In the poem by Robert Frost, a twittering Ovenbird laments the passing of spring’s cherry blossoms, contemplates the dust and falling leaves of autumn, and chooses not to sing.
The Ovenbird’s lament - “what to make of a diminished thing” - is also the lament of the middle-aged after youth, of the disabled after good health, and of a senior in an assisted living facility after a productive life.
In this time of COVID, many of us - including many kayakers - are struggling with job loss, a shrinking investment portfolio, and travel and social restrictions arising from lockdowns. For now anyway, we face a diminished set of choices. Many remote communities and First Nations don’t want visitors because they lack the health-care infrastructure to control an outbreak. Many paddling companions want to maintain social distancing, which precludes sharing a car, a double kayak, a tent, or a friendly beer at a neighborhood pub. Governments around the world may be loosening restrictions on social interaction and opening up parks, beaches, and stores, but until a vaccine is in widespread use, restrictions of one sort or another are likely to remain in place. And so, like the Ovenbird, we feel a loss of upward trajectory in our lives; we want things to go back to the way they were before.
So what exactly should an avid paddler make of this “diminished thing”? One answer, and not a good one, is to give in to despair. According to a Pew survey, most adults say that COVID-19 negatively impacts social connections, mobility, and personal finances. COVID amplifies anxiety, disrupts sleep patterns and exacerbates underlying mental health challenges, pushing many towards problematic coping strategies like substance abuse. Essential workers on the front lines are under tremendous stress. Faced with this harsh new reality, many feel overwhelmed. But there is an alternative. Instead of giving up, try listening to the science.
Listen To Science
Yale’s Dr. Laurie Santos has developed eight podcasts with her best strategies for coping with the psychological impacts of Coronavirus (The Happiness Lab With Dr. Laurie Santos https://www.happinesslab.fm/ also available on iTunes). Here are some suggestions from Dr. Santos and others:
- Build up structures that support your positive mental health. Maintain a daily routine. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy foods. Exercise.
- Be intentional about your screen time.
- For many people, COVID has shifted their entire work-life, social-life and entertainment-life out of the physical world and onto screens, with no boundaries between them. But ask yourself, is all of your screen time nourishing? Is it like kale - good for you? Or more like ice-cream - a quick dopamine hit that afterwards leaves you feeling worse?
- Use your screen time to boost happiness rather than deplete it. Limit your time on Twitter, social media, or getting sucked into the vortex of 24-hour news updates. Facebook, Twitter, CNN and FOX all deliberately serve up fear and outrage because they know these raw emotions capture eyeballs, and that advertisers pay for eyeballs not facts or analysis.
- Shift a portion of your screen time to something more positive. Explore possibilities for your next paddling trip on the B.C. Marine Trails map or on YouTube. Order a book about B.C.’s marine parks or paddling trails [John Kimantas' books]. Get ready to pounce when the lockdown lifts.
- Re-frame your choice-set as glass-half-full, not glass half-empty. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. In our “diminished” world, there are still hundreds of cool things to do within a few kilometers of home.
- Move. Get out in nature, particularly the blue and green environments near to water or trees we humans are best adapted to psychologically. The hunter-gatherers we evolved from moved many hours a day with no screen time at all. Avoid over-crowded paths, but be reassured that there appears to be little COVID transmission outdoors between joggers, cyclists, or kayakers who are maintaining social distancing.
- Be “other-oriented” in your thinking. Instead of dwelling on your own disrupted plans, make plans to help others. Introduce someone else to paddling or to your favourite marine park. Give to charities like BC Marine Trails. Helping others makes you feel better than anything you do for yourself, and the positive feelings last longer too!
- Remember the most important of the The Ten Commandments Of Sea Kayaking: Thou shalt go on quests. Find a “positive-quest” that works for you. And then take baby-steps toward your goal. If there’s a kayak in your garage, wash it. If you don’t have one, check with your nearest kayak rental store or talk with a friend about borrowing one. Plop the kayak on a beach and let momentum carry you forward from there.
Focus On The Here and Now
If you are reading this, you are probably not dead from COVID-19. Chances are, you’re in a comfortable chair, at a comfortable temperature, with the freedom to call others whenever you want, eat when you are hungry, and binge-watch hundreds of interesting shows on TV. The “now” you are experiencing at this precise moment, all things considered, is probably pretty good. Certainly relative to many other parts of the world, and certainly relative to many other times in history. As bad as things seem some days, would you really trade places with your parents or grandparents who lived through WWI, the Spanish Flu, Great Depression, WWII, the Holocaust and Gulag Archipelago? Try to accept your past without regrets, face your future without fear, and handle your present with confidence and joy.
Remind Yourself That It’s All Still Out There
That beautiful beach with untracked sand after the tide has gone out. Still out there. That seal eyeing you curiously as you paddle past. Still there. That perfect morning paddle where you glide silently over mirror-calm water. Still there...It’s all still out there, waiting for you.
Practice COVID-Safe Paddling
BC Marine Trails recently released an Environmental Code of Conduct to the public for peer review. Until more definitive guidance comes out, think about your personal Code of Conduct for COVID-Safe paddling. Who is inside your social distancing bubble, and who is outside? Are masks needed or will distancing do the job? Shared or separate boats, tents, cooking, soap, hand-sanitizer? Consider what would happen if someone on your trip becomes ill while away from civilization. Have a plan.
Delay Plans To Paddle Overseas, But Don’t Give Up On Your Dreams
Most countries across the planet presently forbid incoming flights. Others require two-weeks of quarantine on arrival. After quarantine requirements are loosened, the availability of travel insurance is likely to remain a formidable barrier to travel as many insurers have stopped providing COVID-related coverage. Last year, I faced a $48k bill for a two-night stay in a US hospital where the main treatment was IV fluids. For these and other reasons, my near term plan is to stay in Canada, mostly on the coast of British Columbia. As a “gilded cage”, one could scarcely hope for better.
If your big dream is to paddle around the walled city of Dubrovnik, explore Norway’s Lofoton Islands (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO1qcj80HuQ), or kayak with camels in Mongolia’s largest lake (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgfkY52LVoA&t=539s), don’t give up! A vaccine will likely be available and normalcy restored by summer of 2021. You’ve only been delayed, not permanently barred. Adopt a longer planning horizon.
If You’re Feeling Blocked, Find A New Quest
I get it. You’re an alpha, chiseled from head to toe after years in the gym. Last weekend, you and your quarantine partner binge-watched Outbreak, Contagion, all four Alien movies, and the scariest zombie movie you could find. You crave Adrenaline! Adventure! With a capital “A”! Anything short of your epic expedition from Kamchatka to the South Pole would be a major disappointment. But now you’re blocked. If so, find a new quest. Maybe this is the year to grow a man-bun. You know, to feel superior to everybody else. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDFx1YOA5tI&t=1s).
Or maybe its time to practice whittling.
Explore Your Own Backyard
So what shall we do to make the most of kayaking in a time of COVID? Phillip Teece has a great suggestion: penetrate the layer upon layer of mystery in the coves, inlets and beaches within a small radius of home.
There is a kind of dream that involves a ten-thousand mile voyage to a distant place in pursuit of some exotic magic. Always paradise lies on the far side of Cape Horn, or among tropic isles lost in the mists of a latitude exceedingly remote from our own. Yet the idyll I have pursued has been the diametric opposite of this. My desire has not been to shrink the world, but merely to slow down sufficiently to expand my own small part of it. This has been a matter of staying in one place (or at any rate, within a small radius of my home port) and attempting to penetrate the layer upon layer of mystery that its myriad coves, inlets and creeks reveal. In such an exploration, there is an important revelation to be encountered, for it is my strong belief that if one cannot find joy and wonder on an island half a mile from home, then those great treasures will be found nowhere else on earth.
Phillip Teece, A Dream of Islands
In this time of COVID, be intentional about screen time and build up structures that support positive mental health. Practice COVID-Safe paddling and restrict journeys to First Nation and northern communities until they safely reopen. Delay dream paddles to Dubrovnik, the Lofoton Islands, or Mongolia, but don’t give up those dreams. For now, our journeys may be confined to the marine trails of B.C. But is that so bad? Ours is a “gilded cage” with amazing wildlife and inviting white sand beaches stretched out across thousands of kilometers of accessible coastline. It’s all still out there! Near Vancouver, there are wonderful day-paddles around False Creek, Pitt Lake/Widgeon Creek, Paisley Island, or a short ferry-ride away in Sechelt Inlet or Thormanby Island. Vancouver Island is surrounded by marine parks that would be the envy of much of the world. Start with baby steps: day-paddles in your own backyard. And as the coast opens up, expand your horizons.
Faced with a “diminished thing”, the Ovenbird chose not to sing. What will you choose?
About the authors: Jerry and Julee Kaye have been exploring the coast of British Columbia by kayak and sailboat for over 35 years. They live in Vancouver. Jerry has Psychology and MBA degrees from UBC and had a lengthy career as a corporate banker before joining the BCMTA Board. Julee is an SFU graduate with a PhD in Zoology from Oxford University. Their teenaged children are now experienced kayak adventurers in their own right.