[This dialogue between my friend Rand Schenck and me began at our Ocracoke campsite in May, and was further imagined. While I initiated this discussion, Rand come up with the phrase “memories of misery”.]
Bob: We barely avoided the possibility of setting up our tent in the downpour of Tropical Storm Ana by one day. The Outer Banks reminds me of several trips with periods of misery. I once came out to Ocracoke on my own, and due to mosquitoes slept in my car – a ’65 Chevrolet Impala “The Green Pig” – in the parking lot near the ferry landing. Some of those mosquitoes found their way into the car, and harassed me all night. I was relieved to leave the next morning, The Green Pig was first on and off the ferry. When I got ready to drive off the car battery was dead, and the ferry crew pushed the car on to Cedar Island, where I was greeted again by mosquitoes.
I’m sure you have had your share of challenging times in the outdoors.
Rand: Yes, my first winter camping trip was back in the ’70’s in West Virginia. My gear was not adequate for a night when the temperature was sixteen below zero. Despite wearing all my clothing in my sleeping bag I shivered the entire night.
Bob: Ah yes, being miserable cold. You remember my story of the camping trip by Lake Santeetlah when we had two solid days of rain in a leaky tent, and then it turned to snow? And capsizing in that snowstorm trying to tow my Laser behind a canoe in our effort to head home? You can check it out in my post In Common. My future purchases of quality tents are a function of this and another trip to Shining Rock in a borrowed, leaky tent.
Rand: That cold water story reminds me of a sea kayaking trip that went beyond just misery to a life and death experience. It was 2006, and I was on a trip with four other people in the south end of the Queen Charlotte Islands. We were not at the same level of experience, and some nagging stress resulted during our trip. In hindsight, a couple paddling in a double kayak were quite unprepared, both in clothing for these cold waters (low 50’s) and kayaking experience. We were in three kayaks, and our leader was solo as the two tandems followed him in the Pacific. The crisis came as we passed within a hundred feet of cliffs. The four to six foot swell reverberated off the cliffs, creating confused seas – a maelstrom. The leader was a paddling machine, and tore through the waves in a straight line – in hindsight a passage more off the cliffs would have been safer. About halfway through, the other tandem yelled “We’re over”, and it was evident they were unable to help themselves. In those waters, the survival time for hypothermia without protective clothing was twenty minutes. Our solo leader turned and went back into the maelstrom, plucking one onto the rear of his kayak and paddling away. We went to the rescue, understanding that we were also in jeopardy of becoming victims ourselves. We got her up on our aft section, and after a most difficult paddle followed our leader past the cliffs to a beach where we could help the couple recover from their early stages of hypothermia – removing clothes and getting them into dry sleeping bags.
Bob: Wow, without rapid help the couple would have been goners. I guess we have both flirted with the ultimate disaster. The closest I have gotten was my attempt at circumnavigating Wrightsville Beach in December storm surf. You remember reading this account in Exploring Bull Island, right? Besides the trauma of the near drowning, and breaking the mast step and deck in my Laser, walking the boat around the end of the island, and getting mired in the marsh for hours was most miserable. What do you think about pushing adventure now in your “mature” years – is it time to pull back?
Rand: I have been thinking about this issue, and figure I have the rest of my 60’s to continue adventuring before I slow down.
Bob: There is a widespread interest in hearing others’ accounts of their miseries, whether it be Ernest Shackleton’s great Antarctic saga, or Cheryl Strayed’s difficulties on the Pacific Crest Trail. Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World is also a classic, and his story of passing through the Straits of Magellan had monumental misery. After battling through these treacherous waters and reaching the Pacific he was hit by a massive storm, shredding his sails and blowing him back into the Straits where he had to start all over again on this passage. It seems a number of books are really memoirs of misery – Outside magazine described one book as a “sufferfest”. My hiking buddy Mike is walking the entire PCT as we speak, and already his difficulties have included bad blisters and a sprung dental crown requiring him to leave the trail to go to LA for dental work. I talked to Mike by phone on one of his supply stops off the trail. I wondered with him about his most miserable moment to date on his quest to thru hike the PCT. It was not the blisters or dental problems, but a major dilemma in the Sierras. He was alone, yet trying to catch up with another hiker, and feeling some responsibility to rejoin. He was at an intersection of paths, one leading north on the PCT, and another heading off to civilization, and perhaps safety, since the snow was falling hard. He wondered if he and his equipment was up to the prospects of this snowstorm at higher elevations. Obsessing about it, he literally walked around in a small circle for ten minutes, wondering what to do. Finally, he continued up the trail in the snowfall. He later learned his hiking companion had previously left the trail.
Rand: I have heard some interesting PCT stories myself.
Bob: I mentioned the aggressive mosquitoes on Ocracoke. When Susan, Sara, and Eliot and I camped here in 1995 they were out in force at the campground. But the worse ever biting insect experience came on the one night I stayed on Portsmouth Island in May of 1977 after an incredible sail on my Hobie 16 from Wrightsville Beach. My friend Russ Davies and I were the only people on the island that day and night, and we were attacked by a range of “flying teeth” including mosquitoes, deer flies, horseflies, and sand gnats. By the way, I recently found an account of this trip I wrote up years ago – I actually have no memory of writing it, but definitely take a look at An Epic Sail.
Surely you had some difficult times on your month long trip down the Colorado River last February?
Rand: The only misery on the trip was of an interpersonal nature. A guy who helped me organize the trip has had ongoing anger issues, and I have observed him directing his fury at his wife, a most uncomfortable experience. On this trip I became the target of his anger on several occasions. I wouldn’t be involved with him on future trips.
Bob: That is a different kind of miserable, for sure. I certainly hope our adventuring will continue into the distant future, and moments of misery stay in the past.