Thought Soup (and Other Games Paddlers Play on a A Long Expedition)
By Ken Campbell
I spent a summer one year paddling around Newfoundland, three months of North Atlantic wind and water that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and something I would gladly do again. At one point on the trip, someone asked me what I thought about during all those hours out on the water. There are long stretches of time where there’s nothing to do but paddle, where the mind often runs free, but it’s not easy to describe. The answer I gave was that it feels like some kind of thought soup, a mash up of ideas, stories, and dreams that allows my mind to wander while my body keeps up the same repetitive paddling motion.
“Thought soup.” It still seems like a valid way to describe the collection of ideas that keep the mind occupied on the water. As long as there are no pressing decisions to be made about route finding, navigation or where to spend the night, switching on the autopilot is a pretty good option.
That’s one example of the way the mind stays occupied, but it’s only a part of the games that paddlers play, little amusements that pass the time and keep the pace of the journey active. There are others, both on and off the water.
Moving Mountains: When the conditions are tough, or on a long crossing, I’ve often played the game of moving mountains. It’s a simple game in which I pick a distant peak and watch as it moves over the course of the day, sometimes going from a point far in front of me to one that is behind me by the time the paddling day is done. It helps for paddlers to think of themselves as having superpowers and the ability to move mountains certainly qualifies.
Rearview Mirror: Akin to that is a more localized version, a kind of piloting that is often used when going into weather or picking slowly along a rocky shoreline in inclement conditions. The idea is to put things that are in front of you behind you, in your “rearview mirror.” Sometimes these are communities, as in, “The town of Flowers Cove is in my rearview mirror.” Often, however, they are smaller, more personal milestones. Progress becomes more noticeable and more meaningful as that rock, that tree, that point, becomes part of the scenery behind, in the rearview mirror.
Doing the Maps: Later, after camp has been set up, and dinner has been consumed, it’s time to do the maps. “Doing the maps,” is nothing more than measuring out the distance that you’ve come that day, tracing the route again with a pencil or a finger, getting a visual representation of the places you’ve just seen. Doing the maps connects concepts, like moving mountains and rearview mirrors, to actual physical progress measured against something outside of yourself. That’s valuable, especially on solo trips, when you’ll take any kind of contact with the outside world you can get.
Waterline Stick: There are times, sitting on the shoreline, when it’s hard to know exactly what the tide is doing. You may have a general concept of whether the water is rising or falling and it is not hard to find out approximately when high water and low water will occur, in terms of the big picture. Still, it can be difficult to know precisely how the rise or fall affects any specific location. A simple solution involves taking a stick and pushing it vertically into the sand and gravel, right at the water line. Take a look at your watch, and then over the course of the next five or ten minutes, pay attention to what happens with the stick. Which direction is the water moving? How quickly? The stick game is a real time indication of tidal and current activity. It’s not just a game, it’s actually provides useful information that can inform paddling decisions.
Coffee Brew Camp Break: How to inspire motivation? One of the challenges that I give myself is to break camp and pack everything in the time it takes me to boil the water, make the coffee and be ready to take that first sip. It’s usually a 10- to 12-minute period during which I wake up, deflate my sleeping pad – which is the final admission that the night is indeed over – and get started. I get the stove going first, then pack the sleeping bag and begin to tear down the tent. Somewhere in there the water boils and I get the coffee brewing. During the minutes that the drip is underway and the smell begins to rise, I get a few other little things packed. As it cools to a suitable temperature, everything else is assembled, tucked into its appropriate dry bag, and placed next to the kayak, ready for loading. I enjoy my coffee for the next 10 minutes or so, a morning meditation. I have heard of variations on this from others, but they all amount to the same thing: waking up to a challenge each morning, setting the tone for a productive day.
Hour Breaks: In addition to all of these, there are the games that you play with the clock. It sounds basic, but I often make a deal with myself to take 5 to 10 minutes off every hour. It’s not necessary to come ashore but I can have a snack, drink water from the bottle instead of the hose and take the opportunity to recharge just a little. That opportunity for a scheduled break provides ongoing motivation and when the time finally comes to set the paddle down and pick up an energy bar or some other treat, I feel like I’ve earned it.
The fact of the matter is that there is a collection of mind games, perception shifts, and positive internal dialogues that can not only help get you through a long-distance paddling experience, it turns out that it’s pretty similar to what we do every other day of our lives. It’s all just thought soup when you get right down to it. And that’s okay. It is certainly important to take your mind with you when you go, but don’t be surprised if it wanders along the way.
Bio: Ken Campbell is a writer and paddler living in south Puget Sound. Author of several kayaking guidebooks and veteran of multiple long-distance expeditions, Ken’s work now centers on the issues around marine debris, documenting and cleaning remote beaches in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska where plastic and other items wash ashore. He is currently building a standup paddleboard out of foam debris found on Washington beaches, and he intends to paddle it in the 2023 Seventy48 race from Tacoma to Port Townsend. Find more at The Ikkatsu Project