At the age of 18 and now approaching 50, taking people on river trips has been what I do. It is all I really know.

In some ways that sounds very simple, but ask anyone who really knows something and they will tell you that mastery is a long, long road. The more you know, the more questions you have.

In my three decades of guiding clients down rivers, I have come to view trips as something more than a vacation for my clients. Trips are more than a collection of selfies, waterways traveled from A to B, and landmarks checked off a bucket list. Trips, I believe, are existential.

I can assure you I am no philosopher. The few attempts I’ve made to wade through philosophical tomes were like chewing on sawdust. I failed to find the nutritional value in it and would not volunteer for another mouthful.

However, either by virtue of getting older (inevitable), smarter (unlikely), or just finally stumbling upon a philosophical argument I can swallow, I’ll propose some paddling philosophy for you.

Behold: The meaning of life. | Photo: Justin Bailie
Behold: The meaning of life. | Photo: Justin Bailie

Formed by famous philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre more than a hundred years ago, existentialism supports the belief that humans are thinking beings. More importantly, humans are living beings capable of emotive action.

Kierkegaard and Sartre believed every individual is responsible for imbuing their own lives with meaning and living authentically. In contrast to other philosophies, existentialists believe there are limits to our rational capabilities. Each of us is ultimately defined by our subjectivity and action. Sartre famously wrote, “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards.”

I’m mindful of the sawdust.

As far as I’m concerned, every time we paddle we go on a trip. Whether a 120-minute sunset float, a two-day weekend how-to course or three-week epic in a desert canyon, there is a going out and a returning home. We never return the same person that left.

It is Sartre’s “encounters himself” and “surges up in the world” that speaks to me. I am confident that every single client I’ve had the privilege to take on a trip has been altered. Usually invisibly but often radically, and by little doing on my part.

Whitewater trips are intensely personal, full sensory experiences. There are powerful visual auditory and physical sensations when pulled into a rapid by a strong current. There are emotions of joy and fear. There is camaraderie and there is the reflection. As a first trip or the hundredth, these encounters with one’s self and experiencing the river become defining moments in life. It is what makes whitewater paddlers whitewater paddlers. It is existential.

I’m not a philosopher. I am a river guide. I’m way past the novelty of getting paid to take people down rivers. What never gets old are the defining moments that river trips provide in peoples’ lives. Sawdust never tasted so good.

Jeff Jackson’s Alchemy is a regular column in Rapid. He notes that the buzzword in adventure tourism right now is “authentic” experiences. “How long before we start to market existential experiences? You read it here first, folks,” he says.

Behold: The meaning of life.| Photo: Justin Bailie

Paddling Magazine Issue 65 | Fall 2021

This article originally appeared in Paddling Magazine Issue 65. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions here, or download the Paddling Magazine app and browse the digital archives here.



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