Aquaphile Essays from the Field: A Paddler Aging with Grace

A good paddling partner is important at any age.

Mid-February. Early morning. Sitting in our living room, coffees in hand, contemplating the gray winter light. A common interlude in our days together, gathering before work or whatever else the schedule holds, mostly in silence.

“Something’s wrong with me,” Marypat announced.

At our age this kind of statement carries weight, a chill of dread. We have so many friends who have succumbed to some ailment or condition, ambushed, their lives altered, things they had always done suddenly rendered impossible – paralysis, cancer, lupus, migraines, medical mishap, crippling accident. A few have died, tragically and too early.

Marypat is nothing if not physically fierce. Always has been. She exudes joy in the thick of exertion, the embrace of adventure, the burn of pushing herself. It is her identity, in large measure. She keeps pace with women 20 years her junior, joins our kids on outings, is always on the hunt for exercise partners. Adventure has defined us, and her especially.

One of my biggest fears, in this relationship that has lasted nearly 40 years, has been that Marypat would someday lose that capacity. And then, how she/we would cope.

So dread, yes, but also a tendency to dismiss. Physical maladies come and go. You have bad seasons, more aches than seem reasonable, an underlying illness that brings you down. It could be a passing thing.

For a few weeks, Marypat had been complaining of full-body aches, of debilitating fatigue, loss of appetite. We’d skied hard a couple of days in a row, the kind of thing she would normally relish, ready for more, but she was uncharacteristically sapped by the outings. She tried to push through, keep her usual routine, but it was too hard. She couldn’t go to the gym. Yoga hurt her joints. Sitting in a car for hours was torture.

All this in the context of what was to be our summer canoe expedition to the Far North. For months we had been drying food, refining routes, figuring logistics, poring over maps. I had joked that we were seeing whether we had one more big expedition in us. Now it wasn’t such a joke.

Weeks slipped past, months. We tried acupuncture, changes in diet, supplements, had labs done, doctor visits. Everyone we talked to had their stories, their remedies, their diagnoses. Watching Marypat get out of bed was like watching an 80-year-old – stiffly standing, getting her bearings, carefully testing her joints. Turning over in bed was an ordeal. She couldn’t open jars, carry a box, lift the bow of a canoe. Some days were better, upbeat glimmers, but the next she’d hurt to the point of tears.

Early spring, we paddled a favorite short stretch of local water. We were in the boat maybe two hours. It was demanding, but nothing special. After that Marypat couldn’t close her hands for two days.

Finally we got in to see a rheumatologist. The expedition, now, was a month away. The doc listened attentively, read the labs, ordered a few more, asked good questions. She presented a solid-feeling diagnosis, prescribed a course of drugs, scheduled a follow-up in two weeks. She told us not to call off the trip quite yet.

Abruptly we had hope. A diagnosis, a plan, verification. Over the next two weeks the drugs made an impact, her symptoms dissipated. They didn’t disappear, but she was better – her energy, her strength, her movement. She tested a few yoga classes. We paddled. The trip deadline loomed.

Over Memorial Day we celebrated another round in a tradition of paddling three rivers over three days. Marypat took part. On that Monday morning, standing by the stove in the campsite with our daughter, Marypat took a deep breath and announced quietly that she’d come to a decision. She wouldn’t be able to take on the trip this year. Her eyes glistened with emotion.

Yes, she was better. Yes she had hope for recovery, but the trip departure was two weeks away and she was nowhere near there yet. Her hands still hurt. Paddling steadily for an hour was daunting, nevermind an eight to 10-hour day on the water punctuated by rough portages.

Honestly, we weren’t surprised. We’d all watched her struggle, had come to the same conclusion, but it was her call, and for her to give in to that reality was a monumental admission.

“I’m not giving up on the trip,” she said, fixing us with her piercing blue eyes. “I’m in for next year. Are you guys?”

Read more from Kesselheim’s Expedition Paddling 101:
Inspiration // Gear Decisions // Food Planning
Aquaphile: When You Get Your Life Back
Why Do We Paddle So Much?
70-year-old Kayaker Crosses Atlantic, Keeps Going
Video: No Canoeing for Old Men

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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