ArticlesPersonal EssaysThe Lightweight Philosophy

Adding Ritual to Paddling Trips

Adding a ritual to the beginning of a paddling trip helps create a break from our normal life, which helps to enrich both our experience of the trip and our “real” lives after. After months of planning, organizing, packing and traveling, the start of a paddling trip is a relief. The instant of push-off removes all the responsibilities of home life and all preparation duties end. In that moment all that matters is the trip itself. The contrast between the moment before push-off and after is great. By adding a ritual at that moment, the paddler can recognize the contrast and celebrate the break life’s continuity. The recognition of the difference helps enrich the trip.

An Abrupt Break

Many adventurers note the abrupt break between the craziness of preparation and the moment the trip begins. On my larger trips after I finish packing everything, I experience a great relief. Everything is finished, and I just need to get to the starting point. Aldo Leopold writes in A Sand County Almanac that “recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life.” The contrast between planning and packing for a five-month expedition or even a weeklong trip and attempting that trip is great. So great that believing the two are somehow related becomes difficult. Once on the expedition, it’s hard to believe that the planning even happened.

Cleansing Rituals

Religious cleansing rituals emphasize breaking for our past and leaving it behind. I recently took a class with adventurer John Turk. He demonstrated some of the rituals he learned from a Koryak shaman, and that he wrote about in The Raven’s Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness. John started the class by cutting of lock of everyone’s hair and burning it. Then we burnt sage and sweet grass. The ritual, a smudging ceremony, assumes that sage cleanses the bad energy, and sweet grass brings in new positive energy. The cutting and burning of hair removed the stories that we tell about ourselves. In my case, the burning of my hair took away the stories I tell myself and others, that I’m a paddler, photographer and writer. After the ceremony, we moved on to the main part of the class with a clean slate and open to whatever came our way.


We celebrate important changes in life with rite of passage ceremonies. In my life, I’ve attended several transitional ceremonies as I moved from one point of my life to another. My first big ceremony was my high school graduation ceremony and then my college graduation. During both, I stood in front of my peers and family and accepted a handshake that congratulated my past achievements and kicked me into the next stage of my life. Lots of little ceremonies occur in our lives. We mark birthdays, the New Year, initiations, like confirmations or a bar mitzvahs, marriages, retirements and deaths with a ceremony that acknowledges a distinct change in someone’s life.

Bringing It Together

So, why not bring it all together at the start of a trip? If contrast between an expedition or trip and workaday life creates value in the trip, and the contrast couldn’t be greater between tripping and planning, and because trips are an important feature of our life – a vacation that we look forward to all year – then we should celebrate with a rite of passage. The trip was planned for and paid for; we should congratulate ourselves for pulling it off, but understand that we are just beginning a new adventure. The lines drawn on maps and the checklists full of gear and food, now become the paths we travel and the load on our backs. We’re moving into a new point of our life. As we go forward, leaving the old stories behinds allows us to live in the present and experience the trip fully. It breaks with our workaday past. By celebrating with a cleaning ritual that helps us understand we’re leaving the past behind, cleansing ourselves and allowing the positive in, then we approach the trip with a clean slate. I know that starting with a clean slate is exactly how I want to start a trip, because then only what I do minute to minute on the trip matters. If a short ritual helps my mind achieve that state, it’s a worthwhile ceremony.

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  • It just seem that to many times these days we rush to get thing done, and miss an important part in why we are doing what we are doing. You hit the nail squarely on the head. I live in a tourist town in northeast Michigan, and I have watched people who all to often stay all wound up in trying to relax. We all should stop and take reverence in what we’re doing. It will still get done. There really are roses to stop and smell.

  • Good subject.
    I have thought that I should start leaving a tobacco offering on the shore before heading out on trip. I have used smudge sticks before at native and cleansing rituals, but using them before a trip makes good sense. A ritual to make a clean delineation between prep/regular life and vacation is a good idea. After all, we go into the woods to smooth it.

  • I think this is a great idea. Not being very spiritual myself, I wouldn’t think to start a trip like that. Now that you mention it, this sounds like a fantastic way to take a little moment little moment to remind you why came all the way out there in the first place – to leave the city behind you. Great idea.

  • It’s almost like a cue to move into a mindfullness approach to canoe and kayak travelling. Great post. I am not a religious man but have had some great “spiritual” experiences on shorelines islands and cresting waves during massive storms.

  • Great comments! I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking this.

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