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The Healing Power of Adventure

by Bonny Glambeck

Although women make up roughly half of the paddling community, we are largely defined by a set of values which don't serve us - values like competition, conquering Nature, and bravado. Not surprisingly, a mirror of the dominant culture.

I paddled recently with two women from Britain. They found the "British approach" completely inaccessible. The emphasis on tippy boats, hard skills, and a military style of ranking is not what these women wanted from kayaking. In Canada there is a much broader scope of styles, but women still face discrimination in all the forms it take in the larger society. It's better to paddle a narrower, longer boat; paddle faster; go farther; know more ways of rolling; get the ticket to prove you can.

Touring in the company of other women is a great way to explore another approach to paddling. Kayaking can offer a much needed contradiction to negative messages about body image, physical ability and competence.

What is this other approach to paddling that we seek? It's an approach that emphasizes trust, co-operation, self esteem, and intimacy. Paddling for its own sake, pure enjoyment. Learning to experience Nature as an extension of ourselves, not as Other to be conquered.

These experiences are not necessarily gender specific. They are about a way of viewing the world. But given many of the issues women deal with in our sexist world, paddling with other women can be a perfect antidote to the drone of negative images we face daily.

Mixed groups don't always encourage healthy explorations, but tend to play out societal values of traditional male/female roles. For example when a man and women, both complete novices, are deciding between them who will go in the back seat of a double kayak (ie steer the boat), more often than not, the man goes in the rear. Why? Probably because they both believe, at some level, that he will be "naturally" better at steering and paddling. Subtle? Maybe, but it robs her of the chance to do it for herself, to find out she can "paddle her own canoe". Women are given a thousand such subtle messages everyday.

Ocean paddling is an activity accessible to many these days. There are lots of boat designs to suit different body types and skill levels. Women are well-suited to sea kayaking. Physically, we have stamina, low center of gravity, and hip flicks are a natural! The basics are easy to learn, and with sound judgement added, away you go! It offers a world of possibility, from a mellow paddled on protected waters to the excitement of the surf zone!

As women travelling together we have a chance to redefine adventure, learning to travel in the wilderness for its own sake, not as a means to an end. The powerful restorative effects of the natural environment can help us tap into a deeper awareness of self. We realize it is not necessary to take risks or prove competency.

Many women I meet say things like "I couldn't paddle a kayak - I'm not strong enough". Paddling can help us to more accurately assess our physical abilities and stamina. We learn to recognize and respect our own limits. Many are delighted to discover they can go farther then they ever imagined. Through the strength and confidence gained in a wilderness setting, women are able to experience strength and confidence in other areas of their lives.

Kayak touring not only allows you to appreciate the bare essentials of daily life (espresso machine not withstanding), it also lays bare our relationship to ourselves, our travel companions and to Nature Herself, if we care to listen. Our self reflection, the challenges we face and the joy we experience become metaphors for our 'real' life.

Women have an affinity for nature which inspires healing. In a passage from Women & Nature, Susan Griffin writes:

"This earth is my sister; I love her daily grace, her silent daring, and how loved I am how we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know: we are stunned by this beauty, and I do not forget: what she is to me, what I am to her."

It is important to recognize that we do have a unique approach and we need to create places for women to flourish, to create spaces for ourselves to redefine our connection to our bodies, to each other, to Nature. Making this a reality for ourselves will only make these values more accessible for the paddling community as a whole. Let's go, girls!

First published in WaveLength Magazine, June/July 2000.