How assessing, managing and taking risks in the outdoors informs my approach to pandemic
Outdoor recreation comes with a certain and constantly variable inherent risks. If we wanted to make the safest possible choice, we’d stay home. Yet for many of us who are drawn to the outdoors, the choice to play hard outside, in remote areas and changing conditions, the question of risk-versus-reward is often present in our minds and frequently discussed with our crews and partners.
After spending a lot of time over the years focusing on technical skills — a better forward stroke, a snappier roll, stronger finger strength or a better back step — I’ve come to view risk assessment as a skill set that is actually more important, and more widely transferable, than the technical skills, strength or fitness I focused on in the past.
In my ‘rookie years’ in outdoor sports, risk assessment was a minimal and overlooked concept. I was scared out of my wits the majority of the time and I generally did what my more experienced friends said was kosher. The caveat to this approach being a) my friends had a sick sense of humor; b) because I had no reliable protocol or procedure for risk management, I was generally freaked; and, c) I narrowly got away with some bad choices, which tended to make me more freaked out.
In retrospect, that approach, or lack thereof, slowed my progression, left me experiencing more fear than fun, and worst off, exposed me to greater risks than was necessary. When I started to view risk management / assessment as its own skill set, my approach to the outdoors and, by extension, life in general changed dramatically.
There are various ways of assessing risk using different metrics to help objectify subjective decisions. What many of them share in common is a way to look at both the likelihood and the severity of possible outcomes in order to weigh that with an individual or group’s risk tolerance. These approaches deal best with static risks as opposed to dynamic situations where conditions are constantly changing.
A system that I teach and use both on the river and in life is known as the Acceptable Level of Risk method or more commonly the “Can I? Should I?” approach. In rapidly evolving, highly dynamic situations, this approach is effective at responding when life is happening in the grey areas.
Simply put, when assessing risk, possible interventions and choosing actions, we ask ourselves (and/or our team), “Can I?” and, “Should I?” to determine if an action is below your (or your group’s, or in this case, society’s) acceptable level of risk. If the response is a yes to both questions, we proceed. If it is not, we look at ways we might alter our approach to achieve the double positive needed for action, or we choose another course of action, including potentially choosing not to act at all.
With the ongoing uncertainty of a pandemic crossing our globe and through our communities, I’ve spent a lot of time lately pondering these two questions. I’m hearing a lot of people saying they can go paddling, and thus, they will. But what about the should I? aspect.
The answer to this side of things isn’t well known. We are dealing with a functionally invisible pathogen and for the most part, none of us are aware of if our primary concern should be not catching the virus or on not spreading it to unsuspecting friends, loved ones and strangers.
For me, while I know I can choose to ignore all requests from public health experts to stay at home, if I’m honest with myself, I can’t answer with a strong yes to a question of if I should. From my standpoint, there are too many unknowns and if I choose wrong, there will be no taking it back or reversing the effects my decisions my have on families and communities.
Perhaps it’s a biased perspective as a coach, but these two questions always point me back towards a greater question: Why?
Why do I feel compelled to seek adventure outdoors? Why do I knowingly take on additional, unnecessary risks to recreate or work outdoors? Why might it be so important to me that I would risk the health of others?
For me the outdoors is all about connection: to people, nature, and my deeper sense of self. It’s about challenging myself and giving myself an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s about friendships and community. It’s about being places that I love and sharing those experiences with others.
The risks we choose to take in the outdoors are our own decisions to make. But those decisions can and do affect our crew, our partners, our families and communities. When push comes to shove, it may seem like it’s our own ass on the line, but it is worth noting that countless would-be rescuers get injured or worse in responding to someone else’s unfortunate accidents.
In facing a global public health crisis, the impact of our decision can be much more wide spread, trickling from our own communities into others. The choice to ignore requests to stay at home is to willingly increase the risk profile of not just yourself and your crew or family but to whomever they come into contact with. We are dealing with a reality where either poorly informed or patently bad decisions are rippling out into the world causing disease across nations and continents. The data on this is quite clear.
For me personally, I just can’t reconcile the should with the can. For me, I should do everything possible to slow and prevent the spread of disease, to mitigate the effects on our healthcare system. I should avoid being cavalier and self serving when the consequence will wreak havoc on other people’s families and communities.
If the question is should I ignore the insistence and advice of public health officials for my own pleasure and amusement, at the risk of endangering others, for me, that answer is a firm no.
I’m fully committed to serving my expanding community in the best way I know how: by offering my coaching skills in the service of helping others navigate change, grief, and chaos.
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