Shackleton's Watchwords

Trail marker at Shoal Bay, on Thurlow Island.
A great stop-over place between the tidal rapids that separate Desolation Sound from Johnstone Strait 
My son, Brendan, gave me a book that provided the meme for the trip on the Inside Passage. The book is a photographic essay and commentary on the Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1954. There is a quote in the book attributed to Ernest Shackleton, whose entrapment in Antarctic ice in the early 1900s and subsequent escape pretty much define intrepid self reliance. When asked what the most important character traits for an explorer were,  he replied:
   Optimism, patience, idealism, and courage... in that order
As I prepared Ripple and myself for this journey, I returned again and again to Shackleton's words.  I am no explorer, and nothing about my trip was first-worthy or courageous.   In fact, I am inclined to replace the word courage in Shackleton's formula with confidence, but the front half of the quote is the important part: optimism and patience.  The demands of the trip required lavish quantities of each. Optimism is difficult to sustain in our cynical, post-factual world, and patience has never been my strongest virtue.  But that is partly why we go to wild places.

As your world contracts to boat and horizon, the scope of life is distilled to an elemental purity. All effort devolves to weaving temperature, tide, wind, waves, and light around the boat and crew, a fabric of surprise and delight and wonder.  Of course, sometimes the surprises are rather less pleasant, and one's optimism and patience are tested.

I came to appreciate that the grand places I traveled, ostensibly the reason for being there, were but a backdrop for the real show... the one happening in the part of the brain where optimism and patience reside. The script is written in the vocabulary of preparedness, or lack of it, of expertise, or its failure, of fatigue, and fear, and awe, and more.

Enter idealism.  I  can only guess what Shackleton was thinking here, but if one accepts idealism as the priority of principles, values, and goals over concrete realities, it fits comfortably within the notion that we travel in wild and challenging places to better understand ourselves.  Places ungoverned by the assumptions and conventions of human intellect challenge our ideals and our ability to reconcile them with the reality of the natural world.

I have always found comfort in the transformation that is part of every wilderness experience: the realization that a wilderness is utterly indifferent to one's success, or even to survival. Why is this comforting?  Because it inevitably strengthens one's focus, enforces personal responsibility, and promotes better judgment. It is a test of how one's idealism aligns with the designs of nature. There is no Bullshit Road through Mother Nature. You will complete your journey based on preparedness, competence, judgment, and some good luck along the way.  That, and your mind's ability to compensate for shortfalls in any of these.

Thence lies the road to confidence.


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