It’s wintertime again, which means that I start to get all philosophical again. It’s probably from the lack of paddling. The only water time I’ve been getting lately is second rate, because it’s on the solid kind with cross country skis instead of the liquid kind with a kayak. Over the years, one topic that has interested me is a question of semantics and the intensity of multi-day paddling trips that we take. Truly, whatever the trip is, is whatever the trip is. But, I like to try and place a trip into some kind of category so that it registers in my mind correctly.
One way of categorizing paddling trips is to try and see if it’s an expedition, trip or adventure. To do that, we need definitions of what each of those categories are. That would seem like a simple task, but it’s surprisingly difficult and the definitions are shifty and often depend on the beholder’s opinion. Defining a trip is easy. Anytime you go out paddling, you’re taking a trip, but the others aren’t as easy to define.
What’s an Expedition?
It seems in the paddling world that an expedition is often called an expedition based on the I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it principle, which I find rather suspect – not only because it’s a lame way to categorize something, but also because I’ve been subject to that kind of judgment before. When I was planning a 3,600-mile kayak expedition, I was interviewed by the editor of Paddler Magazine. In the magazine he mentioned that he didn’t think it was an expedition for petty reasons, despite the fact that it had never been done before and had an uncertain outcome with a specific goal and cause. Unfortunately, under that editor’s leadership the magazine failed a few issues later.
Merriam-Webster defines an expedition as:
a : a journey or excursion undertaken for a specific purpose
By that definition, if you take the trip for a specific purpose, the trip becomes an expedition. That specific purpose seems like it could be anything. Wikipedia notes that it’s often exploratory, scientific, geographic, military or political in nature. But, it could be a simple as completing a route.
One way to refine the choice was voiced by Jon Turk in Cold Oceans: Adventures in Kayak, Rowboat, and Dogsled. He wrote that the difference between an expedition and a vacation is that on an expedition you do everything you can to achieve the goal and on a vacation you do whatever feels right for that day. This seems useful to me, because when you combine it with Merriam-Webster’s definition you get a trip with a specific purpose that is the ultimate driving force of the trip.
For the definition of expedition to be useful in distinguishing itself from “just” a paddling trip, I think we need to add one more leg to it. The outcome should be in question, dangerous and difficult and it should take work to achieve it. For example, a 10-mile day trip down an oft-canoed river probably isn’t an expedition, because its outcome isn’t in question and it isn’t difficult. Do that trip in the heart of winter, and it just may be. I feel almost like I’m falling into the I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it trap, but I think that we can trust the expeditioner to determine what is a difficult-and-in-question purpose.
With this three prong definition we get:
- a journey or excursion undertaken for a specific purpose.
- a journey on which you do everything possible to achieve the purpose.
- where achieving the purpose is in question, dangerous and difficult.
That’s useful enough for me to tell the difference between an expedition and a trip.
What’s an Adventure?
“I just had an adventure,” is a common refrain coming from paddlers returning from a trip. It seems like an adventure can happen all the time, but what exactly is an adventure? Merriam-Webster defines it as:
a : an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks
b : the encountering of risks c : an exciting or remarkable experience
That sounds about right to me, although if the experience becomes routine it might no longer be an adventure. For example, a kayaking guide might take the same trip daily. It becomes routine and no longer an adventure for him, but it might be an adventure for his clients.
Adventures can happen every day if something remarkable happens. Once I met a movie stunt man in a fastfood restaurant who was on a journey to find his long-lost father. After listening to his gripping story about how he became a race car driver and then a stunt man to make his father see his name on the screen and about how his journey across the country to find him, I felt like I had just had an adventure.
Here’s the Tricky Part
When is a trip an adventure and when is it an expedition? And are many of the paddling expeditions really just paddling adventures? Let’s plan a trip where we will kayak across the north shore of Lake Superior. It’s going to take us a month, and we’re going to do everything we possibly can to achieve the goal. This paddle isn’t something to take on a whim. The shoreline is remote, rugged and Lake Superior’s water is brutal cold and the weather can change in a second. The risk is real and the route is dangerous. During the fur trade, many canoeists died along this same route. And within the last 10 years, an experienced kayaker died on the route and two had to be rescued via helicopter.
Our trip fits all of the points in both the definition for expedition and adventure, so we really can’t categorize it into a single category. By default, because we have a goal, it becomes an expedition, but this expedition that we just planned also happens to be a guided kayaking trip. It used to be performed by voyagers as a job. Surely a guided trip isn’t an expedition, because its outcome is seldom in question. Can our trip still be called an expedition when someone guides the same route, and it feels routine to him with an outcome that’s not in question? I don’t know for sure, but probably it could for us. But, that seems to make the expedition category somewhat arbitrary. I’m going to go out on a narrow and brittle tree branch here and say that we need to add one more prong to our definition of expedition. To become an expedition, it must also:
- serve a cause beyond personal enrichment.
If we add a cause to our definition of expedition, we now have a useful separation that doesn’t feel arbitrary when the same trip could be done as something routine without a questionable outcome. An expedition must also serve a cause. To be a noble expedition that cause shouldn’t just be tacked on. For example, adding “to bring attention to cause X” by climbing up Denali. Instead it should flow from the expedition. Our Lake Superior expedition might have a cause that could only be done by kayak. Our cause might be to increase scientific knowledge about water quality along the north shore. We would sample water daily. Or it could be to increase paddlesports participation or to increase wilderness protection.
By adding a cause to expeditions we get three distinct categories. Trips encompass both adventures and expeditions, but don’t need to serve a cause or have significant danger and risk, i.e. you can take a trip to the store. Adventures and expeditions are related, but expeditions have a cause and a purpose. That feels like a useful separation to me, and it might also downgrade some major paddling trips called expeditions to adventures.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.