Rivergator #015: We Are the New Voyageurs

In light of recent discussion, it comes to my attention to attempt the formulation of an idea, ground fine and brewed bold, steeped in weeks worth of thought. (This happens, on a river in a canoe over two months.) This notion belabors a topic about “work,” about reasons humans do things, and about changing systems ahead.

We are the New Voyageurs, out on the Mississippi River, paddling in a 30’ canoe for nearly two months. “Voyageurs,” dictated by the style of our craft, a handmade, high-walled, wide-birthed paddling canoe, in the same vain as the fur-trappers’ pioneering vessels of an earlier North America.

Every day, we wake before light, stoke the previous night’s fire, brew a smoky, dark coffee, eat a meal, pack up camp. We paddle. Every day, we resurrect the same camp, and every day, we take it down. Every day we paddle. Every day, we look at the skies. In the morning, for weather; in the evening, for clarity through astral signs and figures.

What’s more important to me about this repetitive process is the threefold:

1) The daily starting and finishing of something; the setting out to do something, and completing it. The doing, the making, the lifecycle of a routine whose ins and outs you grow intimately with.

2) The simple life, the encouragement of minimizing, the reality of human need. All it boils down to is the clear picture of what you need and don’t need, what you realize you have, and what lessons you can learn from this.

3) The negative space created - and by this I mean the absence of everything is vitally important for clearing and re-fueling the mind to allow important thoughts to surface. It can truly (and maybe only) happen out in the wild.

I know a lot of folks who escape or retreat to exotic and faraway regions of the world to commune with themselves. Everyone has their own reasons to perform some sojourn to find themselves. We oft hear about the “adventurer,” or athlete trying to challenge a world-record, or a n’er-been-done feat to “test human limit.”

In the aforementioned conversation that started it all, a group of four of us spoke about the adventure community (although I hate calling them that). There is a somehow popularized gathering of folks who make trips to test limits and do something to “go for a goal.” Naturally, we expect  complete documentation of this excursion, because the inclination is to share, share, share! I’m doing something out of the ordinary and people will want to see what I’m doing.

The same thinking seems to apply to the escapists as well. Move to a cheap, foreign country, dwell in a community of ex-pats, share life digitally, return a changed person.

The problems with both are not in the execution of a large-scale (or even mini) adventure, or life-change (no matter how self-indulgent the escapade) to find oneself. It’s the exploitation of a perceived value of these separately occurring - but not dissimilar - instances. 

I will now process my understanding of “adventurers” (based on my experience as audience/consumer). Someone does something wild and seemingly terrific/insurmountable. Said person does the thing, and shares imagery of this thing. Brand X recognizes its “micro-influence” on the brand’s intended buyer market/community, takes person under wing as “ambassador.” Said brand sponsor makes person feel their life(style) is desirable and pays money for them to continue creating content. Person continues sharing echoes of initial content to appeal to their growing audience who aspire to live a life like theirs. Sponsorship begets more monetarily-interested parties, and the need for more content mushrooms ten-fold. Person goes somewhere un-special (oddly enough), asks friend to take a series of overly self-aware, highly styled images in said vague location without context. Person continues to exploit user base, the relationship to their admirers, by participating in a feedback loop of daily - or some highly formulaic itinerary - of content creation to satisfy the dullness of audience’s everyday lives, yet “gives something to hope for.” Now, audience person believes he/she/they can do as adventure person does and propagates successful system of content to their life. Their life becomes an overly self-aware but far less interesting nor morally-guided existence of branding their life in hopes of acquiring interest of a fiscal sponsor for a life entrenched in other people’s approval.

This system applies to the adventurer or escapist, merely interchange either person in the scenario. The reason I dive deeply into this mindset is because there is a saturation -and thus, exploitation, of a perceived value of life.

Thoreau said that when you address the basic needs of life - shelter, clothing, food, fuel - then you can seek to understand the deeper meaning attached to life. This does not apply to basic needs of social media, self-indulgence, or capital gains. By participating in this system where one commodifies their lifestyle by creating a “brand” for themselves (or their lifestyle), it makes everyone a necessary participant, otherwise not everyone can succeed.

There is a game to it all, too. Yet when you lose your phone, or let it fall victim to heavy rainfall as I have had both happen in less than two months, you are relieved of social ties (digitally). You begin to realize you don’t need any of what anyone is selling or sharing. And if you’re not seeing the social harm in being buried in your telephone, steeped in thought about your next share online, you’re not willing to change the system.

In this malaise, then, what might help is a “life-coach,” right? Wrong! Because you cannot be a life-coach, because you are then participating in the same pyramid-scheme* as the adventurer or the escapist.

To pay someone to tell you how to live, or use their stories/“wisdom,” to guide your less-informed life, means that, in turn, you will return to your life invigorated with someone else’s practice, stories, experiences gained. You will then seek to live more like them, not like you, and will find value in telling others someone else’s wisdom-as-filtered-through-your-own, which they were paid to package neatly in a talk, a workshop, a book - whichever method best disseminates to a mass of vulnerable and gullible people. Who, I might infer, are only vulnerable because they have been led to believe, by the existence of life-coaches, their lives need further “truths.” If life-coaches didn’t exist, I think greater numbers of our population would not seek help, but rather seek their own truths, their own stories.

(Note: Canoeing makes for great therapy, talking to someone’s back, or to a wide channel of water ahead of you. A modified “couch” in therapy office-setting.)

Which is why I’m here, reflecting on the values learned while canoeing on the world’s fourth longest river. Because I came to be a part of a story that is both communal (with others on the journey, with the world), and personal.

It is not because someone hasn’t paddled the Mississippi River before - they have. It’s not because I made a Bucket List in the middle of a dull work-day. It’s not because I have a series of brands in my back-pocket, providing the tools to tell you which jacket to wear, or that my lifestyle is worth repeating.

Quite literally, I am here to celebrate and preserve this important natural resource, in order to produce a work that shares its educational and otherwise enriching value.

Along the way, I used a phone to begin sharing the journey. I was distracted by it, but been told for years it will be the best tool for working in my “industry” (media). I was bound by hashtags and swipes and endless vertical thumb-scrolling. One morning, I left my phone by a log at camp with a rising river (10 fee tin that week, alone). Lost and unretrievable, once realized downriver, the phone and my distractions were gone.

If I still had it, yes, I probably wouldn’t have had the thoughts I’m processing now. Because as much as I hate the system - feeling the need to share digitally my experience to attract a following and then a brand and then a living wage - I had to participate in it. Or so I’m told. Because there are these “influences” and “micro-influencers” out there who created and perpetuated a system where it has to be a benchmark of successful freelance career, side-hustle; that thing that makes the dream of leaving the 9-5 at all possible.

Yet I am removed. The distraction is gone! When I share my photos, words, videos, crafts, it will be through a lens of time and careful consideration. These tales and media belong on walls in homes, stories shared with schools, experiences brought to life - not by a sponsored ad on Instagram - but in person.

Being on the river has been important because it has reinforced in me a desire to be apart of a community and lead a simpler-more earthbound life.

To be here, you have to be present. When you’re in the canoe, you are on the water, feeling the raindrops and current which propel your boat, the natural plane on which your sightline acclimates against a distant horizon. The wood of the canoe was made from Louisiana bald Cypress, a tree native to the forests surrounding both sides of the water (once, not so present anymore), and it has been handmade with hundreds of tiny pieces, nearly three months of work by five people, maintained by many more.

Now I know what an oriole’s song sounds like, what a prethonetary warbler looks like and why it got its name. What one person needs to do to set up shelter in under five minutes. What the process is to formulate routine. Routine is important for formulating a meditative atmosphere for distractions to minimize. I’ve learned to look at weather and feel or predict the basic onset of a storm.

I’m now wary of people getting paid to tell others how to live. Six weeks doing this paddling-camping-work has been, in many ways, a more eye-opening, educational, creative, thought-provoking, challenging time I’ve felt, to-date. What are the basics to carry out life? What are the basics for shelter? What are the basics for clothing? What are the basics for a kitchen? What are the basics for warmth and cooking practice? What are the basics for transportation? Then think, ‘Okay, now that I’ve learned to know those, what’s important to me, then, what’s important for my closest community, then, what’s important for the world?

When you remove everything, you begin to see everything.

The old ‘voyageur’ paddled Native American rivers and streams, waking at 3am, paddling for six hours, ate on their boats, then paddled another six, then made camp. Wake up, repeat. They worked a full day by 9am! They had one mission, and one avenue to do so.

We, here on the Mississippi, now, are a lean crew of six:
- One Leader, who wrote the paddler’s guide
- One Chief Guide
- One first mate/canoe company secretary
- A writer
- A filmmaker
- A self-described ‘analogue nomad’ and adventurer

Everyday everyone is working. And the team works hard. If we paddle all day, set up camp, and go to sleep: we’ve worked a full day. On top of that, we each have our own unique roles. Some are storytelling, some are making the trip continue its existence.

We are the New Voyageurs. We share in all responsibilities, and the same experiences. We set up a village daily, we take down our village, daily. We paddle together, we paddle as individuals.

I’ve always thought that the outdoors brings people together. But it’s more than that. It’s the overnight - the observance of ritual - the participation in a community, the efforts and sunburns and pains logged while accomplishing something in unison. Humans are meant to think critically, engage with one another, and develop communities. This tenet has to happen in person - not virtually.

There is no greater adventure than the one you’re on now. There is no better life coach than Mother Nature. And there is certainly no better way to find yourself than stripping away everything else.

So, I’m going to say here now:

- If you move to a new country, don’t just take the best parts from it. Share the dirt. The hard stuff. The challenges. 
- If you do something extraordinary, don’t share it in real-time for an audience. Instead, make a concerted effort to process and reflect and provide meaningful discourse afterwards.
- If you have impactful stories and experiences and ideas on how to life life, do not monetize it.

This climate has taught me that you can’t just be a paddler, you can’t just be a storyteller, you can’t just be one thing and do that one thing. It takes shared knowledge, cross-disciplinary study, and many skills to voyage into the new age of creative, reason, and social responsibility.

So much time is buried looking through the window of our phone, our screens, looking out the windows of our homes, our cars. Scrolling; driving. Sometime, at home in Maine, I am surprised when I look up and realize that my state is not as over-saturated, monochromatic, or one-note as so many of my photographic peers ever publish.

I’m sick of seeing the same lighthouses and walking trails published over and over again - always looking the same as one another. I’m tired of people filling my life with mediocre images of familiar places, accompanied by trite captions and desperate endorsements. Stop playing the game. Stop with these ‘collectives.’ That word opens the floodgates to make glossy your dreams of “success” in this system.

I hope that by seeking understanding on the River, of a simple way of life, and how it translates back into the “unreal” world, that I may encourage access to an experience that all many enjoy, from which all may benefit from hard work, introspection, community. Just as living in New York for three years felt like a graduate-study program on Metropolitan Studies; the two months I will have spent on the River was like a Phd in Life Studies - one that I never expected, but will carry with me into the next Chapter. 

To break down systems in place, to make better the life you didn’t know was possible. But not in an “Aspirational Travel” or “Aspirational Lifestyle” way.

You don’t need to be in a canoe.
You don’t need to test human limit,
You don’t need to break records,
You don’t need to make money off of an image you’ve created,
You don’t need to play “the game”
You DO need to engage work in this world that makes a net positive impact on the ground, the same ground on which we step; the water we drink; the food we eat; the air we breathe; and the benevolence of fellow man as stewards for generations to come.

If you do not agree, get out of the damn boat and start walking. You’re not paddling hard enough to get us where we’re going.

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*Boyce Upholt will have more words to say about this pyramid scheme. Likely more backed up by primary source documents and a stronger command of the English language.