Paddling to Fitness
Author : By Christopher J. Gearon    -   Subject : Exercise

    The morning we slip our fleet of kayaks into the swelling Atlantic Ocean and leave the shelter of Seavey Island off Maine's coast, Bob Whyte, our captain for the day, admonishes us to "be careful" as we begin our odyssey.

    For Whyte, a computer programming analyst, and for most of our group, paddling our small kayaks in weather rough enough for small-craft advisory warnings is the first of many challenges we'll confront on our eight-day Outward Bound journey.

    "The sap had risen," the 51-year-old Whyte recalls later of the moment we headed out to unprotected water. "Everyone was stretched."

    On that first day out, Whyte shares a double kayak with JoAnna Easton, a 51-year-old single mother from Charlotte, Vt. The two are among the growing ranks of people over 50 who are looking for adventures—once thought the province of the young—that test their mental and physical agility.

    Like the 10 others in our group, the two had signed up for a sea-kayaking course with Outward Bound, an organization known for its fortitude-building wilderness training.

    Sea kayaking—plying coastal waters in one- or two-person shells—has soared in popularity in recent years. The Outdoor Industry Association says 6.4 million Americans kayaked last year alone, 50 percent more than in 1998. Adventure-seeking, middle-aged adults—both men and women—are fueling that growth, the group says.

    So are older people. "We definitely have been getting more interest among seniors in sea kayaking," says Tim Jackson, editor of Canoe & Kayak Magazine. That's probably because the sport "is a great way for people to get in shape, get some fresh air and have fun," he explains.

    Whyte, a native Australian who has lived in Brunswick, Maine, for 10 years, says that before the trip he was somewhat concerned about his ability to keep pace with younger group members, in their mid-20s to mid-40s. He's not one to work out regularly, but he walked more and mowed his lawn faster to get in shape in the weeks prior to the program.

    The divorced father of two teenagers, Whyte says he signed up for the course seeking a "refreshed view of the world and of myself." He figured he'd gain sufficient skills to prompt him into regular kayaking voyages.

    Easton, an academics director at a private school and an avid biker, enrolled, she says, to learn to sea kayak, develop her upper body strength and spend time in the wilderness. The Outward Bound program was a way to "test my limits in a sort of container," Easton explains.

    As we embark on the course, Easton and Whyte's kayaking experience is typical of much of the group—that is to say, fairly sparse, if you don't count our exceedingly capable guides. We vary in fitness levels, backgrounds and personalities.

    Out on the sea, the dark swells are getting higher and coming faster. Despite practicing paddle strokes and rescues before our maiden voyage, our confidence is shaky. We paddle hard to keep the bows of our kayaks into the whitecaps—if the boats swing sideways to the arching waves, they could capsize.

    Cold water seeps into the hull under the protective nylon "spray skirts" that are pulled up over our legs to our waists and sealed around the lip of the cockpit. Five miles into the day's planned 11-mile trip, with conditions worsening, we reluctantly turn back to Seavey, a treeless, rocky island a few miles from the mainland.

    "A tension between the unknown, the unpredictable," Whyte says philosophically of the venture a few days later. It was the group pulling together that helped us "travel through the chaos" to safety.

    For him, the job of captain and "the sense of concern for everyone," he adds, was more nerve-racking than testing his newfound kayaking skills.

    As job duties rotate, each of us will be tested. After all, this is no pleasure cruise. There are 5 a.m. wake-up calls, early morning runs and dips into the frigid Maine waters. We haul kayaks to and from the water—sometimes over seaweed-strewn boulders. We paddle between seven and 12 miles a day and camp out at night, sometimes on rocks. We rock-climb, one person scaling the rock face, another holding the climber's rope—and life—in his hands. We take turns being captain, cook, navigator, diarist and boatswain.

    When the lack of privacy begins to wear on us, our guides announce it's time to "solo." We each get a quart of water, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, journal and pen and are taken to a secluded place, for an overnight time-out to relax and reflect.

    "The physical challenges are more perceived than real," says Whyte, who admits he had "gone a little bit to seed" before the trip. "But there are other challenges."

    That's the whole point of Outward Bound, founded in Britain during World War II to stiffen the spines and the confidence of young merchant seamen through a series of progressively grueling physical activities.

    The organization began operating in this country in the 1960s, offering outdoor courses that instill self-reliance and respect for the environment while conditioning the body. Traditionally associated with teens and young adults, Outward Bound increasingly is attracting older adults signing on for boating, backpacking and other courses that last from five days to several weeks.

    It's not unusual to see people well into their 60s and 70s testing their mettle and communing with nature, say Outward Bound USA officials. Like the younger crowd, they are looking for adventure, but, adds marketing vice president Craig Steele only half jokingly, older people "go out in the wilderness because they want to see God."

    That may not be exactly true for Whyte and Easton, but they do say their kayaking experience amounts to, well, a watershed event for them.

    "It's a way to reconnect with the world. You wash off all the dead skin of life," Whyte explains. Looking back on the venture, he does not think his age was a hindrance. In fact, "I think it might have been a help," he adds.

    Had he done the course in his 30s, Whyte thinks his focus would have been on "self-discovery." In midlife, he says, such experiences are centered more on "re-entering parts of life that you may have been out of contact with, but are a part of you."

    The kayak journey, he notes, helped him acquire new skills, a fresh perspective on life, new friends and a lot of self-enlightenment.

    The most challenging aspects for Whyte were capsizing intentionally in open water, learning to exit his kayak upside down—and exposing his "own weaknesses to others."

    Moving Whyte out of his "comfort zone" may not be a bad thing, since a central aim of Outward Bound is to push individuals to learn and to discover things about themselves and the world around them.

    Playing the part of captain, particularly so early in the trip, forced the admittedly "reserved" Whyte to open up and take charge. "Captain," he says, "is one of the most involving roles of all the roles we had."

    Easton also found the biggest hurdles to be mental rather than physical. She says she had to overcome concerns about losing control over everyday choices—what and when to eat, scheduling the day's journey, when to get up in the morning. Instead, the group or expedition leaders made these decisions.

    Even so, Easton pronounces the excursion a success, "absolutely a valuable and deep experience."

    As for Bob Whyte, he hopes to go on another outdoor adventure soon. "You see yourself in other people's eyes," he says. "That is a real gift."

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