Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned from the river. (PG 13)

“Grab the shoulders and pull.”


Most whitewater guides don’t take themselves very seriously, and certainly don’t take life too seriously. However, a good guide strikes a balance between, life of the party and taking the job dead seriously. Few people in my life lived at those two extremes better than my dear friend Brendan. I learned many things from my friend, …most of which I will never share on this blog… but what I can share, is if I needed help hanging a door there is the right way, wrong way, and the Brendan way, which is the wrong way only slower, but the cooler is full. But when it comes to being on the river, whether it’s a sun soaked day on a lazy float, or an IBS-inducing trip down a class V with folk that have no business being there, (and I’m talking about the other guides) Brendan you are at the top of the list.

Somehow he showed how a calm, collected, seeley-eyed determination that prioritised safety for self and crew could coexist with a hyperactive giddiness for the imminent chaos and doom that awaits unsuspecting patrons and slack jawed yokels.

Amidst the shear mayhem and disorganisation that can often befall a given trip, there’s a line… it takes years of experience to see it, its faint presence is there at all times, on all rivers. On one side of that line, fun, peace, excitement, thrills, stories, and adrenaline all mingle in the tall tales told around campfires and on porches across the world. On the other side of that line lurk stories of a different kind. Buzz killers, stories that haunt dreams, perpetuate sleepless nights and cause guides to queues at port-a-johns at put-in. That line exists on any river, at any level, with any crew. And you are only one bad decision away from crossing it at any given time. I think Brendan could see the line clearer than most and was adept at communicating the levity of a situation and the dangerous proximity to the line with a simple verbal phrase, “Grab the shoulders and pull.” Inevitably the problem is usually with the proximity of one’s head to a place in which the sun seldom shines.

There are times when verbal communication is unrealistic or uncouth. Maybe it’s the roar of the river drowning out all other sounds or simply the boat full of adolescent giggling Girl Scouts that are inhibiting the ability to communicate in an appropriate way.

In these situations an international sign was developed.

To be repeated until situation changes

With hands held high above the head, forcefully extract the fist of one hand from the firm grasp of the other. Repeat as necessary.

This sign is universal and can be utilised in most situations and professions. This form of communication has served me well through the years. Sadly, I will admit I use this and other forms of clear hand communication much less in my profession as a church pastor, but oh how much need there is… so much need!

To my longtime mucker, thank you for all the wisdom and memories, and for being the guy to grab my shoulders and pull, all those times. You certainly are ‘not worthless’ my friend.