Monday, July 20, 2009

Deceptively Strenuous Pastimes

I'm a pretty sedentary guy. To begin with, I'm a computer programmer/analyst by profession, so I spend my working days behind a keyboard or sitting in requirements meetings. The most exercise I ever get at the office is when I need to walk down to the factory floor to check something.

My leisure time hobbies are no more active. I'm not into contact sports, or sports of any kind, really. I don't jog. I seldom swim and I don't go skiing or ice skating in the winter time. I like to "plunk around" on my computer, watch DVD movies, read, build models and miniatures and just relax in general. Nothing too strenuous.

I've tried two activities that have fooled me. Both sounded pretty layed back and low-stress, and both turned out to be deceptively tiring.

The first is golf. Golf doesn't look too strenuous to a spectator; a leisurely walk around a well-manicured course, a little fresh air and sunshine, and once in a while you whack a little white ball with a stick. Heck, one usually doesn't even walk from one hole to the next. One usually rides in a little electric car. How hard can that be?

Plenty hard, as it turns out! By the sixth hole, I practically fell to my knees and worshipped before the beer cart that showed up every two or three holes or so! Ten bucks a beer? Such a deal! Five bucks for a can of Coke? A bargain at twice the price! Hand it over with all speed! In my own defense, it was a particularly hot summer afternoon.

It probably didn't help that I couldn't swing to save my life. At each hole I had to swipe at the ball several times before ever making contact. That really tires out the arms! Once I did connect with the ball, I tended to take the scenic route from the tee to the hole, what with short distances, wild hooks and slices, and the inevitable stick-handling the ball across the green in a manner that would have made Gordie Howe jealous. All that walking about wore me down as well. I think my handicap is somewhere around three hundred. Since then, I've stuck to the type of golf that you see to your left.

Last weekend, I tried my hand at the second deceptively placid outdoor pastime; canoeing. When I think of canoeing, I picture a boat, silently gliding through gentle waters, the silence broken only by birdsong, the whir of distant insects and the gentle splash made by the the tips of my oars as they dip in and out of the water. Boy, was I in for an education!

My wife, Judy, my daughter, Jessica and I joined several family members last weekend for a canoe trip down southwestern Ontario's Grand River. There were fifteen of us, occupying seven canoes. The other canoes were occupied by two people each, but Judy, Jessica and I made a threesome. This turned out not to be a very good idea, as I shall shortly explain.

Our 20 kilometer course took us downstream on the Grand River, beginning in Cambridge, Ontario and ending in Paris. The estimated time for completing this was 5 hours. There were shorter runs available which might have been more appropriate for beginners such as us, but my brother-in-law, Shane "Iron Man" Groleau, insisted that anything worth doing is worth doing to exhaustion.

I had foolishly chosen the tiller's position in the rear of our canoe, which made it my job to steer. I had been given rudimentary instructions about how to do a "J" stroke and how to use my oar as a rudder, dragging it through the water on one side of the canoe or the other in order to turn the craft's nose. I had not been warned, however, about the overriding effects of wind and current. I also kept overcompensating, and learned the hard way that, if I waited until the nose of the boat was pointed in the desired direction before removing my oar from the water, it (the nose) had a disturbing tendency to continue to drift over, past the point at which I wanted to aim the canoe. And so my craft zig-zagged back and forth across the stream while I madly switched the oar from the left side to the right and back again, quickly tiring out my arms in the process.

It also didn't help that Grand River becomes quite shallow and rocky at certain points and, because of the extra weight in our three-person canoe, the boat's hull sat deeper in the water than most and kept getting lodged against the rocks. Repeatedly attempting to push and pry our craft away from the rocks with my oar did nothing to sooth my tired arms. In fact, by the time we'd reached the half-way mark for our course, my right forearm kept cramping up every time I bent my elbow.

At one point, the current washed us up against one of the many rocks while the canoe was turned sideways. The sudden stop caused the canoe to list heavily against the rock and, before I knew it, we were all swimming (or, rather, wading) in the river.

Things happen very fast when a canoe overturns. Your first priority is to grab the oars and any other loose items that were in the boat before they're swept away by the current. Your second priority is to grab the canoe itself before it floats away. Ensuring that everyone is still alive and intact becomes the third priority. It's pretty much every man for himself.

Righting and re-entering an upset canoe also proved to be a challenge. First of all, the boat had taken on water when it overturned, so we first needed to empty it. This involved picking it up out of the water, turning it upside-down in order to empty it and then putting it back into the water upright. Canoes are generally designed to be fairly light-weight, but a water-logged one can get pretty darned heavy!

Once the empty canoe was placed back into the river, it immediately wanted to float away on us with the current. Now we had to try to keep it from drifting away and steady it as much as possible whilst climbing back in without upsetting it yet again, all of which required far more dexterity than I normally possess.

During our run, were only dumped into the river once, although I did have to step out of the boat in a more controlled manner several times in order to help dislodge it from various rocks. Fortunately, Shane partially redeemed himself by thoughtfully staying close to us and stopping to help dislodge and then steady our canoe while I climbed back in whenever we got stuck. By the time we finally reached the end of our course, the first of our group of boats to arrive had been waiting for us to return for almost an hour. If we'd been just a little longer, I'm sure they'd have sent out a search party.

By the next morning, every movement hurt. Riding in a canoe is one of those activities that employs muscles which many of us didn't even know we had until they begin aching.

Mark Twain once described golf as "A good walk spoiled". If he had ever ridden in a canoe, as opposed to those Mississippi steamers for which he was known, he might have referred to canoeing as "A good boat ride spoiled". On the other hand, looking back on the experience with the benefit of hindsight, I must admit that it was fun, overall, and there were brief moments, when the water became calm and the screaming stopped and the only sound was the chirping of birds in the trees that surrounded the river, the distant buzzing of insects and the gentle lapping of water against the boat and the oars, that I could imagine myself actually learning to enjoy this.

1 comment:

Martin said...

We made it back to Thunder Bay from our road trip down south. A good time overall, and it looks like we got out of Kitchener just in time, from the weather reports.

I like canoeing, and I think that if you give it a few more tries, you will find it less taxing. There are times when the wind or currents are being nasty, or you just have a long trip going, when it is tiring, but that is not always the case. The wind and currents can also work with you, and slight pushes with the paddle are sometimes all that you need. Anyway, I'm glad you had a good time with it and can laugh about tipping it.