A Kayak For Two?

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By Jack Hampton

Credit Lily Mcllwain

Nine and a half weeks is a long time, and particularly so when spent predominantly with just one other person. Factor in the knowledge that I was both in a foreign country and, for the majority of the time, less than a metre away from that one other person, and you may begin to get an inkling that this trip was to be one of the most interesting periods of my life.

Last summer, my friend Dylan and I set out on the greatest adventure of either of our lives. We had won a travel grant from our college to undertake a physically challenging expedition in a wilderness location, and what we had come up with was a journey by kayak across Scandinavia; a journey starting in Finland, crossing first the Baltic, then Sweden, before finishing in Oslo, Norway. An expedition of this temporal and physical length – around two thousand kilometres of paddling from start to finish – would be a bold undertaking for a seasoned explorer. As a first expedition for novice paddlers, unsupported and only vaguely planned, it would seem a pretty stupid endeavour; but, of course, the trip I am referring to falls under the second category.

Our adventure had its genesis in a lecture at the start of my second term at university. I was sitting next to Dylan and couldn’t help being rather irritated and more than a little distracted by the fact that he wasn’t making notes on the lecture (in fact, he was paying it no regard whatsoever); instead, he was looking at Google Maps. My curiosity got the better of me, and I asked him what he was doing (in a rather nasal whisper – my throat was lined with the infamous slug slime of freshers’ flu). He replied that he was considering applying for the college expedition grant in order to travel in Scandinavia – and from there we went! 8 months later, I had undergone a crash course in kayaking, borrowed a huge amount of kit, got very fit, negotiated for both sponsorship and much-needed advice and expertise, and been repeatedly told that I was mad. Anyway, 8 months after that lecture, we set off from Turku in Finland – and two and a half months later rammed our kayak up its last berth: the gently sloping roof of the Oslo Opera House, to the cheers of my Norwegian family and the general bemusement of everyone else.

‘What happened in between?!’, I hear you exclaim (that is, if you’ve managed to persevere this far); ‘what of the 9 and a half weeks of paddling and camping, blagging free meals and beer, telling stories and singing crap noughties pop songs?!’ Well, I’m not actually going to talk about any of that – not directly anyway. See, the truth is that when you do an expedition of this nature, you realise that all the clichés you’ve heard about from the likes of James Cracknell or Ben Fogle or Bruce Parry are true – and there are therefore plenty of people more experienced than me (and with better ghost writers) available to tell you about all that. What I’d rather talk about is my personal relationship with Dylan.

The bond we forged through this adventure was a very bizarre one. Three months on from the experience, thinking about my relationship with Dylan immediately uncovers an uncomfortable knot of emotion which, for the most part, I’ve left well alone. Some of the crises of the trip were the most traumatic experiences of my short life, and the high points some of the most incredible I’ve ever experienced – and that whole spectrum of sentiment was shared with, and coloured by, Dylan. So how to untangle all that? I think a good place to begin is with our goals for the trip; after all, it was the trip which really defined our friendship. Sure, I liked Dylan – he’s charismatic and startlingly non-British, but I had only known him for a brief 8 weeks before we decided to do this crazy thing together. So, starting with him: Dylan is an exceptionally bright, 18 year old New Yorker who is obsessed with his personal and national identity. For this trip he had a very clear goal- to travel from Turku to Oslo completely under his own steam. Dylan had a very binary idea of success; for him it was all-or-nothing, and that desire to not ‘fail’ gave him a drive which pushed me through moments in which I would have settled for less. And then there’s me. My friends describe me as determined, positive and “soft inside like Andrex”. Personally, I can only speak of my goals for this adventure; I wanted to do something physically challenging, I wanted to stretch myself to my limits and push past them, I wanted to experience both Scandinavia’s land and its people, and I wanted to have a great time wherever we got to. I wasn’t as focused on getting to Oslo, and I also didn’t mind hitching a ride or hoping on a ferry if the opportunity arose – oh, and I’m not nationalistic in any way! Tensions were bound to arise.

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And they sure did! It was like a friendship on hyper-drive; there was no respite, no one else to talk to, to moan to, to vent to when either of us got fed up with the other. For eight hours a day, we were sealed into a five-metre-long boat in cockpits a metre apart. At night we slept shoulder to shoulder or, when it got properly cold or scary, spooning together for warmth and security. We had guessed before that such intensity would be difficult, and we’d tried to establish ground rules. If one of us was pissing off the other, that person would just say it – brutal honesty was the plan to avoid simmering discontent, but the best-laid plans never seem to work out quite right. Firstly, the honest ‘say it how it is’ response was my idea, and suited my temperament more than Dylan’s. I’m more inclined to blowouts of stress, (which cannot have been pleasant to witness) while Dylan would very rarely show disquiet in any way other than surly moodiness –I would explode physically and verbally while he would become dismissive or acquire an air of superiority which had the capacity to infuriate. Secondly, the upfront “I’m pissed off” approach invites the question “why”. In reality, the effects of tiredness, hunger, sunburn, the weather, or any number of other factors, would be the root of our irascibility; a mind-set which does not react well to the rational probing and reasoning of the Y-word. After the first couple of weeks, however, we found a more organic balance: I would get on with tasks of camp life, allowing productivity to absorb any frustration. We both became less needy of the other’s company, spending time by ourselves writing letters, doing chores or taking photos. More importantly, during those long periods sitting in the boat we did find time to talk and laugh about our hurts, defects and frustrations. There is something incredibly cathartic about taking two grating personalities and sitting them in a boat, mutually dependent on each other for propulsion and stability. Furthermore, we weren’t face to face, and it is surprisingly easy to talk candidly to another person when they’re not looking you in the eye! Your face isn’t betraying your thoughts. A conversation, even about important things, can be allowed to naturally lapse into contemplation and resumed hours, even days, later.

Those conversations in that boat were some of the most interesting and revealing of my life. Starting with gateway topics like our lives at Oxford and at home, we moved on to the harder stuff of our life stories. I had the time and the space to probe all those more difficult episodes of a teenager’s turbulent life, and so did he, all while sliding through the stunning fjords of Scandinavia. And once we’d started, we couldn’t stop – curiosity drove each of us to root out the whole story, and once certain secrets had been shared we were each committed, reliant on the other for their discretion. I thought and talked through things which I really did not want to, and I think so did he. The vulnerability of honesty forges a bond which is both scary and special.

We were not complimentary characters, we were not natural friends, sometimes I hated him. But we were a team which shared an incredible experience and now have a complex but powerful bond. The greatest challenge for me lay in the mind and Dylan pulled me through. Conversely when his body gave in I was the daily strength which pushed him through injuries, capsizes and early mornings. I regret nothing- a great first adventure, a great friendship, an adventure which has given me the bug for many more.

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