I had been studying about America's dams recently, learning that there are over 80,000 dams in this country, many of them providing no service whatsoever, other than destroying river ecosystems with stagnant reservoirs and producing minuscule amounts hydroelectric power, restraining free-flowing rivers all over the United States. The Catawba is one such river; a local waterway that flows through the city I live in, and I began developing a plan to kayak as much of it in one trip as was possible. The longest free-flowing section of the Catawba is the stretch between Wylie Dam and Fishing Creek Dam: over 36 miles in total.
I had done plenty of research ahead of time about my route, and found only one other person who had done the same route. Most of the reports I had read about the water levels and river speeds had stated that the river flows at an average speed of 4 miles per hour, so when I planned my trip, I thought it would be relatively easy to reach the banks of Landsford Canal State Park before dark in order to set up my camp for the night. This was 24 miles from the start, and when I did the math, I figured that if the river ran at an average speed of 4 miles an hour, and I paddled at only 2 miles per hour, I should be able to reach my desired location in 4 hours or less, counting on the fact that I would probably paddle faster than 2 miles an hour for most of the journey.
Setting off from Wylie Dam
My wife dropped me off at the access point just below Wylie Dam near Tega Cay, South Carolina, and though it was sad to paddle away and see her slowly shrinking into the distance, the river was moving at a pretty good clip, and I felt I was making good time, so I was in good spirits and enjoyed the ride. I started paddling around 2:45 in the afternoon on Friday, and I hoped to reach my camp site before nightfall, covering the first 24 miles the first day, then finishing up the last 13 mile stretch down to the end of my route the following morning.
I covered the first 5 or 6 miles or so in the first hour, and was greatly encouraged by my progress — I had successfully navigated a few of the rapids, passed by a few landmarks, and seen a few egrets and even a pair of bald eagles soaring overhead.
Over time, though, I found that it was taking longer and longer to cover the mileage, and the miles became more and more grueling as the river slowed to a dead stop. I had packed my provisions into the front of my kayak, and a few camp necessities in a dry bag in the back, so my kayak was weighed down in such a way that, instead of gliding, I was trudging. The river was stagnant, and garbage littered the banks. There were remnants of old bridges and buildings along the way, and a downed power-line. Combined with the grueling pace at which I was now moving, these fingerprints from mankind's negative influence on the land had an equally damaging effect on my positive outlook.
I had brought a map of my route that I referred to so that I knew how far I had gone, and how much farther I had to go, and I judged my position based on landmarks like highway bridges, railways, islands and bends in the river. However, the bends in the river seemed much larger in person than on the map, so I often misjudged where I was on the map, and I often thought that I'd come around a bend in the river to see a welcome landmark, signifying that I was closer to my destination, but instead, would round a turn to simply find one more turn. I felt as though I was chasing a mirage in a desert — every time I thought I was getting closer, I found that I was actually farther away.
It's amazing how crucial a positive outlook is when trying to accomplish a goal. Henry Ford said "whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right." and I found that to be especially true in this case. I believe that determination is at least 90% of the battle when facing insurmountable obstacles, and when one's mind is starved by ever-changing and unattainable goals and unknowable truth, it has a detrimental effect on that person's mental health. When entering into conflict, resolution is an absolute necessity, and when it is delayed longer than should be expected, the reason for entering into the conflict in the first place is called into question.
If you're going through hell, keep going.
However, this brings up an interesting point. When in the midst of a conflict which presents no evident resolution, it does no good to question the motivation for entering into that conflict in the first place. It is inconsequential. The fact was, I was now somewhere in a 36 mile stretch of the Catawba river, not another human in sight for miles, and only my strength and willpower to get me where I needed to go. It did no good to question why I had endeavored this undertaking — thinking that way only served to make me want to quit — and unfortunately, when I stopped paddling, I stopped moving, therefore prolonging my situation.
The point is, when in the midst of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, the worst thing to do in that situation is to give up, mentally or physically, and simply complain about your circumstances. Instead, the most profitable thing to do is come to grips with the cold hard reality of the situation, and do what needs to be done to push through it.
This is not a self-help methodology, it is a mental fortitude that presses on in the midst of hardship, rather than giving up. If I had given up and quit, I would have found my situation prolonged, and even worse, would not have accomplished my goal. The quitter knows no victory, only defeat, and finds himself less likely to rise to the next challenge that presents itself, knowing that quitting is much easier than persevering. However, the one who presses on and accomplishes his goal, knows even greater victories for having finished what others have not even dared to try, and finds his character enriched as gold refined in the fire. When the next hardship presents itself, he knows much more of what he is capable, because he has tested his limits and found that he can do more than he previously thought possible.
I finally reached the destination just as the sun was setting, and hastily set up camp on the shore. I didn't have time to relax and enjoy the scenery, or even to cook dinner, but laid in my hammock and drank some water and ate part of a chocolate bar, which did improve my spirits before I fell asleep for the night. My muscles were tired from miles of paddling, and my mind was exhausted as well, but I knew the light of morning would bring a renewed energy.
I woke early the next morning after a restless night, made a cup of coffee, packed all my provisions back into my kayak, and set off to finish the last leg of my journey. This started off with a zig-zagging route through the veritable mine-field of rocky shoals, rapids, and shallow water that runs through Landsford Canal State Park. The Landsford Canal was built in 1820 as a way to navigate around the almost impenetrable section of river that is home to the beautiful Spider Lilies that grow on the rocks. The canal is no longer functioning, as it was shut down in 1835, so I was forced to navigate the shallow water through the rocky shoals. My kayak got hung up many times, and it took almost twice as long to pass through that half-mile section, but it did provide a contrast to the uninterestingly flat sections of river that I had been traversing thus far, and for that I was grateful. The rocky shoals of Landsford were followed by a heinous 12 miles of grueling paddling, most of it on Fishing Creek Lake, which seemed even slower than my time on the river, since the proximity to the banks of the river give a gauge of speed, while paddling in the choppy open waters of a lake reservoir appear fruitless and never-ending.
I finally reached the end of my route at the bottom of Fishing Creek Lake just above the hydroelectric dam, and I was ecstatic to be back on dry land again, and especially that I didn't have to do any more paddling that day. I had accomplished what I set out to do, and though I was exhausted, both mentally and physically, the elation I felt after having completed the 36.2 mile route was something I would have never experienced had I given up halfway through.
There is something to be said about doing things that are difficult, or even seemingly impossible. There is a special feeling of accomplishment that comes from doing that which no one else dares to try, and the mental fortitude acquired after persevering through a difficult challenge is a priceless asset that will prove invaluable for years to come.
The mind is much like a river; when flowing free and flexible, bending around obstacles, carving new routes for itself, it is healthy and new — fresh with each new day. But like the river, when stagnant, the mind falls into a state of entropy and ceases to be a sustainer of new life. When we push through the stagnant parts of our mind and force ourselves to press into new experiences, strenuous endeavors, dangerous undertakings – this is when we truly thrive. It is better to have tried and failed, than to never have tried at all. The men who never try may never know defeat, but neither will they know victory. History will be written about those who rush headlong into the fray, and stand in the breach.