Step one: Clench your hands around solid wooden cylinders for four to six hours a day. Preferably, ones connected to oars that are moving a half-ton load of metal, rubber, food and people against a casual upstream 5-45 mile-per-hour breeze while the glorious sun weasels its way into your knuckle creases and a delightful sweat/sunscreen concoction drips off your forehead, landing in minuscule cuts with a sting that’s only slightly less painful than that of a yellow jacket. Rinse in river water and repeat for 100 days.
Can’t make it out on the water that much? No problem. Grab two wooden rolling pins and duct tape your hands to them. Turn up the heat to between 90-108 degrees. Enlist 29 of your closest friends to spray you with a power washer while an industrial-grade fan blows. Do between 1,000-1,000,000 pushups while cracking jokes about those “Oh shoot!” moments, when it was big and you were awesome.
Step two: Rub your chapped skin along your rigging straps as you unpack dry bags and metal boxes. Make sure to dry them out as much as possible in preparation for dish duty, when you will dunk them repeatedly in water that alternates from scalding to bleached: it’s the newest beauty trend sweeping river beaches across the nation.
Step three: Remember that your body is the foundation of your livelihood—or leisure—and deserves care.
Most sports enthusiasts and athletes engage in some sort of warm-up before their event. Instead of warming up by wrapping your digits around a fourth cup of cowboy coffee, take three minutes to do some basic hand exercises and stretches.
I start my morning routine while still ensconced in my sleeping bag, because once I exit my cocoon of comfort, I get too wrapped up in the motion of the morning and just shove my pain away. If you’re like me, then take those few moments of cozy, pre-dawn comfort to focus on moving your hands, wrists, and arms ergonomically and gently. Extensions are crucial, especially when your hands start to unconsciously curl. When my dad was diagnosed with arthritis in his hands, I started doing his exercises—really. I do a few sets of finger flicks and wiggles to loosen things up, and then couple stretching each finger individually for 20 seconds with deep breaths.
While rowing, don’t grip the oars or paddle too tightly—basic, I know—but sometimes after a heart-pumping pounding from whitewater waves I forget to loosen my hold. I often switch my positioning from the handle to the oar, making use of its wider size. Make sure to extend your fingers periodically: give your hands a break and take some time to appreciate the place you are paddling.
It may be heresy, but I’ve found it isn’t necessary to feather every stroke (gasp!). If you’re rowing in the wind or making precise moves, by all means twist your wrists, but if you feel some tingling and numbness, experiment with keeping your joints straight.
Then treat yo’self: before bed, slather on lotion and salve, preferably ones you didn’t pick out of a half-empty cardboard box labeled “TAKE ME.” It may seem like a novelty, but buying new items at full price is quite delightful. Unsurprisingly, most hardware stores have a stellar selection of no-nonsense skin products. Adult tip: When you use items before their expiration date, they actually work! Splurge on the sunscreen that smells like coconut and bananas, not because they necessarily work any better, but because the sweet smell of coconut and bananas will help you forget the last real shower you took was 10 days ago.
Finally, get ready for your friends to marvel with jealousy (aka: make fun of you unrelentingly) at your gloves. The reverse-finger tan is a great conversation starter, so you can brag loudly about your day out on the raging whitewater and how rad it was and how awesome you handled your line. Don’t fret: you can still grip, just better and less painfully, without worrying about rope burn, sunburn, or blisters. In summer, I wear the Axiom Glove every day, and I have the coolest reverse-finger tan on the water. My hands are especially sensitive to cold, so even on moderate spring days, I wear HydroSkin Gloves.
Even if guiding isn’t your career, your hands are one of your main tools on the water. Taking small steps to make sure they stay nimble will go a long way to extend the longevity and enjoyment of your boating. In the off-season, I use a paraffin wax bath and check in with a physical therapist. If I don’t have healthy hands, I won’t be able to spend 100+ days on the water each year, sharing some of my favorite places with fellow river lovers.