1000 miles; 2 lessons

I recently came back from competing in the longest canoe and kayak race in the world, sharing a kayak with my brother, Geordie.  The race, called the Yukon 1000, starts in Whitehorse, Canada and continues for 1000 miles down the Yukon River through the sub-arctic and arctic until it meets the Dalton Highway in Alaska.

Designed not only to challenge your ability to paddle for long periods, it also tests your ability to survive in the wilderness. There is no support along the way, no checkpoints, no re-supplies, no facilities - just miles and miles of remote, harsh and stunningly beautiful country.

We learned many lessons, but I would like to share the two most fundamental ones with you:


Lesson 1 - What do you want and what do you need?

We entered the race and wanted to compete and finish, but we also saw an opportunity for an adventure, a wildlife safari, and to capture the trip on film to show to friends and family. But before the end of day one, our objectives and focus had changed. We realised that in fact what we really wanted was to do it in the fastest possible time and everything else came second to that. Having already started the race, however, we were ill-equipped and not sufficiently prepared to give it our best effort. Because we hadn’t really been clear about why we were there, we hadn’t made any real sacrifices. Our daily routine, choice of vessel and rations were now inappropriate. There was no focus and we had somehow fallen into no man´s land - caught in between a boys´ own adventure and competing in a race. Committing to neither one nor the other, we had cast ourselves adrift into a swirling river of competing agendas and we suffered for it.

To complete the race in the fastest possible time we had to be lean, both in the physical resources we would take with us, but also in the way we used our time and the attitude we took towards the race. We needed to cut out everything that was superfluous to what was most important and ask ourselves with every decision, with every piece of kit, ‘Is this going to help us do this in the fastest possible time?’ If we had done that we would have sacrificed the binoculars for the wildlife viewing we never had time for and the solar panel charging equipment for the electronics we never used. Physically, mentally and administratively we were overladen. Deep down we wanted something far simpler than what all this extra stuff would provide, but we hadn’t identified it early enough. What we wanted was to be the best that we could be and knowing this we would not have considered leaving this kit behind to be a sacrifice after all.  Unfortunately,  it all came with us and got in the way of what we truly wanted.

First ask yourself what it is that you truly want and then look at the possessions, commitments and obligations you have in your life and ask whether they serve you. As the philosopher Epictetus succinctly put it, 'Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.'


Lesson 2 - Wake up and feel the flow

It quickly became clear that the team who could move through the water the fastest and stay on the water for the longest each day was going to win.  Of course there were many factors at play here, including diet, technique, wilderness survival skills, choice of vessel and weight of kit. But by far the most important of these was finding the flow of the river. If you could find and feel the flow, you could have poor technique, be heavy in the water and still catch an extra hour of sleep in the morning. You could be paddling furiously outside of the flow and reach a speed of 6 mph or you could be paddling lightly and be in the flow and travel at 10 mph. Most of us have done basic geography – we know that the outside of the bend of the river flows faster than on the inside.  This is not the case on the mighty Yukon; it is more nuanced and unpredictable and doesn’t always follow this basic principle. Sometimes there are multiple islands and multiple channels; flows within flows. We were slow to learn where to find the flow, but worse still there were occasions when we had found the flow, but because it didn’t ‘match’ the shortest route we had identified on the map, we were desperately trying to get out of it. Our brains were telling us one thing, but our instincts another. The map would give us an idea of what to expect in advance, but when we got there the reality of the situation was quite different. In fits of madness we found ourselves fighting against the very flow that we were looking for. We were blind to it, because it didn’t ‘match’ our preconceived ideas of what ‘make sense’ or what ‘should be’.

Arguing with the river was futile, it was taking its natural course down to the sea in the easiest way it knows how, governed by the simple law of gravity. As the days passed, we learned not to analyse the flow but to ‘feel’ it; not to question it, but to accept it and to be carried by its ever-present, ever-changing, silent force, often unseen and often misunderstood.  It ebbed and flowed and meandered; sometimes we had it and sometimes we didn’t. If we lost it, patiently we would wait until the next bend in the river to connect with it again. But even on our last day of the race, we would catch ourselves on auto pilot, paddling along in resignation that things were just difficult, until we would suddenly wake up and see and feel for ourselves that in that moment the flow had been  just a few metres away; we had been completely ignoring it to our cost.

We learned that the fastest route is not the toughest, not the busiest nor the shortest, but the most natural. The winners of the race at 67 and 63 years old had the experience and the wisdom to know the difference. They didn’t need the muscle and knowing what they wanted, they packed light. Some of us have been lucky enough to have the experience of being in the flow. We feel ourselves advancing when we are not even trying. Things happen, as if by themselves and we are alive and awake to all that surrounds us. We feel ourselves being carried by an invisible, powerful and often mystical force. If you are lucky enough to find it, you must go with it, even if it contradicts ‘the plan’. Otherwise you are merely on autopilot, fighting against unexpected and inevitable change, and exhausted and directionless you will get left behind. 

Hamish Mackay-Lewis