A Storm Approaches
The blizzard would last over a week, the news said. The forecast called for two to three feet of snow. If I kept paddling, I would be in the heart of the storm. I had already paddled through one snowstorm, on day two. But this storm would be far more severe.
Waking up on the morning of my fourth day, I knew that I had until that evening when the conditions would rule out paddling for at least a week.
So I got a ride from my parents back to the same place I had exited the river the evening before. And I started paddling again. I knew where I would end the day. Twenty miles south at Rulo, Nebraska. I’d beat the storm.
Even though it was a bitterly cold day with a high in the single digits, I went into it with a feeling of enjoyment that I hadn’t felt since the first hours of the voyage.
“This is how it is going to be,” I thought. “The river will let me pass, or it won’t. Today, it says ‘yes, paddle on my waters.’ But tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, it says ‘No.’ So be it.”
The feeling of joy that had come over me was born in that acceptance.
Normally, I paddled hard all day long. I put every muscle into each stroke. I thought about where I was placing the paddle each time and the micro-movements I made as I pulled it through the water.
But this day I let go. I only had twenty miles to cover. The winds were calm. The river was a plane of glass. And the sharp cold lent a feeling of delicacy to everything. It was as though the entire landscape were a frozen flower. Admire, but do not touch.
The paddling I did that day was less paddling and more ambling. I reclined lazily in my seat, with five layers of clothes on, a pair of -40-degree boots on my feet, and a tarp covering my lower body.
The -40 boots I picked up at a boot shop as I paddled through St. Joe, Missouri. The boots were a welcome upgrade. My previous pair of uninsulated muck boots nearly resulted in my feet turning into frozen blocks of flesh, blood, and bone. For once, I was warm and not covered in sweat.
Occasionally, I dipped the paddle into the water and gave it a gentle nudge. But the nudges were small for I did not want to disturb the peaceful river.
Within an hour I noticed ice accumulating on the sides of the canoe and the blade of the paddle. Within two hours there was enough ice that the canoe sat a couple of inches lower in the water.
“Hmm,” I thought.
I swung my paddle against the outside of the canoe and knocked off some ice. I did this a few more times until most of the ice was gone and the canoe sat higher in the water. Here was yet another thing I had not anticipated. Water splashed onto the side of the canoe as I paddled and instantly froze. This extra weight was sinking the canoe!
“Ah, yet another challenge,” I thought, “but manageable.”
As I drifted down the river that day, I thought a lot about what this trip meant to me and to the people on shore following my progress. The truth was I had sacrificed the idea of this journey as a personal pursuit of adventure when I decided to tie it to autism awareness. Though I recognized this the day before, I had not come to terms with it until this moment.
With a storm racing south toward me, I would have loved to have kept paddling—to have screamed in the face of the storm and shivered for nights on end in my cheap tent as the snow drifted around it.
Why did I want this? Why did I want the dangerous path, bodily pain, and the agonizing tears of a mind at its limit? Why was I willing to risk death for a self-imposed and entirely useless pursuit? And why the hell did I like it?
I did not have an answer. But I asked, why do people sail across the ocean when there are storms? Why do they climb mountains with air too thin to breathe? Why do they create art?
Perhaps these endeavors bring us to a state of mind where we experience our true selves; free of the chains bound to us by life and thus free to experience raw and unfiltered joy. It is a state of ecstasy.
But this was not fair—to risk my own life and thus risk the message of the cause, for the cause had become the journey. This journey forced me to recognize that something was happening which was more important than the success of my ego and more important than pushing myself into a delirious, storm-bound altered state of mind.
While I was deep in thought contemplating what it meant to paddle solo on the big rivers in the dead of winter, news of my trip had reached the Midwest paddling community—a community I didn’t even know existed. Gears started to turn. Over the coming month and a half, they would turn into one of the most significant external sources of encouragement and support I could have hoped for. These were complete strangers who would feed me, house me in the towns along the river, put a beer in my hand, and donate money to autism awareness and research.
As the sun fell upon another bleak horizon, I paddled into Rulo, Nebraska. There, I pulled the canoe out of the water, took advantage of my home not very far away, and waited for the storm to pass.