Upstream First

Learning is like rowing upstream; not to advance is to drop back.
– Chinese Proverb

Canoeing on weekends with my father and friends on the flat-water rivers of North Central Florida is one of my favorite memories from my high school and college days.  The area around Gainesville, Florida is full of rivers and springs that wind their ways to the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean.

We would often drive up to 2-3 hours from home to scope out and explore new and interesting waterways.  It frequently struck me that the views we had while out on the rivers and in the marshes were ones that very few other Floridians had ever witnessed.  With the draft of a canoe being so shallow, we could make it to places that people in other types of boats could not reach.

In many cases, the goal and prize of canoeing the rivers and exploring their tributary streams was finding a head spring.  In that part of Florida, many rivers are fed by springs that boiled up from the aquifer.  The water from the springs is crystal-clear water and a steady 72 degrees year-round.  When the springs were big enough, we would get out of the canoe and snorkel and swim around before heading back down the river.  We felt like explorers who got to chart out and discover new lands.  The possibility of also discovering an alligator (which we did one time) or water moccasins always kept things lively.

For all of our river adventures, we always had one rule that we never broke.  When paddling on a river, we would always go upstream first.  Paddle as long and as far as you want when you start, but be sure that you’ll have the energy to get back to your car when the time comes to return.  By going upstream first, you have the assurance of knowing that you can simply float back with the flow of the river on the return trip.  Heading downriver first meant that you had a slower and more difficult return than the starting leg.

Cycling in our part of Texas almost always comes with wind.  No winds are almost unheard of and prized beyond anything when the situation occurs.  Winds of 5-10 mph are considered light and usually don’t affect riding or the selection of routes.  Once things bump up into the 15 mph range or higher, cycling can be challenging–and frustrating.  On days with strong winds, it is best to chart out a route that won’t leave you stuck riding into a strong headwind on the way home.

Rivers tend to follow a single path.  That means that a paddling trip that starts and stops in the same place covers the same section of water going out and coming back.  Some cycling trips are “out and backs.”  They follow one road out from a starting point to a certain distance and then turn around and come right back on the same road.  On windy days, it is best to choose a route that will go into the wind on the way out and provide a tailwind on the way back.  Like canoeing upriver first and downriver on the way back, riding into the challenge of the wind at the start of a ride is wise idea.  It allows the rider to push longer and further knowing that the return trip will be faster and require less effort than on the way out.

Unlike a paddling on a river, cyclists can choose non-out-and-back routes.  That is more akin to paddling around a lake.  We can select cycling routes that circle around roads and bring us back to our starting place without having to double-back on any of the roads.  When beginning and ending at the same place on a circular or non-overlapping route, there will be times that you will ride against and with the wind as well as having cross-winds from the sides.  Again, it is best to plan a route that will leave you with plenty of energy to get back home at the end.

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