illustration of a couple in a tent with their dog
(Illustration: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Should I Take a Two-Week River Trip with a Guy I Don’t Want to Sleep With?

“Since he’s never said anything explicitly romantic, wouldn’t it be presumptuous to tell him I’m not interested?”

Long river trips can lead to confusing relationship dynamics among friends

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Dear Sundog: I’ve been invited on a 14-day river trip on the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon by a guy I work with who I’ll call Trip Leader. We are both guides on another river. Of course I said yes! But I’ve begun to suspect that he sees this as the beginning of a romance—we’ll be sharing his boat and presumably his tent. I see him as a friend, and I don’t want anything more. Since he’s never said anything explicitly romantic, wouldn’t it be presumptuous to tell him I’m not interested? Also, I’m worried he’d disinvite me, and I really want to go!

Part two of my question involves a bunch of other guys (some gals but mainly guys) that we also work with. Trip Leader doesn’t have many friends that he wants to invite on his permit, so he gave me free rein to invite whoever I wanted, so I’ve filled up the roster with a dozen dirtbags and kayakers who I want to hang out with. Given part one of the question, have I now overstepped my bounds? —Rigged to Flop

Dear Rigged: You have indeed floated into an ethical whirlpool here. The short answer is you have done nothing wrong by accepting this invitation. I trust your intuition that Trip Leader holds the hots for you; but if he can’t or won’t express it, then it’s not your responsibility to preemptively reject him. It’s likely that he may be hurt to eventually learn that you’re just not that into him; yet all suitors must one day learn that “let’s be friends” is not an excellent overture of romance. But having done nothing unethical does not insulate you from the turbulent waters of resentment that Sundog predicts will roil up about halfway down the River of no Return.

As for your hesitation to have a heart-to-heart for fear of getting kicked off the trip: that is indeed a bit murkier, ethically. Your hesitation indicates that not only are you quite sure of his unexpressed intentions, but that if he knew yours, he’d go it alone, or even invite some other damsel. Not great. But again, you can only work with the information Trip Leader is providing. If you two are unable to have a cursory conversation about who is sleeping in whose tent, then I agree with you: this relationship does not appear to hold much promise.

Now let’s address the issue of your tag-a-long dude friends. On the one hand, traveling in a pack alleviates the romantic pressure of being alone for a long float with Trip Leader. On the other hand, your quiver of buds might exacerbate his sinking, jealous sensation that you’re not that into him. Both of those outcomes seem par for the course of what you’re proposing here. If it turns out that you do develop a crush on one of these other dirt bag boaters, I’d strongly suggest waiting till after the trip to act on it. Love triangles on river trips are notoriously sour.

Your letter raises questions about dating in the wilderness. Climbing, whitewater, and backcountry skiing are dangerous and expensive, with a steep learning curve. Finding a partner who will provide the gear and expertise is a slick way to bypass outing clubs, novice meetups, and pricey NOLS courses. Meanwhile the hills are thick with lonely gearheads, good with knots and maps and transceivers, not so good with love-notes and emoting. Hence the romantically ambiguous outdoor outing. Are they really leading me up a hard route I’ve wanted to try, or is this a date? And on the flip side: Are they really into me or are they just using me as a free guide?

When Sundog was but a teenage dirtbag, climbing the crags of Southern California during the Reagan years, these sports were still heavily dominated by dudes, and the sight of a woman on the end of a rope was met with hushed envy. It was not that we held the retro-grade chauvinism that said women weren’t capable climbers; however it was a near cousin. We were stunned. We’d determined that we didn’t have the soft skills to ever land a girlfriend: that’s why we were teenage rock climbers, after all. Now we had to wrestle with the seeming paradox:  watching a friend who’d devoted himself to the lonesome solipsism that used to be rock climbing who was simultaneously not merely in the company of a pretty girl in spandex tights but indeed tied to her, pelvis-to-pelvis, with a length of rope. How did he do that?

Times have changed, Rigged, and clearly you’ve honed the craft of paddling whitewater—you don’t need Trip Leader or anyone else to teach you. That said, he’s offering a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and you’re behaving ethically by accepting his offer. Do the trip. Enjoy. And let me suggest you pack your own pup tent at the bottom of your dry bag to hastily erect when the spirit moves you.

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