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Courage in Wilderness Travel

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courage: mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty

In February of 2011, I was thinking about courage and how technology can change the amount of courage that a wilderness trip requires (see: Modern Technology and Courage in the Wilderness). I concluded that certain types of technology can reduce the risks of wilderness travel and reduce the courage it takes to tackle the trip. In a more recent article a commenter  made a remark about how boat type can affect courage. In his example, he used an inflatable kayak in an area where the norm is hard-shelled sea kayaks. While his choice may or may not make sense — I’m not going to judge it — it made me think about courage again. It occurs to me that courage can encompass both bold and stupid choices.

If we make a courage scale charting bold on one side and stupid on the other, I think we can use it to help rank our decisions in relation to courage (I’m starting to dig scales since I wrote The Adventure Matrix: Ranking Trips on a Graph and What’s the Difference between a Kayak or Canoe Expedition, Trip and Adventure?).

courage scale

I’ll illustrate both extremes with examples from kayaking trips that happened in the spring/summer of 2011 on the Great Lakes. During one, a solo kayaker (me), equipped with all the proper rescue equipment, training, immersion gear, a proper sea kayak and a conservative risk management plan, spent 45 days kayaking 800 miles from Port Huron, MI to Grand Marais, MN. During the other, a man who had just purchased a huge cockpit recreational kayak, without any training, no maps, no wetsuit or drysuit and no rescue gear set off from Sault Ste Marie to paddle to Wisconsin on Lake Superior. Arguably, both solo trips took some amount of courage. Since we’re not talking about the amount of courage, I don’t need to mention, but I will, that I actually think his trip took much more courage with the equipment he had and lack of training than mine did. He didn’t even have a risk management plan to help him make decisions about when to paddle and when not to paddle. Due to that he ran into problems on Whitefish Bay about a week after he set off on his trip. He launched out into “huge” waves that were crashing over the side of his boat and onto his massive sprayskirt (see Estimating Wave Height for Canoes and Kayaks), and was blown over a sand bar at a point, capsized, made it to shore and was rescued by a home owner who put him up in a cabin for a few days. After that he turned around and decided to head down the St. Mary to Lake Huron and then to Lake Michigan and Wisconsin (arguably a safer route for an open boat such as his).

While, I hate to call the courage it took to do my trip bold, because that sounds super not humble, it was certainly on that side of the scale. The other trip was definitely stupid. Feel free to argue this in the comments.

So, it seems to me that on trips that may take courage, that courage isn’t necessarily a smart or bold type of courage, and somehow gear choices can tilt the courage scale one way or the other. (I will note that I think skills play a part here. A skilled person can make a storm-worthy shelter with a tarp, while it’d be a courageous but stupid choice for someone that didn’t have a clue on how to set up a tarp.) On my trip, I managed the risk with what I think was well-thought-out and well-accepted gear choices. On the other trip, his gear was marginal at best for the trip he attempted. To me, that’s just stupid and putting yourself at unnecessary risk, especially if you choose inappropriate gear because it feels more courageous.

But, rating courage based on what I might perceive as stupid isn’t as cut and dry as some of my other philosophy articles. I’m still not sure where I stand on this. Any thoughts?

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  • This article does touch a nerve. In my circle of kayaking friends I have seen experienced paddlers getting into all manner of troubles out there not based on lack of courage, the right gear or the desire to be bold in their journey, but because of ego. I argue time and time again that there isn’t a dry bag big enough for an ego, so leave it in the car until you get back from paddling. No matter how good you are in a kayak if you bring ego, you are inexperienced in my opinion.
    I have done my fair share of solo multi-day kayak travels and I do go prepared with risk management plans, all the gear needed to keep me in touch and safely warm and dry. Some have questioned my enjoyment of soloing and placed my trips as stupid to go alone. But I go with a kayak filled with experiences and the knowledge that my kayak and I are well fitted and act as one. Does the kayak play a part in boldness, yes. Mine does. Does the right gear play a part, definitely! They are absolutely useless without a smattering of common sense.
    I don’t consider myself a courageous fella either. On my soloing I probably come off farther on the conservative side of my paddling than I would say, in a group dynamic. The very nature of what you are endeavouring to causes one to be more careful. I would hazard to guess that some friends of mine would say I am adventurous and bold in my trips. I am not sure I am bold. I take good care, enjoyment of the paddling is the first consideration and I take ‘all’ factors into account.
    The fellow paddler who set out in a recreational kayak without all the gear we have is bold/stupid. My opinion is that he fell on the stupid pretty hard. I agree with you he had a measure of courage in his kayak. but it sounds as though he still had room to fit a clue in there. On the other side of that is an encounter I had a few years ago on a paddle trip with woman paddling alone around the Gulf Islands in a river kayak. She toughed it out with a tent, some freeze-dried food and a level-headed boldness that inspires me still. Is there a difference between your example and mine? Yes. My lady friend knew when to call it a day, knew when to paddle and when the conditions said, no. Go for it attitude is neither bold, nor courageous. You and I go out with knowledge and common sense. These two items don’t in anyway shape or form dilute the kayaking experience. I may be bold in saying so, to be truely bold, and courageous you must first know your limits. Boldness and courage only come after the trip when you realize that on day 5 you did something that you didn’t know you could do in a kayak.

    • I agree with you. I personally don’t feel very courageous or bold when on a trip, because I’m operating on a risk management plan that I put into place before I left. For myself, the courage comes not after a trip, but before a trip during planning when I decide what dangers I’m willing to face and how much difficulty I want. On a trip, I face fear when I know what my plan was, what risks I planned for, and then arrive at the obstacle. Having to face those dangers is much different than planning for them.

  • I think we can label a lack of knowledge/experience as ‘stupid’ or ‘ego’ unfairly at times. (Of course, stupid and ego do exist-ha). Sometimes, people really do lack knowledge/experience and when you explain issues to them (or they gain experience), they change how they do things. Maybe this guy, in his mind with his experience, thought he was prepared. After this trip, I am sure he learned a lot and maybe even he will look back on it and say, “Man, I was brave….and stupid!”.

    For some young people, it is the ‘invincibility’ factor. I had that for sure when I was young. I am sure lots of others did. Did I have more courage as a teen, or was I more stupid, or was I more egotistical? Hmmm…I also think, the more you paddle, the more you are ‘out there’ you see bad things happen to really experienced paddlers, so it hits you-“That could happen to me”. I am way more cautious than when I was 20, but…I sort of miss my courage. And, that courage, often, was based on ignorance about life. I was lucky to survive the stupid and brave things I did! And, I cherish the memories.

    Maybe yours took more courage because you are actually aware of what can happen out there. Maybe this guy, was not all that nervous, because he was somewhat ignorant of what can kick up.

    Anyway…..just my two cents as I procrastinate studying for an exam. :) Good article.

    • You’ve described the Dunning-Kruger effect perfectly:

      1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
      2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
      3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
      4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill
      level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own
      previous lack of skill.

  • The scale illustrated suggests that the opposite of bold is stupid. It seems like the assessment may require an axis to depict the “bold” versus “not-so-bold” aspect of the endeavor and another axis that would depict the “smart” versus “not-so-smart” aspect.

    Hopefully I am adding value to this discussion rather than just blabbing.

  • Is it courage if one sets out on a trip without a clue as to the risks that will be encountered? I think it is just being blissfully unaware.

  • It is my belief that courage (as per the definition) is the reaction of a person to danger, fear, or difficulty, and by that means that the person has to know what is going on (or expected) and rise to that level. The soloist you mention may have known that and was tremendously courageous, or just inexperienced and not. The person who is deathly afraid of the water but gets in a kayak anyway can show more courage than the expert setting out on a well planned expedition.

    I believe the scale you have is incorrect and should rather be a straight scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is indicative of those paralyzed by there fear and cannot overcome it, and 10 are those who can stand before imminent death and press forward.

    • Good points. I like your idea for a scale, but it measures “fear< --->courage” and not whether courage is bold or stupid. The assumption with my scale is that there is courage, and I’m not measuring how much. I’m just measuring whether that courage is stupid or bold.

  • The 300 mile Everglades Challenge and the 1200 mile Ultimate Florida Challenge both started this weekend and the first finisher did it in 2 days 7 hours, all the rest are still out there. This is a small boat race, paddle, peddle, row, or sail, the first finisher was in a 20′ Tornado catamaran, there are lots of smaller sailboats and a bunch of kayaks.

    With a race there’s no waiting for a weather window, though a “weather hold” was placed to keep things safe.

    It’s interesting to hear the stories of those that DNS, DNF, and those still at it. Courage? You bet, lots of it here! What do y’all think?

  • I’ve never really thought about adventures as requiring courage, or being particularly bold. I’ve flown small planes, done a modest amount of scuba, and reasonable amounts of wilderness travel, and I’ve done them all for the same reason. I do them because they force me to focus on what I’m doing, so that I can not worry about regular life for a while. I do them because I get to see stuff others don’t, if I work at it. I do it for the little tiny buzz that I get from knowing that I’m doing something that relies on my skills, training, or wits to keep me alive. But it doesn’t scare me – it makes me feel alive.

    Cancer, Alzheimers, driving to work? THOSE scare me. :-) The rest give me a confidence that if I approach things rationally, incrementally, and with a knowledge of what can go wrong, I will probably survive. If I have to employ courage to get out of the woods, I’ve probably done something wrong, or someone else has.

    There’s probably an interesting scale that could be built for trust, too. There’s “I trust that guy not to lie to me often” and then there’s “I’ve been 90 feet under the ocean or spent days in grizz country with that guy, and he’s got my back.”

    • Don’t sell yourself short. It takes courage, even though it might not feel bold, to do those things.

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