When I first started looking at this board one of the things that both impressed and interested me about it was that there was such a difference between paddlers - and that is among GOOD paddlers. And SAFE paddlers, given the risks inherent in our chosen areas of paddling. This paddling thing is a many-faceted gem. I guess that’s to be expected, people have been traveling about on water for quite some time now. Paddle power could be reasonably expected to be the most ancient method of propulsion of all. On rivers large and rivers small, between lakes, marshes, bayous, coasts and open oceans. People have been paddling them all for a long long time. And they all call for different skill sets.
I’m an upper Mississippi R. midwestern paddler who has done a fair amount of Boundary Waters and Northern Ontario paddling. The perspective of folks who did white water exclusively, or the racers, the freestyle paddlers, the sea kayakers was new to me and interesting. There was a guy here who’s local club surfed the Bay of Fundy and did crossings, timed to the tides, to off-shore islands in fog across miles of open water. That’s quite a navigational challenge, among other things. That’s just not a BWCA skill, and its not something that anyone in our local club here would be competent at. I was impressed.
Most BWCA paddlers portage any rapids that are very tricky because the loss of camping stuff in remote areas isn’t a risk worth taking for a bit of thrill, so many BWCA paddlers aren’t white water wizards. So, similarly, I am impressed by the audacity and skills of white water paddlers.
But BWCA folks have developed skills that those who paddle white water or do ocean crossings in fog may not practice much. BWCA paddlers have developed some habits and skills for packing and have some techniques for carrying that sea kayakers and white water paddlers often never develop. I once was invited to go on a trip with a white water guy who wanted someone along who was in the habit of tent camping… which I’d always thought of as an integral part of paddling. (Or maybe paddling is one of many camping skills?) Heck, considering that tradition, we’d consider the voyageurs themselves to be pretty experienced and skilled paddlers, right? They lived their entire lives by the paddle… Even if most of them couldn’t swim? Didn’t run rapids? Surf rock gardens? Navigate by tide charts or stars?
And then racing skills are a whole 'nuther thing. So is free style. How about those south sea islanders who have some knowledge of how to paddle open canoes for days out of sight of land, navigating by stars and currents… that’s a paddling skill set to admire greatly even if we don’t practice it. And those African and South American natives paddlers who pole and paddle dug-outs upstream in rapids… And, sure, surfing coastal waters and running tidal races.
In the end, I think we’re all the end product of the waters we paddle. We grow up doing one thing and continue growing by venturing into new areas. Personally I’m now going to faster, rockier waters than I used to, but I doubt I’ll ever be a master white water paddler. I’m 68. That’s a bit late to be starting out at such a major undertaking. And it would really help to live within five hours of some white water if that’s the goal. I’m pretty happy striving for consistent competence in CL 2. But even there - “western” CL 2 is a different game and skill set from what we do around here and in the Eastern Mountains. And different paddlers may excel at one or the other.
Since we’ve again come around to safety as the difference between paddlers we most want to focus on… I recall I once (long ago) took aviation ground school (and ran out of money for in-air time). The instructor pointed out that rank beginners weren’t the ones most likely to have accidents. Accidents were more likely after several hundred hours of experience. I believe that applies to learning to practice any potentially dangerous skill. A rank beginner is a bit scarred and is more careful because of it. After a while complacency sets in. That is long before reliable safely reactions are ingrained. That period between comfort in the activity and practiced instinctive skill is the riskiest time. It can go on for quite a while - in fact one never knows exactly where it ends… But I think it applies to becoming a practitioner of any potentially dangerous activity - be it flying, driving, roofing, mountain climbing, paddling, whatever.
Why such a difference between paddlers? We’ve all arrived at different shores by different paths. Why on earth wouldn’t there be?.