Sometimes a quarrel creates a column, even a quarrel in my head. This happened 14 years ago when I wrote a piece titled “How accurate is our internal warning system for danger?”
My quarrel, which never reached the point of actual speech, was with one of the instructors at Otter Bar Kayak School in far Northern California. The instructor’s name was Peter and like everything else about this whitewater kayak school, he was top-notch.
He was also tall, good-looking and strong. At the time the quarrel-in-my-head happened, he must have been in his mid-40s. I was 52. I disagreed with him about what makes a good day on the river, but I liked him so well that when I wrote my column I broadened the topic, pulled my punches, and never sent him a copy.
Yet the whole experience came roaring back recently when I returned to Otter Bar and had Peter as my teacher again.
First, I’ll recap the 14-year-old incident that remains clear in my mind. I will quote from my old column, which began with my explaining that due to low water, we spent most of the week on easy runs.
“It was refreshing to work on skills, rather than adrenaline control.
“On Friday, my tension, which had melted like sunscreen on a warm back, reappeared as I listened to the ‘chalk talk.’ Peter, our head instructor, drew a graph to show that when a person boats entirely within his or her comfort range, that person may have a pleasant day but she won’t experience a ‘peak adventure.’
” ‘Take Marion’s run yesterday,’ he said, as the muscles tightened in my neck. ‘I asked her how it went and she said, “We saw a bear.” It doesn’t sound as if her skills were pushed much.’
“Because I like Peter, I didn’t argue out loud. But spotting bear tracks in the sand, then seeing the bear himself, black, shiny and active, had been a real treat. What’s so great about going into one’s zone of anxiety anyway, I wondered, when a person can find pleasure in observing nature? The week of easier water was going just fine.”
But by Peter’s definition I was not adventurous, and that stung.
I asked myself, “Is it OK to choose easy water, to avoid the adrenalin erush?” Does the same go for other activities, like selecting travel destinations or choosing a career?
Are we lesser people if we don’t push ourselves?
I’ve written about adventure several times since, defining and redefining it, still arguing with Peter in my head.
Flash-forward to this year, when on Thursday it was time for Peter to give the chalk talk. He walked to the front of the room and started drawing the same graph leading to “peak adventure” that he had used 14 years ago.
“Here we go again,” I thought, forgetting that things might have changed.
This may be Peter’s last year teaching at Otter Bar. This is not disappointing to him, but rather part of a happy permanent move to New Zealand, his country of choice. He’ll still teach kayaking, although possibly less often. During the past three years he has battled kayak-related shoulder problems, finally submitting to surgery on one side and, a year later, on the other.
No matter how much he loves New Zealand, it will be hard for him to leave his longtime kayaking students and his oldest American friends.
I wish I had exact quotations from what he said Thursday morning standing in front of the chalkboard, but I can give you my rendition. Bears did not come up, but adventure did.
“This week,” he said, “we’ve had some perfect days. Good, old friends out on the water. Just spending time. It was wonderful.”
My eyes widened.
“Peak adventure is great,” he continued, “but friends are what it’s all about.”
You could have knocked me over. I won the argument we never had out loud.
The next day was our last day on the water, and I had to decide between a difficult, pushy run — this year’s peak adventure — or one I found very manageable.
I chose the easier run in order to be with my oldest kayaking buddies, and we drew Peter as our guide. The old Peter might have been disappointed in us for taking the easy route. He might have been bored by such a day. If a bear had happened by, he might have looked at it, smiled, and then turned back to the river.
Instead, at the end of our day, he glowed. Speaking in flowered language I’d never heard from him before, he exclaimed about the simple pleasure of being with friends in a beautiful place. His dark eyes shone.
This doesn’t end the discussion about peak adventure. Whitewater kayaking is a thrill sport, after all, and I like that. But our discussion has reached a new place where we recognize that pleasure in life comes from more than thrills and accomplishment.
Seeing a bear.
Or being with friends and family.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]