Epic Journeys

Lessons learned about tolerance, endurance, and spiritual renewal on pilgrimages to the cathedral of Hard Things


By Andy Dappen

It is a phrase that recalls Odysseus’ 10-year voyage home from the Trojan Wars, Lewis and Clark’s multi-year exploration of the American West, or Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary two-year tale of survival in the Antarctic. But must a journey extend the boundaries of human achievement to earn epic status? Or can long, arduous, and potentially dangerous travels that expand personal boundaries and awareness also qualify as epic?

Certainly few things pushed my horizons more than a trip my brother and I concocted and undertook as college students. We dreamed of paddling canoes to Alaska along the entire length of the British Columbia coast. The dream was partly fueled by the romance associated with adventure, and partly by the pragmatics of scoping out land we might homestead. The year before our departure we built three canoes, recruited four others to join us, researched the route, planned food, and developed the skills we would need for the journey.

The Haida and Tlingit people once had used open canoes to navigate the same waterways we would travel, but in 1974 the details of how they did it had been relegated to story. The popularization of sea kayaking was still a decade away, and the modern keepers of knowledge about our route—local fishermen and sailors—said our plans fell somewhere between the poles of stupidity and suicide. We heard about storms that could capsize purse seiners and tidal whirlpools that could guzzle gill netters.

Stories like that did not sit well with my parents. My mother was certain we would at some point capsize in the frigid waters and quickly succumb to hypothermia—two of her children gone in one quick dunk. This was not an irrational fear, and, even though I was young and immortal, enough experts had told me I harbored a death wish that I thought carefully about what I valued and what I wanted to achieve. Nothing makes you take stock of life quite like the possibility of losing it.

It was one of many ways the journey forced me to reflect about myself and about my world. Paddling 750 miles at two-to-three miles per hour, sleeping in wet cedar groves under dripping tarps, and contending with strong headwinds, hot sun, cold rain, biting bugs, and empty stomachs, all had me wrestling with my weaknesses, my ability to accept what I couldn’t change, and my tolerance of things that were not as I wished them to be.

People shaped by different backgrounds, desires, and dreams were an enduring part of the experience as well. I was critical of the unsustainable logging practices ravaging the coast, yet meeting loggers whose ideology and ecological beliefs challenged my own muddied what had once seemed so black-and-white.

In an ironic case of role reversal, the Native American crew of the Cape Russell, a beautiful and successful purse seiner, made us associate members of the Native Brotherhood to honor the connection between our journey and their roots. We didn’t think to honor them for their own successful journey bridging the cultural gap of capitalism.

And then there was Phillip, a 67-year-old, wild-haired kayaker who was the only other paddler we encountered traveling the coast that summer. He was proceeding solo, and, for safety reasons, asked to join us. Naturally, we consented. Then, over a two-week period, we watched the man’s mental state unwind. Late one night he snapped altogether and attacked us. By profoundly good luck we were camped on the outskirts of Prince Rupert, one of the few towns we would pass, and as four of us pinned Phillip to the ground and listened to an eerily non-linear accounting of his life, two team members paddled through the blackness of midnight to summon the Mounties.

Later we discovered Phillip was AWOL from a mental ward in Washington state. That triggered troubling questions. How was it that a man traveling at his own pace through this elemental world had maintained his mental composure for months, yet when forced into the schedules and demands of society (in this case a society of boisterous youths traveling at a slightly faster pace) he had quickly unraveled. Might slower, simpler, more elemental lifestyles make happier individuals? Might modern life with its unrelenting pace and insatiable desires be an insanely misguided dash?

As indicated by the following accounts, such questions and musings commonly grow out of epic journeys. So are acceptance of other people and other ideologies, and confronting one’s own weaknesses.

Lessons learned from epic journeys are also works in progress. Andrew Marsters ’05, Andy Weidmann ’01, M.A.T. ’05, and Emily Stirr ’04, whose stories follow, speak eloquently of what these experiences meant in the planning and in the doing, but they lack sufficient distance in time to know how the trip might shape who they become.

I can attest to this. Completing an epic journey that defied popular dogma would mold my future, but I didn’t know it on the last day I lifted my boat from the water. Only later did I realize the feat nurtured an awareness that I could pull off big dreams. It bolstered confidence in my judgment and left me willing to define my own course.

During the summer of 1974, I did not, as my parents feared, forfeit my life to the frigid waters of the British Columbia coast. I may, however, have forfeited their dreams of what I might become. Those green, tidal waters swirling at the base of glaciated peaks stole my soul. Thirty years later I’m still a prisoner of the natural world. As an outdoor writer, my livelihood is leanly linked to places I love and the adventures I love taking. Thirty years later the wallet is thin, but life is fat.

Today’s schedule: make miles
Andrew Marsters ’05 and Andy Weidmann ’01, M.A.T. ’05: Billings, Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri — 1,750 miles

At some time in their lives, everyone should travel at a river’s pace for an extended period of time, says Andy Weidmann ’01, an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School and UPS women’s novice crew coach. “Modern life is awfully fast paced, and, in the rush to achieve, many are trapped in exhausting, whirlwind lifestyles. Moving at nature’s pace on a river, day after day, is completely different. It’s soothing. And it’s humbling. The power of moving water, the violence of a thunderstorm, the vastness of the night sky all provide perspective on how minute our sphere of influence really is. If everyone took time to travel and live at a river’s pace, this would be a better world.”

These insights come in the wake of Weidmann’s 30-day, 600-mile journey on the Yellowstone and upper Missouri rivers with Andrew Marsters ’05. Marsters, an art major and a member of the Puget Sound rowing team for four years, had embarked on a much longer journey to row the 1,750 river miles between Billings, Mont., and St. Louis. Weidmann joined the first leg of that trip, departing at the North Dakota-South Dakota border, while Marsters carried on alone. Marsters reached St. Louis on July 30 after 73 days of river life.

Spending most of one’s daylight hours in a 16-foot wherry, rowing 30 miles a day for months on end, strikes most Americans as an unobtainable goal. Marsters disagrees. “Trips like this are well within the physical means of most people. Mainly it’s a mental adjustment to the fact that you can’t flip a switch if you’re hot or cold, can’t take a shower every day, can’t get anywhere fast. But after a week or two, you adjust.”

After that adjustment, Marsters says, things that many view as curses become blessings. There are few possessions to clutter one’s life and the day’s schedule is elegantly simple: “You break camp, make miles, find water, re-establish camp. You’ve got time to absorb the surroundings, talk to people met along the river, read, think.”

The opportunity to see the world from new vantage points was one of the prized fruits of Marsters’ voyage. “The Yellowstone and Missouri exposed me to completely different parts of the country than where I was raised. These rivers dissect farm and range lands, supplying the country with much of its food. Compared to the urban settings where I was raised, the regional priorities, perspectives, and politics were dramatically different.

“Everybody believed they are living the right way—the best way—so, rather than trying to convert people to my beliefs, I mainly listened. When you’re quiet, people will tell you almost everything about their politics, beliefs, and way of life.”

All this opened Marsters’ eyes to the country’s dramatic diversity. Paradoxically it also exposed him to its impressive common ground. “Many of those I met along the river were molded by different landscapes and upbringings, yet they were generous, well-intentioned, big-hearted people.”

When it is all said and done, Marsters believes one of the major fruits of his journey was simply the time it afforded for reflection. Frequently those reflections drew connections between the river he traveled and life itself. “Sometimes I focused on the significance of making each stroke as good as possible. While we can’t control the major force propelling us (the river), if we perform those things we do control excellently (our strokes), we affect the quality of our journey. Sometimes I thought about how much rowing paralleled one’s journey through life. While rowing, your back faces your destination, meaning you spend your time staring at where you’ve come from (your history) and only grab an occasional glimpse at where you’re going. And sometimes I pondered the similarities between rivers and aging. While rivers start small, clean, and pure, they become muddier, more polluted, and more tainted as they grow.”

Many paddlers Marsters encountered along the river were there to reflect. Many were middle-aged people taking a long river trip as their expression of a mid-life crisis. “I sometimes joked that I was getting my mid-life crisis out of the way early.”

In truth, the post-graduation timing of this epic served Marsters well. “It provided clarity about a future that makes sense for me. I didn’t know whether I should pursue the creative side of art (painting/sculpture) or the functional side (architecture). During this trip I read and thought a lot about the way Americans live. I thought about how we have inflated our needs for space and how we have migrated to the suburbs for that space. The quest for space has impacted us individually (long commutes and time poverty), socially (weaker communities), and environmentally (sprawl). I’m very interested in how, through architecture, we can entice people to live in dense communities close to where they work.”

Considerable evidence supports Marsters’ belief that living in denser communities very close to one’s workplace will improve quality of life on an individual level and forge stronger community bonds. The same practices promise to preserve open space and might help protect the rivers Marsters intends to travel when he’s earned the right to a real mid-life crisis.

Outrunning the summer
Emily Stirr ’04, the Borealis Paddling Expedition: Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, to Chantrey Inlet, Arctic Ocean — 1,200 miles

The task of the Borealis Paddling Expedition: Canoe and portage the 1,200 miles of wilderness between Wollaston Lake in northern Saskatchewan, and the Arctic Ocean in Nunavut. Few landscapes on the planet are lonelier than the Canadian north, with its boreal forests, ice-chocked lakes, primeval rivers, and bug-infested tundra. It’s an unroaded domain often simply called The Barrens.

But to the five young women who spent two years preparing for this 90-day expedition, all former staff members at the YMCA’s Camp Manito-wish, a wilderness-tripping center in northern Wisconsin, the expedition was anything but bleak. Among them was Puget Sound’s Emily Stirr ’04. As Arches went to press, Stirr had reached the Arctic Ocean but had yet to return home. Fortunately, the journal entries that all five women wrote—transmitted via satellite phone and uploaded to their Web site—provided an account of this epic journey and its impact. The following passages were condensed and lightly edited for easier reading.

06/01/05
It’s day five and we are still on Wollaston Lake. The lake is still choked with ice. In some places we can paddle easily, while in others we pull our boats up over the ice. All of this dragging and chopping through ice is hard on our equipment.

06/06/05
On day seven, after crashing, dragging, and hauling our way over 60 miles on Wollaston Lake, we finally reached the Fond du Lac River. I can hardly describe our excitement in having open water to paddle, not to mention a downstream current. The Fond du Lac flows northwest to Black Lake. Eskers [deposits of sand left by the glaciers] snake along the river, providing excellent camping. Arctic terns, bald eagles, black-headed scoters, and mergansers wheel overhead as we paddle.

06/12/05
The Fond du Lac flows over wide sandstone ledges and through beautiful canyons. We lined and ran nearly all of the rapids with the exception of Manitou and Burr Falls, both of which are breathtaking canyons where the river simply cannot contain its eagerness. We have made our way across Black Lake and over the Chipman portages. Every paddle stroke and every portage takes us farther north. Passing over the Chipman portage we had the immediate feeling of entering a newer, wilder landscape.

06/18/05
The portage from Selwyn Lake to Flett Lake is where I noticed the treetops shrinking, the cover becoming less dense and black flies emerging. This place is also the “Height of the Land,” where Selwyn Lake and waters south flow into the Mackenzie River, and Flett Lake to the north starts many rivers flowing northeast to Hudson Bay.

06/26/05
We’ve all been daydreaming about this for two years—the entrance to the mighty Dubawnt River. The water gained speed, and immediately our trip changed. We respectfully dropped a branch into the new waterway, as the Dene people traditionally do. The river is wide, clear, cold, fast, and bold as all get out. It knows nothing but north and doesn’t hesitate to get there. Today was a day unlike any of the previous. In what seemed a heartbeat, we realized the masses of black spruce trees had retired and we were in the tundra. The land did more than lose its trees: It revealed slopes of greens, reds, and yellows; rocky shores nose diving into the river; and distant hills that made the imagination float.

07/03/05
(On Dubawnt Lake, where 11 huge lake trout were caught.) We have outrun the spring in our sprint north, allowing us to relive our Wollaston Lake days of a little paddling mixed with a little bobsledding. Not knowing what is around the next point, ice or water, forces us to let go and take obstacles one at a time. We don’t think about what may be three points away or what we dealt with 10 minutes before. It gives one the perfect feeling of living totally in the present.

07/16/05
(Back on the Dubawnt River after paddling Dubawnt Lake.) Being reunited with Dubawnt River is wonderful. Open water and current are our long lost friends.

07/24/05
We portaged around Moffatt Rapids, where in the 1950s a group dumped their canoes in the September cold. Art Moffatt did not survive through the rest of the expedition due to hypothermia. We then portaged The Gates, the rapids split by two islands, then pushed into the confluence of the mighty Dubawnt and the bold Thelon. At lunch we were welcomed by two arctic wolves. They got very close then tried to get downwind to see what these strange creatures were. Once they realized who we were they bolted, but curiosity took over a few more times as they continued to check us out.

07/31/05
On top of a narrow esker-like peninsula that divides Aberdeen and Schultz lakes are two towering inukshuks, reminding us of a different history this land knows. Inukshuks are rock-piled, human-like pillars, made by the Inuit people who inhabited this land for centuries. Only 60 years ago, the Ihalmiut lived on the plains we are traveling. Their history is long and rich, yet disturbingly silent. They were a people who lived in balance with the elements of their environment; they were hunters and wise women. We are surprised to be learning of their history for the first time, seeing that we are five college graduates who have already traveled in the boreal forest and tundra. Are these people remembered? Who are their spokespersons? Where are their memories? The land is scattered with tent circles (rocks that fastened tents to the ground), uncovered caches (rock piles used to cover and store caribou bodies), and cairns that mark traditional routes.

08/14/05
(On the Back River leading to the Arctic Ocean.) The tundra here is more rock than earth. In places, bedrock cliffs dive into the water. At times the shore consists of high ridges where jumbled rocks seem suspended in a permanent cascade. It is a desolate landscape, where the bones of the earth are close to the surface. We find it starkly beautiful. How would it appear through the eyes of someone without our love for barren, lonely places?

We are preparing ourselves mentally and physically for the last push down the Back River to Chantrey Inlet. Somehow we have managed the delicate feat of separating our anticipation for reaching our goal from the dreaded finality of reaching the end. I am used to wind roaring across the great emptiness of the tundra, the tired euphoria after a day of hard work, fresh air and laughter, the wisdom of four sisters. I long, on occasion, for a fresh apple, a shower, or a phone call with my family, but in many ways this is the only way of life we know now. Which brings me to the most universal of all truths about the trail: It is never long enough.

OAR Northwest
Racing across the Atlantic by rowboat

Jordan Hanssen ’04, Dylan LeValley ’05, Greg Spooner ’01, and Brad Vickers ’05 (above, left to right), all former members of the UPS rowing team, will be one of 15 crews in a 3,000-mile race from New York City to Falmouth, England, beginning in June 2006. Crossing the North Atlantic in a rowboat has been accomplished fewer than a dozen times, and never by Americans.

The group calls itself OAR (for Ocean Adventure Racing) Northwest, and the members are all working full time on the staggering number of details required to promote, plan, equip, and train for the grueling event.

The boat they’ll use is 29 feet long, with a foam core and a reinforced bow, which makes it unsinkable—“at least in theory,” Spooner says. The vessel draws about a foot of water, with a slender four-foot daggerboard supplementing the computer-directed rudder. The boat itself weighs 800 pounds, the four men average about 200 pounds apiece, and there will be nearly 2,000 pounds of supplies and equipment. One hundred fifty gallons of fresh water in sealed containers—which also doubles as emergency drinking rations—aid in the vessel’s stability. All this weight will force one major adjustment from the team’s crew-racing days—the stroke rate. “We’re used to 34 strokes a minute with a light load,” Spooner says. “Here we’ll be doing 16 to 18.” Mother Nature will provide some assistance. The route incorporates the Gulf Stream, which curves out into the Atlantic before dissipating about halfway across.

Once underway, the crew knows it will be on its own. While the race organizer provides several support ships, rowboats scattered across hundreds of miles of open water means getting help could take several days. It’s likely that they’ll work out some sort of staggered shifts to avoid rowing the entire distance with a single partner. Standard shifts will be two hours, which means part of their training will be learning how to be effective on minimal sleep.

Their brief respites from rowing will be spent sleeping, listening to iPods, reading, or taking in the scenery. To prevent complete burnout, each man will be allowed to sleep for eight hours every fourth night. Personal hygiene? That consists of bathing in the ocean, which Spooner insists is actually warmer than Puget Sound. For more intimate body functions the motto is “bucket and chuck it.”

Planned training excursions include a journey from Vancouver, B.C., back to Seattle. A more rigorous test will involve rowing out of Neah Bay and heading due west for about a week to become accustomed to true open-water conditions. A third plan is to head for the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on a stormy day to continually flip the boat over, then right it and clamber back in.

Getting under way will be very expensive. Just paying for the bare boat and shipping it to Seattle carried a price tag exceeding $30,000, which the men covered with a series of personal loans. Equipping it will take far more money: Satellite phone. Computer. Solar generators. Water desalinizer. Small cookstove. Spare carbon-fiber oars. And food. Lots of freeze-dried food. Spooner estimates that he and his shipmates will burn about 8,500 calories each day.

OAR Northwest is seeking corporate sponsorships and individual donations—

both cash and in-kind—to defray the estimated $300,000 cost of the expedition. The group is also using the trip to raise funds for the American Lung Association of Washington.

Many would consider weeks of almost unremitting hard work, extremely close quarters, rudimentary hygiene, serious sleep deprivation, potential encounters with icebergs and container ships, the likelihood of high winds and stormy seas—and the ever-present risk of death—as an exercise in self-flagellation, but Spooner exudes optimism and excitement.

“We’ll be the first Americans to row across the Atlantic Ocean,” he predicts. — Jim Whiting

See www.oarnorthwest.com for more on the expedition.