Screw-ups make us smarter -- hopefully

June 22, 2009 

So my memory was wrong, as old friend Chuck Kleeschulte, now an aide to the U.S. Senate Natural Resources Committee, reminded me over the phone from the nation's capital. He hadn't done the splits between the rail of the sailboat and the dock before splashing into the waters of Taku Harbor all those long years ago.

He'd actually been hanging onto the bowsprit of Ghost as the wind blew her away from the dock. He'd thought he was going to be able to hold the boat until someone got the bow line around a cleat. Didn't work.

As the wind swung the sloop away, his body leaned farther and farther over the patch of water growing between Ghost and the dock until, finally, kersplash.

I admit I laughed, and laughed.

That was not polite. It was most certainly not nice.

But, hey, who among us could avoid doing otherwise? Answer me that.

Doing the stupid is how most of us learn, and sometimes -- when the only injuries suffered are to pride, image or ego -- it's funny. I've laughed at a lot of friends, a few coworkers and even, on occasion, myself.

I laughed heartily the night I woke on a water bed in Swanson Harbor. Of course, I didn't know at first it was a water bed. The ground beneath the tent just seemed, for some reason, unusually soft and comfortable. When I rolled over, it flowed gently with my body.

Then the little wheels in my sleep-fogged brain began to turn. They quickly thereafter came to the conclusion that "oh-oh, this is not good,'' though those weren't quite the exact words of the thought.

I immediately woke the newspaper photographer who was with me to tell him to grab his gear because we needed to get out of the tent. Then I opened the door to a flood. We got out, luckily, with our feet wet but our sleeping bags dry. And we managed to warn a team of filmmakers from National Geographic camped next to us that they needed to move quickly.

They not only managed to get out before their tent flooded, they managed to get their expensive video equipment to dry ground safely. The photographer with me was not so lucky.

It was hard not to laugh at the beam of the flashlight flickering off the walls of our tent as he splashed around in six inches of saltwater looking for a camera lens he'd left behind. There was nothing else to do but laugh. Once submerged in the salt, a camera lens is toast.

The great flood happened decades ago, but the lesson lived on forever. I haven't gambled with a tide since, no matter how tired after a long day of paddling or how late at night the landfall. Every camp goes well above the high-tide line.

The screw-ups we survive make us smarter. Or hopefully they make us smarter.

Sometimes, though, I miss the entertainment value of things gone wrong. I'll never forget the sound of branches snapping when Jim Jager skied into the alders off the Indian Creek Trail one winter even if, as it turned out, the sound didn't come from branches snapping. He was near tears when he finally untangled himself from the brush.

Tearful not because he'd injured himself or his pride, but because what had broken was his wife's brand-new, $100, carbon-fiber ski pole. We'd tried to warn him against the high-tech poles, not to mention his skate skis, before that trip from Glen Alps to Indian.

But he was young and strong and knew everything then. Now, he is older, not quite so strong and knows a lot less, or at least professes so. The funny thing is that the guy who knows less now almost never does stupid things in the Bush. Maybe it has something to do with knowing what he doesn't know.

It makes him so much less entertaining as a traveling companion.

The day that ski pole broke, I laughed so hard I finally had to turn away and cover my face as a friend helped jury-rig the pole by lashing the shaft together with a couple willow branches and some duct tape.

To understand exactly why I was laughing so hard, you had to have been there when Jim skate skied all the way from the Glen Alps trail head to the top of Ship Pass while the rest of us plodded along far behind on heavy telemark skis. I won't say he was intentionally taunting us, but it sure seemed that way. He did come back more than once to ask, "Hey, how you guys doing?"

He got his comeuppance trying to descend the couloir that drops from the pass to Ship Lake, and the rocket ride headlong into the alders down along the creek -- complete with the sound of what I thought was brush breaking -- was the icing on the cake.

Not surprisingly, he never tried Glen Alps to Indian on skate skis again, though we have more than once skated to the top of Ship Creek Pass and then back to Glen Alps. If he's going over the top and down, though, he now takes backcountry skis with metal edges.

Everything we survive makes us smarter.

Why, I will confess right here that I have been much more careful about shooting out of canoes since the October day I decided to join Rich Mauer in banging away at a couple mallards coming down the port side. Rich shot twice and missed. As the ducks passed midship, making it safe for the paddler in the stern to shoot, I swung on them too.

Unfortunately, I pulled the trigger for the first time just as Rich pulled the trigger for the last time. The recoil from two shotguns going off at the same time on one side of the canoe was enough to roll it -- kersplash.

Rich swam for shore. I went diving for the shotgun I'd dropped, luckily found it, and then swam to shore.

"Is this where we die of hypothermia?'' Rich asked.

No, I said. There was a dry bag with extra clothes in the boat. I gave those to him. I took off my neoprene waders, poured out the water and wrung out my polypropylene under garments. Then I put everything back on and wore it all for the rest of the day as if in a diver's wet suit.

Having swum before, I had come prepared in more ways than one, thankful that the mistakes we survive make us smarter.

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