I dug this previously un-posted account out of "my documents" at work, the only place where I had it saved.
Basically, it describes a 4-day canoeing trip in Spain three Januarys ago - my eighteenth birthday present from some really generous relatives.
Basically, it describes a 4-day canoeing trip in Spain three Januarys ago - my eighteenth birthday present from some really generous relatives.
Somewhat embarassing is the strong influence of DK's two books on my writing. Oh the shame.
It’s interesting to note that before this ill-fated journey began, there were only two possibilities for the canoe trip that had been envisioned and discussed. Uncle Peter (UP) suggested that I would stroll down the river with a hard-bag in the hull, chatting to locals over a pint at every village and sleeping in a warm bed at a hostel or hotel every night. I, on the other hand, wanted to embark upon a transformative journey of endurance, fighting fatigue for three weeks, all the way down to the Mediterranean, while camping in fields along the way. I wanted a physical gruelathon of epic proportions.
We didn’t listen to the only person who had any idea of what the conditions on the river would actually be like; Alberto Blasco, the Spanish canoe-guide who we had become acquainted with. He had asked multiple times if I was a professional canoeist and had warned us that the river was “quite dangerous”.
I was an 18-year-old child who had started canoeing properly two months before and whose only experience of rapids had come in the form of ripples emanating off of the side of the “Citycat” – a suburban ferry that ran up and down the placid Brisbane River.
“Even if the river is quite dangerous”, I thought, “and I happen to fall in, I can just jump back into the canoe and keep going right?”
I had assumed that because there were no bull sharks in the Ebro, capsizing in Spain would not be half as dangerous as getting dunked in Brisbane.
I had said before I left that I was “mentally prepared” for sub-zero temperatures, but no amount of fortitude of the mind can protect one against the harsh physiological reality of such a climate. How are you supposed to deal with the lack of feeling in your fingers and feet beneath wet gloves and shoes when the next village is kilometres away, with many rapids and weirs in between?
I would soon learn the answer to this question and many more, in what ended up being the most valuable four days of my life.
Day 1 – Miranda Del Ebro (City) to El Soto (Vineyard)
The night before I left, UP and Auntie Geraldine (AG) called me into their hotel room to discuss the weather forecast, both with very grave facial expressions. They were both visibly distressed when telling me that a massive cold front was sweeping southwards across Europe towards Spain, bringing ungodly weather with it. They wanted me to wait for a day or two in the hotel in Miranda before setting off, but I dismissed the idea immediately. I desired to leave as soon as possible and this news did nothing to dampen my blind lust for adventure.
So there we were, on the 6th of January, I was sitting on the bank of the Ebro, with the sit-on-top canoe in front of me, waiting for UP and AG to bring back a few supplies. A few curious locals had gathered atop the nearest bridge to look at a crazy blonde foreigner with a paddle in his hand and a smile on his face. I chatted to a few Spaniards wandering along the river bank, with one plump lady finishing her speech with a resounding “ten cuidad!” – be careful. I asked another man if he had any suggestions for me; “que no lo haga,” he replied - that you don’t do it.
This didn’t scare me at all, I attributed their sentiment to a mental weakness on their own part, as I did the fact that AG and UP were crying when they sent me off half an hour later.
By 1200 I had been paddling for fifteen minutes and it was going, more or less, according to plan. Fatigue was my only enemy, and so far I was beating it. All that I had to do was to drink in the splendour of my surroundings and ignore the lactic burn – I had been doing the same while running up and down Mount Cootha for a year. There were peaks in the distance, sandstone spires on either side of me, as well as gorges, wineries and endless rows of grapevines. The sky was grey and pregnant but everything else displayed the Iberian vibrance that I had expected; brilliant orange and yellow colourings painted on to the countryside.
I came to the first weir of the trip at about 1530. Immediately, I heard the roar of the water, then I saw the stillness of the water next to a large hydro-plant. After this, I was slightly confused, as it seemed like the river was running right into the middle of the countryside up ahead. Finally, I realised that I would have to exit the river as close to the lip as possible without being caught in the current and sent over the lip. I was able to pull up next to a concrete block beside the weir, which rose a metre out of the water, removing my backpack (strapped to the top of the vessel) and hauling the canoe up a steep slope and along a grassy path for about 50 metres. I re-entered without a problem, and that turned out to be the easiest weir to traverse of them all.
At 1605, I pulled up along side a random vineyard1 past the town of Haro and set my tent up without any great difficulty. By 1700, I had all of my damp and dry gear inside of the tent, and all of my soaked gear between the mosquito net and the fly. I cracked open some hand warmers in an attempt to revive my feet. Everything was wet and cold, especially the floor of the tent, and for the nine hours, I followed a rough pattern of one hour sleeping, and one hour trying to keep my body temperature up by rubbing my legs together and grasping my feet. At about two in the morning, I cut my losses, after realising that there was no way that I could warm my lower body, and just tried to be satisfied with the fact that I could still feel it. The ambient temperature had varied between -50C and 00C throughout the night, and was much the same the next day.
– Removing my beanie because I was feeling too hot. The beanie became soaked when I traversed some minor rapids.
– Taking off my wet canoe gear upon making camp. My underwear, skins and thermals literally froze through the night.
– A sleeping bag designed for a temperature as low as 100C does not provide any warmth if the surrounding air is colder than this level.
– If a piece of clothing is advertised as waterproof, it most likely isn’t.
– Not surprisingly, thin Australian canoeing gloves are not designed for European winters.
Overall, I was happy with the first day. I had handled it with the mental attitude suggested by the Dalai Lama – view a problem as a challenge rather than a threat, and one’s ability to cope will be greatly enhanced. I had maintained a positive outlook.
That night, in the city of Logroño, UP and AG were completely distraught and barely slept at all.
Day 2 – El Soto to San Vicente de la Sonsierra (Riojan village)
I awoke to about ten centimetres of snow on parts of and all around my tent. In other circumstances, I would marvel at such conditions, but on this day it made everything a bit harder and a bit more frustrating.
I was on the river at 0900 after having an asparagus sandwich for breakfast (white bread made up about 60% of my diet while en route) and packing up. I covered about a kilometre in the first thirty minutes – a snail’s pace – the time being equally split between paddling and having my hands down my pants for warmth. The snow was relentless and blinding.
After this time, I came to a weir2 with a diagonal lip – a part of which was dry and therefore traversable. I hauled the canoe out of the water, over, and then back in but within twenty metres I had hopped out again to haul it over rocks submersed by shallow water. For the next fifteen minutes, I was in and out of the canoe constantly being beached in the shallow water. Just when the switch in my mind had been flicked over from ‘challenge’ to ‘threat’, I came to a long but narrow stretch of deeper water. Just before the river widened was a semi-submersed log, through which the current was flowing. On the right hand side of the log was a small gap that led to the next widened section of the river. I had had enough of hauling the canoe, so I decided to hop back in and to try to work my way around the obstruction. In my optimistic state of mind, I envisioned myself hitting the log parallel, pulling myself along it, and being released at its tip. I was too lazy to pull the canoe along the sandy bank next to the log and too lazy to properly analyse what would have happened to me when I hit it.
Sure enough, I ran into the log parallel, the canoe was immediately tipped to its side, and I fell out up to my waste. My water bottle and watch fell out, and I had to fish around in the icy water for half a minute to find them. I had also lost my gloves, meaning that I had to paddle for the next two hours in sub-zero temperatures with my hands uncovered. Frostbite beckoned.
It’s amazing how your senses can be dulled when you are forced to focus your mind on resisting the cold. I passed leafless trees with countless branches completely covered in snow like carefully crafted ice sculptures in a winter wonderland. There were severe orange rock faces that constantly seemed as if the last rays of sunlight were giving them life. Periodically, a group of picture perfect European ducks would fly past me, or I would see a large black water-bird explode from beneath the surface and disappear in the blink of an eye. However, my survival instinct had taken over – my surroundings weren’t classified as beautiful or mundane, but as an aid or a threat to my existence.
I think that this only occurs when there is no safety net. While running or canoeing in Queensland I had the opportunity to quit at any point and I wouldn’t have been in any danger (this goes without saying for swimming or gyming). If I had decided to relinquish the canoe and pull up on the bank at most times while in Spain, it could be hours before I would find the next village and by then I could be hypothermic and/or frostbitten. It sounds like a great motivator, but I didn’t have the experience and discipline to see it in this way. I almost felt as if I had already died and that I would never know warmth or life again – I was trapped, there was no escape.
Not surprisingly then, when I saw the top of a church and the makings of a village in the far distance I was exultant. I pulled the canoe aground under one of the arches of a medieval bridge made with the intricacy and attention to detail that I had come to expect in such relics.
After removing my gear from the canoe, I began trudging up the hillside to the road which led into the village, falling over numerous times and giving my hands a large dose of exposure. The progress was arduous along the 600-metre road into the centre of the village. A police car made its way carefully past me, with the driver smiling at me in amazement from behind the wheel. I didn’t try to reciprocate the gesture, and I there probably wasn’t enough blood in my face to allow me to do so.
At some point during this march through the persistent snow, I lost all feeling in and ability to move my right pinkie, which had become stuck in a claw-like curve. My lack of experience in cold climates caused me to panic, and I believed that if I didn’t soon find somewhere warm, that I would lose my hand. Thankfully, some locals directed me to a brilliant hotel, and after explaining my situation the astounded hotelier and asking if there was somewhere around where I could buy ski gloves, I was able to thaw out. I had arrived at 1200, was in bed at 1500 after talking at length on the phone to UP and AG, woke up at 1700 to get some supplies, and then slept from 1900 till 0645 the next morning. I was so grateful for the comfort of heating and a warm bed, as well as the hospitality of the large owner of the hotel, who had somehow managed to find me four pairs of ski gloves from which to choose. These gloves were very well priced, and I thought long and hard about buying two pairs, but decided on purchasing one. It would cost me later on.
– Trying to tackle the log.
– Never take the risky option when hypothermia is a possible outcome.
– Don’t let your judgement be clouded by fatigue and wishful thinking.
– Paddle through the middle of rapids. If your try to avoid them on either side, you will be sucked back into them without any forward momentum, making it a lot more likely that you will capsize.
– On a canoe, the only way to protect something from the water is to put it at the very bottom of a waterproof bag, inside the hull. Everything else is vulnerable.
Day 3 – San Vicente to la Puebla de la Labarca (Basque village)
Upon waking, I talked to the Godparents on the phone again and I now find it very ironic that it was I who was nearly in tears upon hanging up. It was like the morning of my execution – I subconsciously thought that I wouldn’t talk to them again.
After a breakfast of white bread with jam and fruit, I was ready to head off; despite having developed what I thought was a head cold throughout the night.
The first obstacle was a weir leading onto a group of narrowly separated islands, which was only fifty metres past the bridge. I had a good look at it as I walked back down the road, and it seemed controllable.
Overall, I believe that I handled it quite well. It was as complex as the one the day before but I managed and made the correct decisions. I had to walk over slopes of slippery rocks and miraculously didn’t slip over at all. The overhanging trees and logs were just as treacherous as the day before. A few times I brushed under them and was completely covered in snow, trying to find it funny instead of aggravating. Admittedly, a large measure of luck was involved in my safe passage as it always is in such journeys.
I re-entered in a very narrow straight through which the water undulated violently and the trees obstructed my view of what lay ahead. I was fortunate that another log was not hiding around one of the many bends.
Once the river had widened I believed that my troubles were over and that I could just focus on paddling and keeping my hands warm (there wasn’t much that I could do about my feet, but the wet suit boots were more-or-less doing their job). I was complacent and I was wrong. I had dealt with rapids on the previous two days, which I had thought were rough but were mite-sized in reality. I had treated them as challenges but what I now faced turned on an instinctive fear, as I did not have experience in such rough waters. My stomach sank as I heard the faint roar of the water from a hundred metres away.
There were two drops of about one metre in height, with roughly thirty minutes between them. The kayak went over both at a 450 causing the whole of the seat to be filled with water. Because I had almost completely consigned myself to being capsized before going over, I felt as if I had been resurrected when I realised that I was still in the canoe at the end of each ordeal. An experienced canoeist would have no problem in handling such waters. I was enthusiastic and determined, but I was not experienced.
My ski gloves – advertised as waterproof – had soaked through, and to extract the water I was using my mouth as a siphoning system. I wouldn’t realise how stupid this was until much later on.
Just as my hands were going numb, I pulled up at another weir that was, thankfully, next to a small village3 (Mañueta). I had to haul the canoe up a 1.5 metre high wall (at an incline of about 75%) created by a series of boulders. I still had some energy left in me from the massive breakfast and made light work of the obstacle. However, upon reaching the top I realised that I really needed to get inside in order to warm myself up. After walking for about five minutes, I was grateful to see a red circle jutting out of the side of a building, undoubtedly indicating the existence of a pub.
Upon entering, I was given a few curious and suspicious looks by the locals, before announcing to the bartender (with limited modesty) that I was going down the Ebro on a canoe. A few gasps followed and then one man exclaimed “Un hombre con dos cojones!” – A man with two balls. I liked this aspect of the journey; to the locals I wasn’t just another drunken Aussie rollicking around the countryside, I was accepted as one of them and I commanded a certain measure of respect.
As I sat by the fire, chewing on some pistachios and chatting to an old bearded lad in gumboots, I thought about how I always arrived at a well-equipped village when it was needed. An hour later, after finishing my tea I was out of the bar and off again. As I made my exit, the locals looked at me as if I was about to be crucified; it was a kind of solemn respect. Others probably thought that I was crazy.
Yet another local helped me to haul the canoe about a hundred metres down a road and on to a boat-ramp – which turned out to be one of the best re-entry points of the entire trip.
I had been told by the bearded geezer that there was one weir between Logroño and myself. There were four. The first4 came at about 1400, opposite to the village of Cenicero and looked very manageable at first. I approached the hydro-plant to make my exit, being careful to stay out of the current, which was uncharacteristically strong at this weir. I was ten metres away from it when I realised that there were a series of metal spikes jutting out from the water that made the ledge next to the plant inaccessible.
The rest of that side of the river was covered in scrub and was far too steep for an exit. I had to turn around and cross over, despite a current of about 12 km/h sweeping to my side. I analysed the situation and formed a game plan. I would turn around swiftly and avoid the flow for as long as possible by going up the river along the bank. When I hit the current, I would paddle against it for my life. It all went according to plan until I hit the rapid flow, which turned the nose of the canoe quickly and sent me towards the lip.
Fear. My experiences have told me that fear can be very dangerous if left untamed in such situations. The best way to manage it is to ask yourself what it is that you fear, to reaffirm yourself of the negative aspects of this genesis in order to cultivate a motivation to avoid it, which will translate into clinical action to do so. I didn’t have that kind of time to think however, so I just pulled hard on the left, dug in on the right to swing the nose of the canoe around, and then paddled for my life. I got to the other bank and out of the current after about a minute and by now traversing weirs had become a routine procedure, so that I handled the rest of that one with ease – walking down a 4-metre long diagonal face with the canoe in tow. I had become so used to turbulent waters, obstacles and wild weather in the last two days that the next two sunny, rapid-and-weir-free hours were almost boring. I should have cherished them.
The following weir5 came next to a concrete-floored park, complete with picnic tables and barbecues. It had been my goal for the day to reach this location, however, my tent and sleeping bag were soaked through, and if I had decided to sleep under one of the benches and the weather took a turn for the worse during the night (it was still about 30C but sunny) I could quickly become hypothermic. It was 1530 and there was still plenty of sunlight left, so I decided to push on, dragging my canoe over concrete, grit, and snow for a few hundred metres to the closest clear launch (a clearing in the trees). About thirty metres from this point, I noticed a log jutting out of the bank that I was on, that had the current flowing right under it. I ran ahead for a closer look and realised that I would have to paddle very hard towards the still water on the right-hand side in order to get past it. There was no clear launch point anywhere ahead. I returned to the canoe, hauled it in and paddled like I had intended. I celebrated as if I had won an Olympic gold medal when I passed the obstacle, floating down the narrow, bumpy straight with my paddle raised high in the air. I spotted a smaller fork-shaped log on the right, at a 450 angle with the flow of the river and a lot of space – it was nothing, barely a blip on the radar. A few hard pulls on the right and I would sail past it. I was complacent and it cost me dearly. I waited for longer than I otherwise would have before paddling hard.
I didn’t hit the log at a great pace, but as soon as I did the canoe tipped to its side against the log and filled with water. I fell in immediately and was submerged up to my chest, before the canoe was shifted under the log and up onto the other side, upside down, by the force of the current. Luckily, I was attached to the canoe by a rope that was connected to the front of my jacket, which held the boat in place on the other side of the log. The downside of this was that this rope had become wrapped around my right leg, seriously reducing my mobility and pinning me to the log.
After letting out a mid-pitched “uuaaaahhhh” sounding yelp a couple of times, I considered my options. My first thought was to swim under the log in order to free my leg from the rope and get to the canoe. I am grateful that I decided against it. Who knows what could have been below the surface? Additionally, I could have become even more tightly grasped by the rope - with my head underwater. UP had told me of a professional English canoeist dying in this way before I had left, and at the time, I barely factored it into my planning. That wont happen to me, I thought.
By the time that I had decided to try to flip the canoe, I looked up to see my backpack floating down the river. In it was half of my food, a pair of thermals and the useless hand warmers. More worryingly, the clear waterproof sleeve containing the maps of the river had also disappeared, although I didn’t have the luxury of watching it go.
After flipping the canoe, I was able to wedge it up the middle of the fork along side me. I then unclipped the rope from the canoe and somehow managed to climb back into the vessel. Somehow, during all of this, I managed not to lose my paddle (the rope connecting me to the paddle had broken earlier on). This was a significant stroke of luck that allowed me to continue on my journey. I threw my weight back and forth to get off of the log, and was on my way again in a matter of moments. I thought about what I had lost: the thermals’ untimely exit meant that I would have to find a way to dry my clothes out every second day, the food was replaceable, and UP had a copy of the maps. He could text me each morning describing the distance between myself and the weirs and villages of the next forty kilometres. It was manageable. Stay positive.
Oh shit, was my wallet in the plastic sleeve? No, of course not, it was in the hull with my money belt. Hang on…It was. Most of its contents were useless in Spain – my Medicare card, driver’s licence, Australian bankcard – except for one small piece of plastic. My Spanish bankcard was in the river. Even that wasn’t a huge problem. I was one day away from Logroño – a small city and the capital of la Rioja – and could probably extract the cash at a branch there. We were still in business.
After the first night, my thoughts were straying ever more frequently to my parents and Godparents. AG had informed me that UP hadn’t slept for the first few nights since I had left, and I received some voicemail messages from AG that sounded like she was in tears. Mum and Dad had read about the weather, and I was in worst affected region of Spain. They would be worried sick as well. I thought that it was unfair to them to be put under such amounts of stress by my selfish ambition. I shouldn’t have been surprised by their sentiments though, whenever I embarked on any physical endeavour more strenuous than a walk, that I had planned myself and required me to leave our neighbourhood, my parents’ usual reaction was at first to try to convince me not to do it, and then to offer to make it easier for me through their use of a car. Not once was I told, “Good idea son, you can do it!” They had doubted my physical and mental ability to deal with such challenges for a long time. After I had left home, they just accepted that if I challenged myself to do it, I would.
It would have been so easy for me to slip into the path of least resistance, to take the easy road and never to have known the deepest lows and most soaring highs of life. I had fought it, and realised that pain ultimately brings joy and is transformative, giving strength and compassion to those who undergo it. I will never be a suburbanite like my family and friends.
In any case, when I pulled up at la Puebla de la Labarca6 at just before 1600, my will was waning considerably. I asked a bartender to direct me to a hotel, and by 1730 I was showered, dry and ready for a meal. A few euros bought me a couple of lettuce and tomato sandwiches (I didn’t wash the veggies), half a litre of orange juice and a bowl of dusty looking almonds from the chubby Basque lad who ran the place. I chomped my meal down merrily and was in bed by 1900.
My sleep was very troubled, I had visions of myself being dunked by huge rapids and going over weirs.
I awoke at about 2a.m. to a feeling of nausea. It wasn’t the worst that I had experienced, but it was enough to keep me from sleeping. It could have been the suspicious almonds, the salad, or the river water. That didn’t really matter. What did was that I was constantly in and out of the toilet to empty my bowels for the next 90 minutes, losing what little fluid, electrolytes and energy was left in my body.
– Trying to dry my gloves with my mouth.
– Turn the canoe over when you pull up so that the seat doesn’t dill with snow and ice. It sounds simple, but when you’ve been going for the whole day, all you can think about is food and shelter.
– You are never out of danger. Be constantly vigilant.
– Treat positive and negative outcomes objectively.
Day 4 – La puebla de la Labarca to Assa (Riojan village)
The following morning, I was completely drained, and only ate two pieces of dry toast for breakfast, for fear of a relapse.
I walked out of the hotel and was greeted by a cold, sunny day. It had snowed relentlessly overnight. I had tried to damped my nervousness by repeating the mantra “just get to Logroño”. Logroño was a major city centre – the capital of La Rioja – and once there, I could try to recover from this headcold (which caused odd chronic-fatigue-like symptoms and left me very weak) and diarrhoea for a few days before setting off again. These thoughts pulled my focus away from keeping my stomach intact. Consequently, as I made my way down to the boat ramp where I had stored the canoe overnight, I managed to soil myself, if only very slightly. This added to my gloomy feeling as I set off down a very flat and calm stretch of the river. Every stroke of the paddle caused me to feel even sicker.
At one point, for whatever reason, I started crying, while exclaiming “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. I believe that I was thinking about all of the stress that I had caused to others, and the fact that so much danger could still be ahead. I was mapless, soaked, sick, nauseated and basically defeated. It was as if I had regressed in years to a whining toddler, incapable of controlling my bodily movements. I think that it was at this point that I decided to give up upon reaching Logroño. At the time, I told myself that it was because I could possibly die further ahead, and that I was causing so much anxiety to others. Now, looking back on it, I really took the soft option. I had, unlike ever before, let my circumstances get to me.
After about 90 minutes, I came to the roughest weir7 of the journey, with a proper dam wall. There was no danger of going over it, but this monstrosity was spouting a huge amount of white water on the other side. As usual, I hauled the canoe out of the water almost mechanically and then pulled it along a dirt road covered in snow at the side of a vineyard for about 400 metres. I then traversed a rough thicket, went over a small stream and trampled my way through a small island. If I had had the maps, I would have realised that I could have gone down the stream to avoid the mess that was about to come.
From the launch point, I faced the largest system of rapids, currents, islands, and rock obstructions that I had faced. It was like the perfect canoe-wrecking mechanism. Directly in front of me, to the right of the safest path, there was a small piece of land, detached from the bank, with an array of outstretched branches, and raised about one metre out of the water, so I couldn’t just slide nicely on to it. If I hit it, I would almost certainly be capsized. To the left, through another thicket, was a launch-point past the island. My mind was clouded with fatigue, and I honestly didn’t really care what happened now. It was almost as if I wanted to strengthen my excuse for giving up. That was the first time I had felt this way. In the past, I had always wanted to prevail in spite of rough conditions, not to give in to them. My fastest run up the back-end of Mount Cootha had come when I had a bout of raging diarrhoea. This time, I had bitten off more than I could chew.
I hopped into the kayak and tried to paddle past the obstruction. Not surprisingly, I slammed into it nose-first, and the current slowly rotated the vessel, while I paddled furiously to keep it straight. I knew that what would happen next was completely inevitable. You guessed it – I capsized, and found myself neck-deep in the icy-cold water. The rest of my drinking water disappeared, as did my will to continue.
I wasn’t incredibly afraid of my own mortality – to me the consequence was not incredibly great. If I were dead, I wouldn’t feel anything. If I was lucky, there was a heaven, and if not, I would cease to exist. But I knew that the risk was present, and that it was greater than it was in the course of my normal life. If something were to happen to me, my parents would be devastated, and would blame UP and AG, who would be equally distraught.
I think that this factor contributed about 50% to my decision, with the rest split between the grimness of my conditions and my current state of health. I was disappointed that I had become so soft, but I think that I knew I had made the right decision by my family. I had also learnt an incredible amount, and had escaped with my life. But I hadn’t gained what I was seeking. I was looking to turn myself in a human machine, welcoming rough conditions and making friends with pain and fatigue. Looking back, conditions on the river could only have improved, and I would have eventually recovered my health. I should have been patient, waiting in the next village for a few days to continue. I would have broken through the barrier and become mentally stronger and more capable than I had ever imagined. Either that, or I would have died.
The time between when I capsized and when I arrived at the next weir was mainly spent warming my hands up. All I thought about was how sick I felt, and the cold. At some point, while I was alongside a large factory that obviously produced wine, my mind strayed away from my bowels, and I managed to soil myself for a second time. Throughout the morning, I had let out about ten cubic litres of gassy burps.
The next weir8 (right before the village of Assa) had no visible exit point. I went right up alongside the hydro-electric power plant and stepped off of the canoe on to what I though was hard ground. It turned out to be a soft, layered mix of snow, scrub and mud. As I continued the climb up the bank, it became deeper and deeper, until I was submerged up to waist. My progress was arduously slow – I moved about ten metres in as many minutes. I found a thin yet sturdy log that I was able to step up onto, counterbalancing my weight against that of the canoe to inch it a little bit further. To my right, there was a one-metre-tall face built out of rock, much like I had encountered before. I swung the nose of the canoe around to face it, positioned the vessel for the ascent, climbed to the top myself and pulled the boat up. My body felt light and weak, and my vision was a bit fuzzy – it seemed as if I was in a dream. It was almost as if I had burned through my physical reserves, and was now running on the little remaining spirit that I possessed.
I walked about 400 metres ahead along the road going through the village to search for an entry point. It was a Sunday – the place was deserted, but for a couple of mangy dogs that were barking at me from the rooftop of a filthy sandstone house. I didn’t find what I was looking for. I trudged back to the canoe and started hauling it down the road. Once I had arrived at where I had walked to – the far side of a closed pub – I yanked down my pants and let out a few splatters of defecation. There couldn’t have been anything more left in my stomach. At this point, I realised that I was pretty dehydrated and that if I didn’t find an open establishment soon, I could have collapsed on the roadside. This wasn’t helped by the cold, which had become like the flu and would, the next day, make me so drowsy and weak that walking up a flight of stairs would leave me puffing and fill my legs with lactic acid.
I stood tall, reached mechanically into the front of my lifejacket for my phone, and without any conscious thought, I sent a text to UP and AG informing them that I was giving up. By this time, I had entered survival-mode and was running on autopilot. The godparents called me, and I was able to hold it all together for a few minutes, but as soon as I hung up, I broke down and cried. It wasn’t just a few sobs, it was a full-scale tear shed. I gathered what was dry from the canoe, leaving my tent, my volleys, and a few items of clothing, and started walking down the road to Logroño. I didn’t turn around even to look at the dream that I had left behind.
– Going too far too soon.
– There are some things that you shouldn’t push through.
– I am not invincible.
So there it was, thousands of dollars, a month of planning, the hours of training, and the emotional investment that I had made, sitting on the side of the road in a little dump in the middle of La Rioja.
“The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
- Wilhelm Stekel
I think back now and am glad yet disappointed that I didn’t do the canoe trip for charity, as I had considered at one point. I would have preferred to have died than to tell a charity that was depending on me that I had failed. Because at the end of the day, that’s what it was. A failure. But the large failure can be broken down into a series of smaller failures along the way. I failed to train for rapids and to properly analyse the river before I left. I failed to give myself a few more days to acclimatise to the weather before setting off. I failed to secure the backpack and the maps to the canoe. I failed to realise the dangers of eating unwashed salad and consuming river water. Before this journey, I had defined myself as someone who pushes through fatigue, pain and poor conditions simply for the sake of doing so. Just before I left, a friend had said to me, “I respect you Zac. If you say that you’ll do something, you will.” This time, I didn’t. I had betrayed my very nature. Failure was only half of the story though. Equally important factors contributing to my decision were compassion and chance.
- Compassion; I was so worried about my family that I had decided to spare them the misery of waiting to discover if I was alive from a text every morning and night. I was seriously afraid that UP would have a massive coronary if I had kept going for much longer, and id something had happened to me, my parents would never forgive him and AG.
- Chance; there were so many forks in the river, with both options seeming identical and linking back onto the Ebro, but which presented completely different outcomes. Maybe it was a blessing that I had capsized when I did, and lost my backpack. If chance had allowed me to nip past that log, I might become even more cocky, and wound up with my head submerged at the next. I might have kept going and perished. I might have kept going and survived. Still, it doesn’t help to consider what could have happened.
Despite the fact that I failed, I believe that I have learnt a lot from the experience. Fatigue in itself is not a reason to give up. You can push through fatigue without causing any long-term negative consequences. You may use your discretion, however, when facing risks to your survival and the wellbeing of others. Fatigue is nothing compared to these factors. I hope that this realisation with help me to push harder in the future, and that it will help to make decisions more objectively. My risk analysis skills have improved as well.
The most interesting thing is that I went into the trip wanting to further develop gratitude for the quality of life that I possess. My improvement in this regard has been minimal, but I have developed a different kind of gratitude. I had been grateful for the objects and opportunities given to my parents, and UP and AG. Now I was grateful for hearing their voices, for their love and care, and for the simple fact that they existed. I had spent most of my life trying to escape my family, and now I wanted to embrace them.
Maybe this is what it means to become a man. One day, after all of my current family has passed from the earth and before I have started a family of my own, I may return to Spain to risk my life in order to erase the biggest failure I have ever made. For now, I am content with the lessons that I have learned, and will stick to the safe option; running high into the hills, where the air is pure and modern man is nowhere to be seen.