I’m currently reading Vicki McAuley’s recount of her husband’s attempt at kayaking across the Tasman Sea and am absolutely hooked with the tale. With each fumble and misstep though I am cheering so desperately for Andrew, really feeling emotionally attached in his journey. But I know the outcome. We all do, with a simple search of his Wikipedia page. And it burdens me so terribly. I feel like I am there, cheering for him, but all this happened when I was just a junior in high school. The story is remarked upon as one of the greatest kayak expeditions of all time. But we all know it was a heavy price to pay. It pains me so much to keep reading, knowing what the ending with be. Maybe his wife will provide me with closure that I otherwise would not be able to attain. I know I must finish reading, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to know. I want to admire Andrew for all his successes and not empathize with the pain of a widow when she heard the news of her husband’s empty kayak found bobbing in the Tasman.
A lot of questions are reeling through my head with regards to my own adventures. They are questions that Andrew asked and apparently, from his own writing, never really had answers for. “I’m really worried that I’m not gonna see my wife again… or my little boy… and I’m very scared… and I’m wondering what I’m doing… and why I’m doing this. I really am…and I don’t have answer.”
But it is true. Andrew died in sight of the New Zealand coastline. And it breaks my heart every time I think about it. So many adventurers have died on mountaineering expeditions or alone in the ocean. So why do it? Why do I have an insatiable urge to explore? I once made the pact after a risky winter trip into the backcountry that I would not do anything stupid for a while. But within days I had forgotten the misery and suffering and fear of being alone and scared in the wilderness. Just this past Thanksgiving I was alone up on a mountain in Newfoundland in the middle of a horrible winter storm watching my tent collapse on top of me. I felt fear, serious fear that I was helpless. I waited out the storm till the sun shone through the white out in the morning. But I did feel pretty helpless.
I’d be lying though if there wasn’t a part of me that craved an adventure like that, that knew I would be unsatisfied if everything went right. I stood at the base of the mountain the day before reading a sign saying “Do not underestimate the mountain.” It went on to not simply suggest but boldly exclaim to not climb the mountain when you cannot see the top. I could not see thirty meters ahead of me, much less the summit. But I proceeded anyways. Why did I? Was it arrogance? Most of those signs are made for your typical weekend hiker, with nowhere near the preparation for such an undertaking. Or did I see that warning and see it as a genuine challenge, something I had been without for several months? I wanted to suffer, I craved a genuine adventure, and I’d be lying if I said I was ultimately displeased with how that night went. In reality, it was awesome.
I told my parents when I made it out of the woods that I would just be doing day hikes for the next few days until I caught the ferry back to the mainland. But the next day I was heading back into the woods to summit a snow covered mountain above a fjord in Gros Morne National Park. I set up a base camp in a cove on the lake and headed up to the icy peak. But just half an hour from the summit, a storm rolled in and covered the mountain. I could see the snow slamming the sheer cliff on one side of the fjord. It looked like something I had seen in dramatic documentaries of mountaineers on K2. It was a gnarly sight and I realized at that moment, I wasn’t in this just for the beauty and solitude anymore. Something about being close to the edge, witnessing raw power, battling raw power, drew me in and frankly, this realization scared me.
But on the thirty hour drive home, all I could think about was my next adventure. What was I going to do next? I was scared for myself though, for my well-being, for my girlfriend at the time and my family. I was heading down a road that doesn’t foster stability for those closest to me. How will all this affect them? Vicki McAuley comments in some of her writing on how Andrew would never be satisfied if he didn’t attempt crossing the Tasman. And in his writing he confirms it. “You have to be happy with your life and I know that I had this opportunity and didn’t take it, I’d be unhappy.”
I can’t explain why I would be attracted to these things, why the thought of being in a kayak in the open ocean thrills me rather than is something of my worst nightmare. I can’t explain why I am so good at forgetting the misery and suffering of an expedition all while the thrill and beauty remains in my memory. I don’t know why. All I know is that these are my inclinations right now and the thought of resisting them brings a heavy burden to my heart. Andrew suggest that it might be good for society for people to explore and go on wild adventures. “These days there’s an increasing trend to eliminating risk from every part of our lives, and creating more rules and regulations and so on, and what that does is it shifts responsibility away from the individual which is ultimately a disempowering thing to do. I think activity like this is good for the individual and therefore good for society as a whole.”
I’m not sure what I do, what I crave is good for anybody, but I do know that if I don’t do this, if I don’t get out into the wild, on my own, with only the sea as my company, I will not be happy. Not now, and maybe not ever. I see guys go on adventures like this, I read about them, people who go right to the edge, and then, once safe and comfortable, they never go back. I think they must have learned something, some piece of wisdom that only experience and the wild can teach. They try to reiterate it in writing and documentaries, but something is lost in translation, and I am still left with an emptiness inside me. They seem satisfied, with no intentions of going back to the discomfort. I think Andrew would have felt that contentment with the Tasman crossing had he finished and I feel saddened by the realization that he never got to experience the feeling that a retired adventurer must feel. I know the cure for my itchy feet. And maybe what will result someday is the family man, the diligent med student, the committed employee, and maybe I’ll never feel the urge to embark on wild adventures ever again.