Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Learning a Lesson the Hard Way

Over this past weekend, I take away two bits of knowledge: it can happen to all of us; white-water canoeing is not my sport.

The first lesson came from the mistake where I thought I was smarter than I am. I thought I knew how to read and listen to my body, but that the body can sometimes trick you and you really have to do what you know is right: not what you think you're all right with.

Water is essential, especially when you're engaged in intense physical activity. I know this from cycling: whether you think you need it or not, you should drink every 10 minutes, at minimum, when you're on your bike. The water must go in you: it's not enough that you're surrounded by it or in it. You must ingest the liquid.

I didn't think. I felt. When I returned to my canoe, after lunch, without my water bottle, I told myself that I felt fine. I had consumed lots of water with my meal. The weather was cool, and I was going back out on the river. I didn't need to go back for my bottle, I could drink when we returned to camp for dinner.

The spray from the rapids, either coming at me as a mist after slapping against the side of the canoe, or flowing over the gunnels we approached them from a less-than-optimal angle, would cool me. When my partner and I swamped our canoe, after plowing through two substantial haystacks—large, boiling, mogul-like obstacles of whitewater—and ended up floating downstream on our backs, only to be rescued hundreds of metres away from the pack, I felt tired, and chilled, but was otherwise fine.

When we returned to camp for dinner, the first thing that I thought about was that I was tired, but I had worked hard and I deserved one of the cans of beer that I brought.

But first, I had to change out of my wetsuit and into some warm, dry clothes.

I sat with the others and chatted about the day, sipping my IPA, and I realized that while I had fun on some of the rapids, this sport wasn't for me. I knew that I couldn't see myself strapping a canoe onto my car, driving for hours, running some rapids, packing up, and driving home. I really don't like camping—I never sleep well—and so doing an overnight trip was out of the question.


The people at the course were amazing and the instructors were absolute experts, but this, for me, was just a one-time adventure. Much like when my family and I paddled from Kingston to Ottawa: been there, done that.

During dinner, with my second can of beer, my head started feeling heavy and my energy was waning. Anybody who knows me knows that I'm not a featherweight when it comes to drinking beer. I don't drink to excess, and two cans of beer aren't going to get me drunk anyway. But the beer, for me, was clearly affecting my ability to stay conscious.

With dinner out of the way, I quietly snuck away from the group and went into my tent. It was only about 7 o'clock, but I needed a nap. Dressed in fleece pants, a fleece sweater, and a fleece hoodie, with the hood up and the zipper up to my chin, I crawled into my sleeping bag, zipped it closed, and shut my eyes.

My day was done.

Lori tried to get me to join the group, but I muttered that I needed to recharge my batteries.

At about midnight, I rolled over onto my side, and my intercostals were on fire. The pain was so intense that I could not breathe. Nothing is more frightening than the prospect of running out of air. My head was throbbing, and my body was overheating.

I sat up and was able to take a gulp of air. The pain in my sides subsided, but I couldn't find a position to sit in which the pain went away. I pulled of my hoodie and sweater, but not even the night air could cool me. I was dizzy and felt nauseated, and though I was reluctant to wake Lori, I knew I was in distress and needed her help.

Though I was sure the words that exited my mouth were "heat stroke," Lori heard only the second word. It was enough to get her wide awake.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"I know my name."

"Where do you live?"

I gave her our address.

"How old are you?"

"Fourty nine."

"Extend your left arm and then touch your nose."

"I'm not drunk," I said as my left index finger reached my nose.

"Now the other side."

"I've overheated and I've pulled muscles," I said with a wince, bringing my right hand in front of me and landing my finger on my left cheek."

"What's your phone number?" she asked, failing to notice that I missed my nose.

"Water. I need water. Please get me some water." She exited the tent, returning in a short moment with a large aluminum mug. "I need something for my head. Do we have Advil?"

"Let me check. Do you want some baby Aspirin?"

"I'm not having a heart attack. I've overheated." I washed two Advil with a long gulp of water. "I need to get to the toilets: I think I'm going to be sick."

In retrospect, I should have waited before taking the Advil. I don't know how fast they break down and enter the bloodstream, but I don't think five minutes is long enough. I threw up in the outhouse.

With my inability to lie down and breathe, we decided it might be best for me to sleep in the van, to get the driver's seat in a position that would allow me to be comfortable and enable me to rest. But as comfortable as the seats are in the van, I couldn't find a position that was comfortable for long, and as it turned out, I was awake for most of the rest of the evening.

When morning came and the rest of the campers arose, Lori had to break the news that I had become sick overnight, and I was not going to join them on the water. I rested as much as I could, and by mid-morning I was up, dressed, drank more water, ate a little food, and watched the group handle the canoes along the Madawaska.


After lunch, one of our group members was kind enough to lend me his DSLR, and I moved to a rock, where I could watch them negotiate rapids and shoot photos: an activity with which I'm much more comfortable.

It happens to us all at some point. We are exercising and feel fine, and we don't drink enough water. Adding to the mix was that fact that I've never worn a wetsuit before, something that makes you sweat even more. I had totally dehydrated.

Lesson learned: drink, drink, and drink some more.

I also learned that while I had some fun, learned some new skills, and met some incredible people, white-water canoeing is not my sport. Before Sunday was done, I knew I wasn't going to earn my certification. I had only completed one of the two days. But that's okay. I wasn't really there to achieve the certification. Had I done so, I still don't think I would be enticed into doing this activity again.

And that's okay with me.

The one thing about this weekend that bothers me is that, once again, my body failed me. My leg failed me on the second day of cycling, last weekend. And it failed me again on Saturday night, into Sunday.

But did my body fail me, or did I fail my body? Clearly, the latter is true of this weekend. I didn't keep myself hydrated. And even for the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour, I failed to train enough, to prepare my body for that journey.

Hopefully, I can learn from these weekends to be better to myself, to take care, to treat my body more responsibly.

That would be the biggest lesson.

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