The Suffer Factor

River of the month #65

author: Pat Reilly
date: November 2003

Last May my paddling friend Mike was reminiscing about his Susquehanna source-to-bay paddle trip that he completed the previous May. ‘Yeah, that was probably the neatest thing I’ve ever done in my life,’ he lamented. Then a month later I was talking to him about my 4-day marathon trip on the Delaware River, paddled during the very rainy 2003 Memorial Day weekend. We were comparing notes about covering great distances in foul weather. Again referring to his epic 400+ mile Susquehanna journey, a trip in which he paddled an incredible 70 miles in one day, he said it was ‘horrible’, as he described getting out of the boat and trying to get warm in a cold rain. We went on discussing the misery of setting up camp with minimal gear and making a fire in the pouring rain after a long long day on the water, when it hit me. ‘Hey, didn’t you tell me a month ago that your Susquehanna trip was the neatest thing you’d ever done? Now you’re saying it was horrible? Which is it?’

Later in the summer, I was looking at something that I had written for the 2001 Juniata Sojourn. It was a proclamation written in jest of all the official proclamations that you listen to on one of these sojourns. In many of the towns that the paddlers pass through, a mayor, county commissioner, or legislator, will come out for a photo-op with the boats and read a proclamation declaring it ‘Juniata Day’, or ‘Sojourn Week’, or whatever. The last few verses of my proclamation read:

“And whereas we now find that our feet are grungy, out backs sore, our hands blistered and our skin sunburned And whereas we are tired, aching, waterlogged and hungry We do therefore solemnly proclaim that we loved every minute of it and would do it all again in a heartbeat.”

I may have written the words, but the trip participants ‘signed off’ on them when they cheered enthusiastically. So there’s the same theme again. We all loved the trip in spite of camping and paddling hardships. Or did we love it because of the hardships?

Back in ’98 Kris Wolpert wrote a trip report for the CCGH newsletter telling of an unplanned overnight trip on Maryland’s Pocomoke River. A group of 14 of us spent an October night in a cypress swamp with no camping gear when we encountered more strainers than we could maneuver around in the available daylight. At trips end we all agreed that if we had just made it out before dark we would’ve all been grumbling about what a miserable strainer-fest the trip was. Instead, after a long, mostly sleepless night, sitting in the mud around a fire, all we could talk about was what a big adventure we just had! Go figure!

These and many similar experiences have led me to conclude that in order to have a really good outdoor adventure, you’ve got to suffer! That’s right! It just ain’t an experience worth remembering or bringing up around the campfire unless there was some significant suffering involved.

Why do we love to suffer? Is it simply that suffering through the hardships makes you appreciate the comforts of home? It’s true that I really enjoy a hot shower and my warm bed after a winter boat-camping trip. But it has to be more than that. I don’t believe it is just the stories that we’re looking for either. Sure disaster trips make the best tales, but most every trip will have its share of memories that can be embellished into good stories with proper presentations. Nope, it’s more than that, too.

I’ve always said that the challenge and the satisfaction of minimal equipment camping, especially in foul weather, is to be comfortable despite having only the necessities. It is certainly rewarding when you ‘pull it off’ and have a relaxing night in less than ideal conditions. But we’re talking about ‘comfort’ here. This doesn’t explain the attraction of an excursion that is not so comfortable, like my buddy Mike suffering through a 14-hour, 70-mile, rainy day squeezed into a K-1 cockpit.

For workout fanatics, the fascination of a tough trip can be the sheer physical punishment that one puts oneself through. What’s that they say? ‘That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’. That may be a little severe, but it’s not hard to find yourself getting into the ‘no pain, no gain’ push of a long trip. So sometimes the joy may be simply not quitting. As one famous grueling-race phenomenon, Lance Armstrong, puts it, ‘pain is temporary, quitting is forever.’ However, workout euphoria doesn’t account for the allure of those trips where the suffering has nothing to do with exercise, like the Pocomoke swamp trip.

I suppose the only good thing about getting lost all night in a swamp is finally getting out in the morning. ‘We survived! We suffered through the night and came out unscathed!’ It may have been adventurous, but it was an experience I would not have wanted to go through without the camaraderie of the 13 other lost souls. So for some trips it may be all about the companionship of your fellow sufferers.

When it comes down to it, I suppose it is a combination of all of the above. When browsing over log entries of past camping trips looking for examples with good ‘suffer factors’, I did come across one that breaks the rule. In spite of being ‘up there’ on the suffer meter, it is NOT a trip that I particularly enjoy talking about.

It started out okay, with a launch at dusk from the White Haven access into the Lehigh river gorge. I cruised along in a touring K-1 over easy rapids lit by a half-moon directly overhead in a crisp clear February sky. I stopped before Rockport and made an illegal camp in the Lehigh Gorge State Park. I felt no guilt, though, as I selected a spot that had been used before, sleeping in the snow beside a small fire built in an existing fire ring. Surely the snowmobiles that legally cruised up and down the rail-bed bike-path on the other side of the river were impacting the park much more than I.

I arose to a river full of slush ice; only the rapids kept the water from freezing solid. By the time I hit the town of Jim Thorpe, I had to stop and break the ice that had built up ½ inch thick on the deck and hatch covers. Eight miles below Jim Thorpe at Bowmanstown, I transferred to my stashed bicycle and started back. An unexpected pleasure was the winter festival that was going on in Jim Thorpe. Beautiful ice sculptures were on display in town when I stopped for lunch.

Physical stress intensified when I started up the bike path through the gorge. Barely above walking speed at first, I struggled through 4 inches of snow, reasoning that conditions would improve above Black Creek where the snowmobiles were allowed to run, packing down the snow. It was a bit better but not much, I was really spent by the time I made it back to the put in well after dark.

The cold and physical exertion were not unexpected or unwelcome. This trip’s real suffer factor only surfaced after I was loaded up and almost out of the parking lot. A park ranger was waiting in his truck to interrogate me. Apparently he saw my footprints and kayak drag mark in the snow leading to the water when making his final rounds of the put-in during the previous evening. When my truck was still there the next day, the clever warden deduced that I must have spent the night in the park and now he demanded to know just where I had been. Since I’m not very good at lying, after some initial stalling, I ended up telling him. He cited me and a few days later when I called the district magistrate listed on the citation, the full weight of this trip’s suffer factor really kicked in. My cozy little camp in the snow was costing me $300! Ouch! Now that’s suffering! So now I’ve learned that not all painful trips are looked back upon with fondness.

Pat Reilly with thanks to Mike Warren

Copyright © 2003 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.