Sports column: Matt Dickerson sees extremes and moderation in the outdoors
I’ve been thinking lately about extremes. It may have been the New England weather this past month. We had one stretch with two or three of the coldest days we have had in the past several years, and we’ve also had a streak of very warm weather. (Neither of these, it should be noted, is very conducive to cross-country skiing.) Down in Massachusetts the recent blizzard was apparently one of the worst in recorded history — at least according to radio reports. While here in Vermont, just one state away, we got next to nothing and most of the little we did get has since melted or washed away. Feast or famine, it seems.
More than the weather, though, I’ve been thinking about extremes in human behavior. I was recently reading a National Geographic article about early 20th-century Antarctic explorers. The focus of the article was on one small team of three men, part of a much larger expedition known as the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, led by Douglas Mawson. Mawson, his two partners, and their team of sled dogs set out with the intention, it seemed, of covering as much distance as possible in a short period of time. They weren’t trying to reach the South Pole like other explorers of the day (Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton to name two of the most famous ones) but just to cover a lot of ground and gain a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge.
They accomplished both feats, traveling some 300 miles outbound in five weeks. And they did so on one of the coldest, windiest and harshest places on the surface of the planet. An extreme outdoor mission in an extreme outdoor environment. Which is why Mawson was the only one of the three men to return alive, and only with severe frostbite and bodily damage — and without any of his photographs. None of the dogs made it back either.
Meanwhile we had a guest at our house this past Sunday. The paltry amount of snow left in our yard by the much-hyped blizzard was just enough to tempt us to go sledding, but not so much as to keep our sleds from scraping over rocks. We asked Jamie, a first-year college student from a more southern state, if she wanted to sled. She said at first that she was risk averse and pain averse and wasn’t particularly keen on going. Actually, she didn’t say it in exactly those words. What she said was something more like, “I don’t often do things like sledding because they are scary and I get hurt.”
She acknowledged, however, that while she didn’t usually initiate outdoor activities, when somebody else encouraged her to try, most of the time she ended up enjoying herself and being glad she went. So I told my sons to apply peer pressure. They did. Our guest caved in. And we all went sledding. We only took her part way up the hill. And we didn’t put her on the fastest sled, or on the most difficult one to steer.
The approach worked. Jamie was outdoors. She didn’t get hurt. She was only mildly scared, and only for the first run or two. None of us lost any limbs to frostbite. We only brought one dog with us and it made it back alive. Moderation, it turns out, is a pretty good policy in a lot of things. Which is to say, Jamie actually had a lot of fun.
Of course we didn’t gain any new scientific or geographic knowledge. We didn’t explore or map out any uncharted territory. So maybe the world needs some extreme people too. But on the other hand, I think Jamie would join us again. If we can ever get any snow, that is. Not an extreme blizzard. Just a nice, moderate snowfall.