Skiing Versus Flying

This is another in my series of reposts from my original journal on Slashdot over to this new blog. With hopefully a bit of editing. This one involves the age old question, “Is flying as good as skiing”. Ok, it’s not an age-old question, but it’s one a friend of mine asked when I was reminiscing about skiing and feeling bad about how I can’t do it any more.

Yesterday a friend asked me if I get the same feelings from flying that I did from cross country skiing, orienteering, mountain biking and other activities that I had to give up because of my pain problems. There isn’t an easy answer to that question. Or there is an easy answer, but that answer is “yes and no”, so it isn’t too helpful.

It would be hard to enumerate the feelings I got from skiing and those other things, equally hard to enumerate the feelings I get from flying, and pointless to compare the two lists with each other. So that’s basically what I’m going to do.

The most overwhelming feeling I got from cross country skiing is a sense of being the centre of the universe. I don’t know how else to put it. I was a drinking in a firehose of hyper-sensory perceptions. I’d filter all these perceptions, from the feel of my skis on the snow and the sun and wind on my cheek to the rise and fall of the trail, the look of the snow, the anticipation of what’s to come, and a million times a second compute the variables and make decisions to optimize my animal machine body. Maybe I need to kick here instead of there, maybe I could get away with a short rest, or maybe I need to use my arms more. Maybe it’s time to take the temporary loss of time for a gain later and stop to rewax. And meanwhile you’ve got spare cycles for appreciating the woods around you and the animal tracks beside the course and the look of the sun filtering through the trees. When it all worked, it was glorious. In orienteering, it was much the same, except there it was also route choice, reading the map and matching it with the ground, trying to anticipate what you were going to see next, decide if the rustle in the woods over there is a deer or a competitor, and if you can mislead them by looking confident when you’re not or looking lost when you’re confident (which makes you feel like a right idiot if it turns out the rustle was a deer, let me tell you). And all this complexity happened alone in the woods, you against your competition, but mostly you against yourself. A good day wasn’t the day you won, but the day you did better than you expected or better than you usually do – a day when it all fit together for the whole course, and nothing interrupted your hyper-alertness and feeling of flow and belonging.

I remember my best orienteering meet ever. I was in the mens 19-20 year old category, so I was on the same course as the elite women (including most of the national team) and the men 35-50 year olds (including two former members of the national team). I was absolutely flying that day – even though the course was not easy, it just all clicked that day. At one control there were two people taking pictures for a magazine article, and afterwards, one of the photographers (another former national team member) said that I was the only person who came into and out of that control without even the slightest hesitation. The whole race was like that – I knew exactly where I was going, where I was, and the best way to get from here to there.

Flying feels sort-of like that, but not as much. For one thing, there are other planes, other voices on the radio, unlike skiing or orienteering where you are alone most of the time and unaware of the other people out there except peripherally. But there is the same need for intense concentration, but in this case it’s not just to get the peak performance out of yourself, but a very real feeling that if you don’t concentrate, you could very well end up killing yourself or far worse, killing somebody else. (I think every pilot knows that if it comes down to it, saving your life is far, far less important than saving the lives of people on the ground or passengers in your plane.)

Another thing that is different about flying is that instead of being away in the woods enjoying nature, you’re up above the ground looking down mostly at the works of man. It’s a different sort of getting away. But if you love maps like I do, it’s really wonderful to look down on the world below you like a great big living map spread out in front of you.

One thing I got out of skiing that is irreplacable is the feeling of physical accomplishment. At the time I took up skiing, I was a fat nerd. After a year or two of skiing, I suddenly realized that while my high school peers probably wouldn’t think of it as such (because it was skiing, not football or hockey), I was an athlete. Ok, an athletic nerd. Now that I’m a fat nerd again, I have an awful sense of loss.

Another thing about skiing, and especially orienteering, was the sense of community. We’d all go out into the woods and do our individual thing, but afterwards we’d all swap stories and go out for pizza and beer. You’d travel all around the country and meet the same people. In orienteering, there just aren’t that many people who did it, but in ski racing, while there are a million people who had a pair of cross country skis in their basement, the racers were an elite and mostly chummy subgroup. I had a very real feeling that I was a first name basis with all the people in the province, and most of the people in the country who are better at it than I was. There aren’t as many pilots as cross country skiers, but since I’m not in one of the elite sub-groups like aerobatic or race pilots, I don’t feel like I know everybody. But pilots are a community, and we tend to seek each other out and do things together. This year I went to Oshkosh, for the EAA Airventure fly in (which most people just refer to as “Oshkosh”). There were 11,000 airplanes there, all flown in by people who were enthusiastic about planes. I’ve never felt as much a part of the community as I did that week. At Oshkosh, we were all pilots together, and we all felt extremely priviledged to be there.

One of the things I like about flying is swooping through the air, not going anywhere in particular, but enjoying the feeling of g-force and motion. I used to do the same thing on skis and on a mountain bike. I wish I had the stomach for aerobatics.

Another thing about flying is the promise of freedom to move. As a skier, orienteer, mountain biker, backpacker, canoer, I travelled a lot of miles in areas that few people are privileged to see. I like to say I put a lot more work into each mile, but I got a lot more enjoyment out of it than somebody who rode in a motorized vehicle. But now as a flyer, I go to places I’ve never been before, sometimes just picking out the name of an airport I’ve never been to before and flying there for the fun of it. So I’m going a lot more miles, but maybe not getting as much enjoyment per mile as my human powered days.

My dream is to get a seaplane license, and find somebody who would rent me a seaplane (there aren’t very many – insurance is a bitch) so I can go off and find lonely lakes and get back some of what I used to get out of backpacking and canoeing.