge you possess to deal with that problem. Dealing with the problem over and over, even though it is only in your mind, will indeed prepare you for the real thing. It actually hard-wires your brain to respond in a confident and knowledgeable way. You will be able to say, “This is new, but I’ve been here before, and I can handle this.” Lovell and Sullenberger both knew they were facing a real emergency, maybe even death, but their mental reaction was, “This is new, but I’ve been here before, and I can handle this.“ For such independent study, a good place to start is with the four-page list titled “The Paddler’s Reading List.” If you go back in the Log of Ibi archives, you will find this between 20-24 Feb. 2011.

As Eldridge Cleaver said, “You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” He was speaking in terms of political activism, but the statement is no less true in meeting crisis. We need to start by not being part of the problem.

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