By Larry Rice
Everyone I know who has done a fair bit of boating has experienced personality clashes on trips, some minor, others full-blown perfect storms. So let me make this bold statement: More than inclement weather, biting bugs, and unruly bears, trip mates that don’t mesh have arguably spoiled more wilderness outings than all other factors combined. You don’t really begin to know your companions until they’re cold, wet, weary, hungry, or scared, or until you’ve shared a cramped, wind-blasted tent and wave-tossed canoe or kayak for days or weeks on end.
In over 30 years of wilderness paddling to all seven continents, I’ve personally seen several otherwise wonderful trips to remote corners of the globe turn into simmering Trips from Hell after to trip-mate meltdowns. But before you get the idea that I’m a lightning rod for boondocks dysfunction, be assured that backcountry squabbles are the rare exception, not the rule, on the trips I’ve taken. On hundreds of outings with people of all ages from all walks of life, I’ve tried to be a congenial companion who practices good expedition behavior. The last thing I want in the outback is to be the instigator of a ruckus—to be scorned, admonished, laughed off, or the topic of acrimonious campfire conversation.
“Creeps and idiots cannot conceal themselves for long on a fishing trip.”—John Gierach, trout fisherman and author
That’s not to say I’ve never pissed anyone off; you play in the backcountry long enough, and sooner or later you rub someone wrong. But that’s okay as long as you don’t cross that invisible line that turns a slight disagreement into an all-out feud. As a boater friend of mine fondly says, “It’s okay to be a little crazy, a little edgy on a trip; just don’t go really crazy and over the edge.” Knowing that, I still had a bout of temporary paddler’s insanity and went over the edge.
I recognized that I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to go on a sea kayak expedition to Greenland that particular summer. But ignoring my inner cautionary voice, I loaded up my bags and went anyway. With me on this trip was my very good friend Tom, a successful businessman from Colorado with whom I had shared a number of paddling adventures over the years. Well, out there in the untamed magnitude of the world’s largest island, I found myself enmeshed in the same kind of regrettable personality conflict that I’d always warned others to avoid at all costs. Yes, there was a titanic falling-out between Tom and me. Yes, it was ugly. But I maintain that the riff wasn’t entirely my fault. At the time, I found it much more palatable to blame Shania Twain.
Our band of 12—men and women of varying boating backgrounds and professions—was paddling in a magical place near the top of the world: North-East Greenland National Park, at 72 degrees north latitude, where few have visited and even fewer have kayaked. Our leader, Ulrik, a serious but jovial 34-year-old Dane, was an arctic expedition veteran and one of the world’s top polar guides and explorers. To challenge us, Ulrik had concocted an audacious and difficult but rewarding 16-day route.
This story first appeared in the October, 2005 issue of Canoe & Kayak.