Despite the risk, climb on

Others have been here before us. And yet we still go. Any why not?

Others have been here before us. And yet we still go. Any why not?

Not long ago, I was reading a book titled One Mountain, Thousand Summits, a tome about the 2008 K2 climbing disaster. The writer, Freddie Wilkinson, makes a point of not only documenting what occurred on the mountain, but also what happened around the world in response to the tragedy. In doing so, he followed media reporting – and reader comments – on the Internet.

For the sake of context: Eleven people died directly and indirectly from a serac collapse high on K2, one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.

Some of the online comments quoted in the book are as follows:

“Spirit of exploration? Please. K2 has been climbed before. Many times. It was ‘discovered’ a long time ago. Climbers today climb 8,000-meter peaks for one reason: themselves.”

Another was even more blunt:

“This was not a voyage of discovery; it was an ego trip, as most mountain ascents are today.”

Similar sentiments were made after the 1996 Everest disaster, and just about any other report of a mountaineering accident that includes someone’s death.

Let’s go beyond the callousness that goes into writing screeds like these. There is a deeper philosophical question to be posed here: Do these armchair quarterbacks have a point?

Why do we climb mountains? For that matter, why do we do a lot of the physically challenging and at times risky things we do?

The great mountains of the world have been climbed. The poles have been reached. The jungles and deserts of the world have, for the most part, been traversed and explored.

And yet we still climb these peaks, journey to the poles and travel in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. Often, people do this with a twist: trying to be the “first” at something (oldest, youngest, first woman, first blind person, etc.), and admittedly, some of these efforts are done for publicity’s sake. But more commonly, we merely retrace paths already taken – often many times before – only for our own benefit.

I can relate. Every mountain I’ve climbed and every route I’ve taken has already been done, maybe hundreds or thousands of times.

So outside of space and the oceans, much of the age of exploration has come to an end, the purposes of which have gone beyond the greater good and now veer toward the strictly personal.

So why bother? Why risk injury and death to climb?

I set my book down and let this question rattle around in my brain for awhile, and then let the thought broaden. Mountaineering accidents, particularly high-profile mishaps, get a lot of attention. News articles, TV specials and books usually follow. But there are other things we do that draw parallels.

People die running marathons. Not often, but it happens. Why run a marathon on Pikes Peak? People have had heart attacks and dropped dead trying that race. Even in my city’s local marathon there has been a fatality. The people who have died in these races possessed, for the most part, the fitness level needed for the task.

I know that’s extreme, but there are other less severe yet still noteworthy examples of how people have suffered incredibly by trying to run 26.2 miles or more. Training for such races can do a whole lot of damage to your body, consume a lot of your time and energy and change your lifestyle in ways that are not always positive.

Here’s a fact: The overwhelming number of people who run ultramarathons, marathons, half marathons, 15ks, 10ks and 5ks do so without even the slightest chance of actually winning. Or placing high. Or even winning their gender, age group or whatever. It is supposed to be a race, right? Why run a race you have no shot of winning? Or no shot of even being the slightest bit competitive?

Let’s move into other sports, say football. It’s a great game, one of my favorites. Pro football in particular interests me because it is the game played at the highest level by the biggest, fastest and most skilled athletes in the sport. It’s such a difficult challenge to even win one game, not to mention a championship.

But at what cost? The concussion debate has been raging now for a few years. But there is a host of other injuries these guys suffer on top of that, maladies that leave these fantastic physical specimens barely able to walk (not to mention run) when middle age sets in. Obviously, the money is a major reason why these men do this, but when the crowds no longer cheer and all you’re left with is a broken body (and in some cases, mind), can you say that those years of abuse were worth it?

Here’s another question: What’s the alternative?

The alternative is not to pursue the difficulties of planning, training for and finally attempting a mountain climb. The alternative is to stay inside, substitute your running shoes for a pair of house slippers and spend yet another mindless day on the couch watching TV or playing video games (which often portray characters doing epic things. Kind of ironic). The alternative is to never plumb the depths of your abilities to see how far you can take your God-given talents.

If you never push yourself to see how strong you can be, you’ll never be strong. And that’s not just in terms of physical strength, but mental and emotional strength as well. These tests tell us how tough we can be and often lead us to personal growth that can’t be replicated in the world of the easy and mundane.

None of us will ever be the first to climb Everest, K2 or thousands of other peaks. We won’t be the first to reach the north or south poles. Almost no one in this world of seven billion people will set a new world-record marathon time, and the tiniest fraction of all athletes will even do something as comparatively normal as actually winning a long-distance race. Sorry to burst your bubble.

But so what? These are the ways we measure ourselves, promote growth and even inspire others to try and do great things. Obviously, some pursuits are riskier than others, but you won’t see me discourage people from such endeavors, provided they weigh the risks, prepare thoroughly, and do so with a healthy degree of humility for the task at hand.

Lace ‘em up, people. Buckle that chin strap. Climb on. If you want to criticize that, then enjoy your time on the couch. I’m sure it will be your faithful companion on your journey to the perfectly average for some time to come. For those who choose to go out and “do” things, you never know what reward awaits you when the challenge is accepted, then met.

NOTE: What’s written above is an excerpt from a larger writing project I’m working on about the outdoors.

Bob Doucette

In memoriam: Snow in the Southern Plains

Near the Turkey Mountain trailhead.

Near the Turkey Mountain trailhead.

We’ve had one snow this winter here in the Southern Plains and Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma. One. Lousy. Snow.

Snow can be a pain in the butt, especially in places that aren’t used to seeing it much. Drivers here lose their minds if anything sticks.

But there are great pleasures to be had for the outdoorsy set when the snow starts piling up. Lacking anything to ski on, a good hike or run through the woods during or after a nice-sized snowfall will do just fine.

With each passing day, it looks like that may not happen down here. So in memory of winter wonderlands of times past, here is a gallery of snowy scenes from my local trails. Enjoy!

A forest dusted with fresh snow, under leaden skies.

A forest dusted with fresh snow, under leaden skies.

Water sports for a warmer day.

Water sports for a warmer day.

Snowy singletrack.

Snowy singletrack.

Action traction.

Action traction.

Packed powder on this run.

Packed powder on this run.

The woodlands version of winter fashion.

The woodlands version of winter fashion.

Back to the trail. Forecast: Snow.

Back to the trail. Forecast: Snow.

Rock in a cold place.

Rock in a cold place.

Blanketed in white, and other shades of winter.

Blanketed in white, and other shades of winter.

More icy rocks.

More icy rocks.

Yup. I like this stuff.

Yup. I like this stuff.

If you’ve run of hiked some trails during or right after a good now, you know how great that can be. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re going to miss out this time.

I could end up eating my words. Winter isn’t over.  Judging from what I’ve seen in around here in the past, I’d happy to be wrong.

Bob Doucette

Bike commuting revisited: Six things to know

bikecommute2

I’m a few months into this whole bike commuting thing. Thus far, I’ve done all the things I’m supposed to do — get a reflector vest, lights for the bike, and so forth. It seems to be going decently.

Like I said before, I’m doing this out of necessity. I’m sure it would be really admirable if I was all about saving the planet, or finding yet another way to squeeze in even more fitness and outdoors stuff in my life. No need to have me fitted with a cape and shirt with a big “S” on it, though. I’m in it because I don’t want to pay for downtown parking, which would run me anywhere from $400 to $1,200 a year, depending on how I managed it.

But has it been worth it? I’d say yes and no. But mostly yes. The best way to explain it is to go over what I’ve learned. So if you’re thinking about a bike commute, here are my observations…

Be prepared to spend some money to save some money. This assumes you’re buying a bike on the cheap like me. You can spend hundreds of even thousands of dollars on bikes — something I wasn’t prepared to do. I spent $150 on mine. But while it was in good shape, it still needed some tweaks to get it road worthy. I also had to buy all that gear I mentioned earlier, plus a few other things. All told, I think I spent as much or more on bicycle gear as I did on the actual bike. And there is still more work that can be done. Budget accordingly.

The logistics of bike commuting can be a real pain in the butt. It usually means packing a backpack with my food, my work clothes, and all of the other stuff I’ll need for the day. There is also getting the gym clothes I wear during the ride. Putting all this stuff together — packaged and folded so it will fit in the pack — takes about 30 minutes. That’s about 25 more minutes than how it used to be when I was in walking distance from my office, and maybe 20 minutes more if I were driving. Logistically speaking, walking and driving are easier. Biking takes more prep work, and it can be annoying after awhile.

There will be days when you don’t want to physically exert yourself to get to your job. The uphills get old. The downhills are easy — though not quite as easy as plopping your duff in the driver’s seat, turning on some tunes and motoring your way to the office. The physical commitment involved with driving is pretty much nil, and nil is what I feel like some days.

Check with your office or job site about their policy on where you can stow your bike. It would be a real bummer to gear up for bike commuting only to be told you had to lock up your bike somewhere else for the day, out of sight, and left to the elements — and opportunistic thieves.

Be prepared to see an immediate benefit to your legs. Even a short daily commute is going to work your legs more than other forms of commuting. The muscle underneath will be a little firmer, the quadriceps a little better defined, and so forth. Pumping those pedals to get to work is really a rad form of multitasking — arriving on time to work while getting a mini workout.

Enjoy the savings that do come. Because they will. Gas is cheap right now, but not using gas is cheaper. In fact, all the costs associated with using your car every day go down when you leave the car in the garage or driveway most of the week. I usually drive two or three times a week, max. That’s it. I gas up my car maybe once a month, and normally only half way. Cycling also means fewer oil changes, less tire wear and so forth.

So there you have it. My first post on this subject touched on some other things, so check out that link and see if this is something you might want to do.

bikecommute1

Bob Doucette

Revisiting speed work: What my workouts have looked like

Well, lookey there. It's me trying to run fast. This one is during a trail race and not in a speed workout.

Well, lookey there. It’s me trying to run fast. This one is during a trail race and not in a speed workout.

Earlier this week, I wrote about doing more — and harder — speed workouts as part of my weekly training. I got a lot of good feedback here on the blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. A lot of you have been putting in the work in terms of speed already, and more of you are interested in trying these types of workouts for yourself.

I’m sure there is a ton of information on the Web about speed workouts, their benefits, and how to do them. I figured I’d share what mine have looked like for the past few weeks. The goal is to include one speed workout per week. Any more than that — especially if you are into doing the longer distances — might be counterproductive.

This isn’t a schedule or a plan, just what I’ve been doing with the able coaching of a trainer at my gym. Also: I’m not fast, but not a total beginner. So the speeds listed are for me, with the goal of breaking 24 minutes in a 5K. So here goes…

Week one

Warm-up (2 minutes, 10-minute pace)

5 x 800 meter intervals at 8-minute pace (one lap walk break in between)

Five-minute cool-down (could be an easy-pace run or, if inside, something low impact such as an elliptical or stationary bike. I can’t believe I just typed that, but there ya go).

We decided that I cruised through that fairly easily, to the next speed workouts were going to be more difficult.

Week two

Warm-up (same as before)

5 x 1,000 meter intervals at 8-minute pace (one-lap walk break between intervals)

This was harder, but still doable. Definitely could feel getting into that anaerobic state on the last couple of intervals. From here, we experimented with faster speeds.

Week three

Warm-up

5 x 400-meter intervals: first two at 7:30 pace; second two at 7-minute pace; last one at 6:40 pace. (one-lap walk break between intervals)

Cool-down.

This one was tougher, mostly because of the speeds. But still doable. At the end of the week, we did our two-mile time trials. I did mine in 16:42, and it felt as if I was in an anaerobic state a lot earlier than I expected. But finding myself in that state during the speed workouts allowed me to settle in and gut out the last laps breathing really hard.

Week four

Warm-up

400-meter interval at 7:30 pace, walk a lap.

2 x 800-meter intervals at 7:30 pace, walk a lap between intervals.

400-meter interval at 7:30 pace

Cool down

The 800s at that pace were difficult. But I do believe I can go faster, or do more intervals.

Couple of notes

These training runs are best done in one of two venues: at an outdoor track (it’s easy to measure distance by the lap) or (again, I can’t believe I’m typing this) at the gym/home on a treadmill (easy to track distance and set speeds). It may not be as fun as running free on the road or on the trails, but sometimes this is how you build performance. It can’t all be fun and games.

Eventually the goal is to string together consecutive 1,000-meter stretches at a speed that will break that 24-minute 5K time. This would be a major improvement from my PR (26:08) and would nudge me closer to the front quarter of the pack in most larger races.

I’d like to emphasize that in terms of speed work, these are novice paces — plenty of runners near my age crush longer runs at speeds faster than an 8-minute pace. But this is where I’m at, a guy who does most runs in the 9:30 to 10-minute range. The whole purpose of doing speed work is to break out of a multi-year rut. Scale your speed workouts to your ability.

So what are you doing for speed? What are your goals, and what are you doing to get there? Feel free to share your successes, failures and ideas in the comments.

Running: Taking the speed work seriously

roadrunner

Something I did on a whim may end up being one of the cooler things I’ve done, at least when it comes to running.

Coming off the fall race season, one in which I had some of my slower race times (and not coincidentally, a season in which I came in at my heaviest), I was hoping to keep some momentum going as those summer months round the corner. As has been typical for me, my thinking is the longer I can run, the better conditioned I’ll be.

But I’ve learned something, courtesy of a running coach who is a trainer at my local gym. When the new year turned, the trainer, a fella named Steve, started a running club with a program that put an emphasis on speed. I figured what the heck, I’ll sign up. So instead of gearing up workouts based on how long my weekend long run is, I’ve been focused on how fast I can go over shorter distances.

What this means is not following a Hal Higdon plan to marathon or half marathon glory, but rather how fast I can push it on a set of eight 400-meter intervals. Or 800-meter intervals. Or 1,000-meter intervals.

Let me tell you, this is hard. Really, freaking hard. Yes, it’s tough to grind out a 20-miler. But it’s also tough to command your body to move faster than it’s used to going, and hold that pace well after you want to quit.

It’s also hard for a guy like me, who has never been fast. It gets even harder to be fast when you’re carrying 10 extra pounds of bad weight.

But interesting things have been happening. I’ve been doing this program for three weeks now. So far, the speed is coming along.

Here's a place where you can work on some speed.

Here’s a place where you can work on some speed.

We did a 2-mile time trial last weekend. Our group is a mix of veteran runners, young speedsters and newbie plodders. I’m just an overweight slow guy. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep up with the front of the pack, finishing those 2 miles in 16 minutes, 41 seconds. So that’s about an 8:20 mile.

For many experienced runners, this is no big deal. People run marathons at faster paces than this. Lots of them, actually. But digging a little deeper, I calculated my 5K PR from a couple of years ago – 26:08 – and lo and behold, that’s holding about an 8:20 pace. I set that mark in 2013, right after having trained for a marathon, and weighing a full 16 pounds less than I do now. Looking where I was even a month ago, I’d say this is progress.

But why is this important to me? Well, for a couple of reasons.

First, I want to be better. Even though I’m far removed from my youth, I know I can improve. Many people in the running community will downplay this, saying I should just enjoy the run, not be a slave to the clock, and do my thing for the sheer joy of it. I agree with that sentiment, but there is also joy in achieving more. PRs are awesome too, right? And something else that can’t be discounted: There is serious enjoyment when you go for a run, with no clock or any performance pressure, and still kill it. Crush the hills. Bust the wind. Clock mile after mile, running hard, just because you can. Sure, you can enjoy a slower run. But smashing a run for fun feels awesome. I’ve had a taste of that, and I want it back.

Second, faster runners make for fitter people. This is important to me because I understand that many of the other things I do, particularly in the mountains, requires a good deal of cardiovascular fitness. When you struggle on the mountain, really suffer, it can rob you of the beauty of the moment. It can also rob you of a summit. I’ve been perilously close to being turned back for just that reason, when I was too almost weak of heart to finish the job. I don’t want to be that guy. Let the mountain turn me back, not my own physical shortcomings.

When it comes to performing at altitude, cardiovascular fitness is key. But not all cardio is created equal. It’s one thing to get into a rhythm, but what happens when you enter that anaerobic stage? That happens on the mountain, when you’re pushing uphill at 12,000, 13,000 or 14,000 feet. Your heart pounds, your breath is quickened, and you can’t catch your breath. You know what that looks like? Speed work. It looks a lot like pushing beyond your limits as you run as fast as your body will allow for a mile or three. When you’re breathing so hard you’re almost at puke stage, can you kick up your pace for those last couple hundred meters? Is that applicable in the high country? Yes. Yes it is.

I’ve found that I’ve been complacent when it comes to this form of fitness. Give me a couple of months and I can run 13 miles in a couple of hours and change. I can comfortably run in the middle of the pack on most long-distance races. That’s fine, but there are rewards for pushing harder. Working to be fast – even if that’s only relative to you – will make you fitter. It will make you physically tougher. And mentally stronger.

So I’m not looking at booking my first 50K. Not now, anyway. There’s work to do. How close can I get to 20 minutes in a 5K? What time can I post in, say, a 10K trail race? How fast can I run a mile? And what sort of benefits will all this stuff reap? Time to find out.

Bob Doucette

Standoff at Malheur: It’s past time for the Oregon occupiers to leave

The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge continues. (Sacramento Bee photo)

The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge continues. (Sacramento Bee photo)

It’s been about three weeks since a group of self-proclaimed militia members broke off from a planned demonstration, drove to a southeastern Oregon wildlife refuge and, fully armed but facing no one, camped out and “took over” the federal facility’s headquarters.

The original protest, which took place in the town of Burns, was against the resentencing of a couple of ranchers who had originally been convicted of setting fire to public lands in an effort to cover up poaching. They denied that, but served sentences a federal judge later said were too short to satisfy federal sentencing guidelines. So back to jail they would go.

This upset many locals in Harney County, who felt like the ranchers got a raw deal. But what really got people’s attention is what happened after: When Ammon Bundy, son of now-famous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, took a crew of armed men to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, holed up in the refuge’s headquarters, and said they weren’t leaving until federal public lands were given back to locals. They vowed to stay for years, if need be, until they got their way.

The takeover highlights a couple things, first being the ongoing tension that ranchers and private landowners have with the federal government. When the government owns most of the land out West, it’s bound to happen, and any time you reach an agreement with the feds, there are going to be strings attached. Naturally, some landowners find common ground with the Bundy clan and their ongoing disputes with the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.

But a second thing on which it sheds light is a disturbing trend much bigger than stakeholder friction with the government. It looks as if there is a growing desire to make public — and armed — stands against the authorities an acceptable tactic for earning concessions on public lands the rest of us would never enjoy.

Going back to 2014, Cliven Bundy made news when the BLM finally got tired of him failing to pay grazing fees that he’d racked up over several years. His debt to the government is in the seven- figure range, and he was warned that if he didn’t pay up or remove his cattle from public lands, his cattle would be moved for him.

But when the BLM showed up to make good on its promise, so did Bundy’s supporters — a collection of like-minded folks from closer to home and a number of out-of-state militia types, armed with weaponry that you might see soldiers carrying into war zones. When the groups met face-to-face, federal workers had militia weapons trained on them, so they backed down. Cliven Bundy got his way because the BLM didn’t want some of its employees felled in a hail of gunfire.

Fast-forward to earlier this month, and it appears the desire for armed confrontation is still high with this bunch. Ammon Bundy, a Montana rancher, his brother, and a gaggle of out-of-state militia men are standing guard at their new possession, with federal law enforcement watching from a distance.

None of the refuge’s employees were at the facility with the Bundy group arrived, so the takeover was pretty easy. But they’ve taken to social media, asking people to send food, clothing and whatever else might help them endure a lengthy stay in the Oregon high desert.

A growing number of Harney County residents are ready for the Bundy bunch to leave. (ajc.com photo)

A growing number of Harney County residents are ready for the Bundy bunch to leave. (ajc.com photo)

What they haven’t received, aside from their own small number, is any real support — not locally or nationally. The county sheriff wants them gone. A Native American tribe that calls southeastern Oregon its ancestral home has been very public about wanting the group leave. Most locals are wary of their presence, and weary of the standoff, noting that they don’t feel safe with the potential of the standoff escalating. And the call for supplies has been met by people sending the occupiers packages of plastic phalluses and sex toys instead of the requested snacks. You might say the public response to their pleas has been acidly comical.

But the occupation of the wildlife refuge is no farce. There are real costs here, something conservationists, hunters, birders and outdoor enthusiasts have made clear. The Bundy militia wants the government to “give back” public lands to the people, but fail to understand that those very lands belong to all of us. Even neighboring ranchers understand this. One of them in particular was angered when militia members tore down a fence separating his land from that of the refuge, and immediately had his crew reinstall the barrier, telling The Oregonian newspaper that he has no problem working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on grazing deals.

That’s not to say that the friction between private and public isn’t real. It is. Ranching is a hard life with razor-thin profit margins, especially in the vast, dry lands of many western states. And if bureaucrats aren’t working closely with stakeholders, arbitrary decisions can turn into blow-ups quickly.

But the wildlife refuge itself has belonged to the people — every U.S. citizen — since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. We set aside public lands knowing that there is more to natural resources than what we can cut, mine, graze or extract. Diverse ecosystems make the land healthier, which can actually help agriculture. Unspoiled lands attract tourism, and thus more jobs. Conservationists of old, like Roosevelt, knew that the country’s heritage was intertwined with the natural realm.

Now that’s being threatened. Threatened by people who dress and arm themselves as if they’re going to war (I’m continually amazed at how some people want to look, feel and be seen as special forces heroes without the sacrifice needed to be given that honor). Threatened by men itching for a fight, deluded by the lie that their battles will start a revolution (you can see how well that worked for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols). Threatened by opportunists who keep saying God told them to do this, to take what really isn’t theirs alone (though shalt not steal, anyone?). While they haven’t come out and said it, the implication is they’re not leaving unless their impossible demands are met, or until blood is shed.

So far, the violence has been absent. Of that I’m grateful, and I tip my hat to federal law enforcement for learning the lessons from Waco that got some of their agents shot to pieces, then later ended in fiery horror. No one wants a repeat of that.

The only real action against the occupiers occurred when a couple of these dunderheads went grocery shopping in town, using government vehicles they didn’t have permission to use. I can only imagine the embarrassment the mighty warriors must have felt when they were relieved of their grocery sacks, cuffed, and hauled to jail in the back of a police car for auto theft. No glory in that, my friends.

The standoff is important because public lands belong to all of us, not just people with guns and free time on their hands.

The standoff is important because public lands belong to all of us, not just people with guns and free time on their hands.

But as the standoff persists and the feds keep watching, I wonder how it will end. Will the occupiers get frustrated and leave? Will the government cut off power and road access, trapping them in the compound? Will the militia mopes be prosecuted, or will they be free to go home like they did after the Nevada standoff in 2014? Or will this really end in a storm of bullets and clouds of tear gas?

However it goes, we’ve already lost something. For the better part of a month, out-of-staters with self-aggrandizing goals have disrupted the lives of the people of Harney County. They’ve called themselves “patriots” while forcibly commandeering and perverting the term. And with each passing day, they erode a part of what’s great about being an American — that we have wild places where all of us have ownership.

Bob Doucette

A look at some of the greatest explorers ever

Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?

Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?

Every now and then, I dive into the ole Twitterverse to take part in a select few chats, most of which deal with the outdoors.

One of them is the Adventure Travel Q&A, or simply known as #ATQA. Some very cool folks take part in this on a weekly basis, and the topics are interesting. The latest one really got me thinking.

The subject was “exploration.” I think there are two ways to look at this concept.

The first is personal exploration. By that, I’m talking about going to places new to you. This is the type of travel where you see something you’ve never seen before, revel in new experiences, and quite often, learn and grow. When people talk about “exploring” something, this is usually the type of exploration they’re referencing. For the record, I’m all for doing as much of this as you can.

The second type of exploration is more of the classic definition: An adventure where you are going somewhere no one has ever been, or doing something that’s never been done.

By this, I’m talking about those folks who were the first to summit the world’s highest peaks, to dive to the deepest part of the ocean, to see new lands never documented by man, or to peer into the darkest corners of space. We’re talking macro-exploration here.

The question was asked who the greatest explorers were. This is exactly the type of question that I can geek out on like nobody’s business. After some thinking, this is what I came up with:

A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.

A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.

The Polynesians. You want to know how there came to be people who live in places like Tahiti, Fiji or Hawaii? They didn’t jump on a steam ship or an airplane. Not originally. No, those brave folks used canoes and rafts powered by the wind (via small sails) and their own oars. The traversed the world’s largest ocean in vessels most of us would be scared to board on a big lake. But they did it, and covered THOUSANDS of miles, braving high heat, huge waves, big storms and hungry sharks. You may not know this, but the Hawaiian Islands make up the most remote island archipelago on the planet. European sailors didn’t land there before these bits of earth had long been discovered, explored and settled by Polynesians centuries before. I’d be hard-pressed to find another group of explorers more hardy than these determined mariners.

The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.

The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.

The Vikings. Coming a close second are the Scandinavian butt-kickers known more for their savagery toward the poor inhabitants of Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe. These guys were expert warriors, and adept at the art of psychological warfare. That’s what made their raids and acts of extortion so lucrative. But these folks were also capable sailors, be it along the coast, up rivers or in the open sea. On that last count, they one-upped Christopher Columbus by a few centuries, crossing the North Atlantic toward Iceland, Greenland and even North America. The Vikings briefly settled the southeastern coast of modern-day Canada before giving up — way back in the 10th Century. While they quit North America, the remains of their amazing feats of exploration can be seen in the ruins of Greenland and in the continuing civilization that flourishes on Iceland. Want to know how amazing this is? A typical Viking ship was powered only by sail and oar, and the ships themselves were a little over 50 feet long. Like the Polynesians, they did it without the benefit of modern navigation we take for granted today, and if you don’t already know, the North Atlantic can have some of the nastiest, stormiest weather on earth.

The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!

The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!

The astronauts. Be they American or Soviet space explorers (and many other nationalities now), astronauts (the USSR called them cosmonauts) take part in a type of travel that is completely novel, and overly hostile to the presence of humans. The science, technology and pure guts it takes to strap yourself into a metal can and rocket into the void cannot be understated. Think about it: You have to take everything with you — food, water and air — and protect yourself from blinding light, searing heat/deadly cold and unfiltered radiation. If everything goes right, you live, provided you can get home without frying in the earth’s atmosphere on the journey back. Everything about space is pretty much trying to kill you.

Among the grandest accomplishments therein has to be the moon landings. Seeing this happened nearly five decades ago, and how numb we are to such feats, it requires you to step back to really appreciate what the astronauts of the Saturn project did. They traveled tens of thousands of miles, LEAVING THE PLANET to land on a completely new world. Humans have walked on earth for all of our existence. Before Neil Armstrong, no living thing had ever sniffed the surface of the moon. A lot will be said about what the United States has accomplished in its brief history, but this monumental feat of exploration will go down as one of the country’s greatest-ever achievements. So you were the first to climb X mountain? Fuggetaboutit. These guys are the only living beings on earth to have set foot on another world.

You might be bumming because your own explorations don’t measure up to these badasses. But don’t be sad, little camper. Take heart. Our efforts pale in comparison, but the spirit is the same. The effort involved, the planning, and at times, the courage to carry it out, can be extreme. But think about how much you grow. The deeds of our greatest explorers illustrate how the process of adventure is a pretty awesome thing. Use that for motivation the next time the itch to explore arises.

Bob Doucette