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By Joe Glickman
"Courage is resistance to fear...not absence of fear." --Mark Twain
Five months before the publication of Fearless: One Woman, One Kayak, One Continent, the story of Freya Hoffmeister’s 332-day paddle around Australia, the big, bold Woman in Black headed south from Buenos Aires on the first of three, eight-month legs of what she hopes will be the first circumnavigation of South America by kayak.
So 213 days into her journey around a second, larger, continent, Freya has yet to read this ripping good tale, which not only describes her on-the-water adventures but also includes—much to her chagrin—biographical information that may help explain why she was willing to leave everything behind, including her 12-year-old son, to attempt a feat most considered impossible, even suicidal. And why she was able to succeed.
To paddle nearly 9,000 miles around an island with boat-breaking surf, stretches of unbroken cliffs; menacing salt water crocodiles, sharks bigger than her 18-foot kayak, deadly jelly fish and sea snakes, cyclones, and more, is the stuff of legend. Though she was traveling alone and unsupported, Freya looked at these objective hazards more as problems to be solved than as threats to her existence. When pressed to describe her emotions as she faced down grievous injury or death—which she did time and again—her stock responses was, “What's the problem?” Only in her German accent it sounded more like, “Vasdaproblum?”
Fair enough: The job of the adventurer is to be adventurous; the job of the writer to set the adventure down on the page with as much drama and insight as possible. And after spending a year following her trip in real time and another year talking to her about it, I figured I'd analyzed this most unusual woman so thoroughly that I could write a PhD thesis on fear, courage, confidence, and arrogance, with a bonus section on paddling topless. But since the publication of Fearless I've received a handful of letters from hardcore adventurers almost in Freya’s league—at least a lot closer to it than I am—that suggest that some of Freya’s personality traits that frustrated me most are actually nearly prerequisites for the job.
Read Joe's update on Freya- http://www.falcon.com/blog-entry/adventures
Here are some tidbits pulled from the file I have labeled “Perceptive Comments by Readers who've done Lots of Hard and Scary Shit.”
Roger Gocking, retired professor, marathon kayaker racer, and mountaineer who's made two attempts on Mt. Everest:
In all such monumental adventurers the question of motivation inevitably comes to the fore. Mallory's "because it is there" has become the gold standard for explaining what in essence really has no rational explanation. From my own experience with adventure, I can recognize what you describe as Freya's seeming lack of introspection as an important asset in the face of dealing with Russian roulette-like challenges. You cannot really afford to dwell on the dangers even to the point of policing your dreams to make sure that you don't have nightmares. Allowing these terrors into your subconscious is like allowing thieves to break into Fort Knox. They will steal your most precious asset: your resolve.
Ian Adamson, Director of Research & Education at Newton Running Company and one of the world's best adventure racers:
You portrayed Freya in terms any distance athlete worth their salt would understand. I saw traits of pretty much everyone I've raced with and against in her, especially some of the female athletes. Big, strong, attractive, and incredibly insecure. They exhibit almost superhuman resilience and independence but in person is vulnerable and in need of human touch and empathy. I call it paradoxical neediness—which is common in highly successful athletes, actually one of the things that drives them.
R.L. Crossland, former Navy SEAL, author of Red Ice and Jade Rooster:
To her to talk about failure is to entertain it. Her ability to persevere and coldly address risk are what define her. She is unique in that way and it relates to her sense of calling or destiny. There was definitely an existential part to it all once it started for her. Once she was successful at it, and she was good at it no doubt, she saw it as her calling. “Calling” is important and once you find it you can pursue it with a religious fervor. The great thing about callings is you don't have to see the big picture, you just realize you have this special thing you're driven to do and it’s important in some larger picture you don't need to understand....But she is not an idle thrill-seeker; she's been methodical. She went to Greenland and studied how to roll like a native; then she circumnavigated the cultural/historical center of sea kayaking [Iceland]. This is a rational woman in many ways. I doubt she's read any epic poetry but I am sure she understands what an epic feat is. She gravitates toward challenges that require both endurance and nerve. She is one of Beowulf's progeny: brave and vainglorious. She can hear herself being discussed around the campfire for a decade to come and gets energy from that.
Photos by Greg Bethune