The Outdoor Narrative: Risk in the outdoors is often part of the experience

Facing risk is a part of most outdoor ventures — in many cases, it’s what makes the experience. Whitewater rafting wouldn’t be the same without the white water or the chance of a spill.

The wind didn’t seem to be blowing hard when I left the boat launch at the Chase bridge on Sunday, but halfway across Little Shuswap Lake, I realized it was coming on strong.

The waves were breaking in whitecaps and starting to swell in size.

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My dog, Zoey, and I were headed for the outlet of Little River in my small inflatable to look for trout. We reached the outlet to find the western wind had collided with the current there to produce a chaotic maelstrom of water.

Combined with the wind, it produced what I later told my wife were “conditions unfavourable to fly fishing.”

We gave it a try for 15 minutes, but I could see the number of whitecaps increasing and there were also dark rain clouds on the horizon. Time to make tracks for the shore, I told Zoey.

Getting caught in a big storm in a small boat is risky business.

It was a long bouncy ride back, riding up the side of big swells and crashing down the other.

robert koopmans column head

Zoey had a look of perpetual concern on her face and, from the shore, it probably looked perilous, what we were doing. I bet my mom would have worried.

Was it risky? Could have been, had I tried to go too fast across the lake. Then, I might have hit a wave wrong and taken a spill.

But I’d been in this kind of predicament before and learned patience and the discipline to keep the hand off the throttle lessens the risk considerably, despite the appearance of the activity.

It’s the kind of “risk” that outdoors folk face all the time.

In his book A River Never Sleeps, legendary B.C. author and fly-fisherman Roderick Haig-Brown wrote about his love for dangerous river-wading.

“Very often it is necessary to wade a deep run of really fast water to reach good fishing.

“Sometimes one has to work and shift for more than an hour or more, with body braced into a little dam that builds water a foot higher on the upstream side,” he wrote.

“The sound and feel and look of all this is satisfying. It is a test of strength and confidence, and the rewards can be great. The water is free and open to all, but there can still be fair and equal ways of opening a little more to yourself than to the next man.”

Haig-Brown also wrote about “shouldering the current,” the practise of wearing a waterproof jacket and leaning heavily into fast currents as water rushes over your upper body.

For me, that sounds like a truly risky business. For Haig-Brown, however, challenging a river’s force was not a foolhardy enterprise. He had years of experience under his wading boots and a magnificent understanding of the environment in which he placed himself.

Facing risk is a part of most outdoor ventures — in many cases, it’s what makes the experience. Whitewater rafting wouldn’t be the same without the white water or the chance of a spill.

But recognizing the line between risk and stupidity is what often separates the healthy from the injured — in some cases, even the dead — in nature’s playgrounds. It often takes a fair bit of experience to see the line, something that prompts many people to wisely pay experts to guide them through some terribly dangerous activities.

That doesn’t mean we have to rely solely on the wisdom of others. With time, an abundance of caution, patience and the right frame of mind, it’s possible to build a measure of expertise in a chosen activity, even to the point we can safely do what others might consider reckless.

What separates risky from stupid is purpose. If an activity has a meaningful end, it’s worth facing some risk.

Of course, we all have to decide for ourselves what’s worthwhile.

That’s why you won’t find me dangling from a bridge with a great bungee cord strapped to my ankles, bouncing in the breeze like some freakish yo-yo.

The reward — the supposed thrill that comes from jarring your vertebrae as gravity and rubber fight for possession of your body — doesn’t justify the risk.

I will put my boat on the Thompson River, however, and pick my way through rushing water, standing waves and rock gardens in August because I hope the fish will be sucking dry flies on the runs below Walhachin.

And I will park my truck at the end of a logging road as November snow starts to fall and set out by myself in search of deer. Such activities can be risky — dangerous even — but to me, worthwhile.

Facing risk brings freedom, and, sometimes, even a wee a bit of adrenaline to quicken the day.

And it teaches lessons that will inevitably make the next similar experience feel just a little less risky.

Robert Koopmans is an avid angler and hunter who spends as much time as possible in B.C.’s wild places. He also hosts the Hunting & Fishing British Columbia podcast (find it on Apple Podcasts). To share a thought, send an email to

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