Whitewater Wednesday or Thursday: Leadership learned on the river.

“I’m not mad, I’m disappointed…”

One of the owners.

What the hell ya doin’?

The other owner

Those whom were there, know…. she WAS also mad…. and she should have been… Sorry Liz.

For the past few weeks my wife and I have been undertaking the task of renovating two properties. One is a mid terrace house built around 1925 we bought this summer, it’s a fixer upper. The other is a tenement flat (120 year old apartment for you Americans) owned by my in-laws that we are currently living in while we do the work at the house. If you want to follow along, pop over to IG @vicandthehick_restorations.

In this process I have so far experienced some exceptionally bad customer service. Roofers not showing, to waiting 45 minuts to by a washing machine. The problem, as best as I can see, is just bad leadership. I will rant about that in another blog but it has me asking. What is customer service? and in the context of a river guide, what was the line between what the guest wanted and what was best for the guest.

Oh, I learned this one the foolish way.

Context: Dead River, Rule #1 always look good for the camera.

The Dead River, is an amazing river in northern Maine that has only a few significant releases every year. Those releases tend to be early in the spring season, and later in the Autumn. It was not unusual for the spring release to be sliding your rafts over a bit of snow on your way down to the river. A drysuit river for sure!

There is nothing like a big Dead River release to bring out all the weekend warrior guides, and what a weekend it was. It was Autumn so the tea coloured water is still warm from resting in Flagstaff lake over the summer in anticipation of its race to confluence with the Kennebeck in Forks, Maine. The weather is dry and cool, not cold enough for tuff as nails guides to need a drysuit, and never would a self-respecting guide wear a wetsuit. But maybe little poly-pro was in order.

Poly-pro is a name for a man made fabric that is made of plastic. Generally it’s made from recycled plastic bottles but given very technical names then sold to you for outrageous prices. The main advantage to these fabrics is they keep you warm even when wet unlike cotton, while also not soaking up tons of water like wool. The major drawback is the price, and after a couple trips down a river and stored in the bottom of a gear bag they begin to smell like they were worn by a homeless gorilla on a steady diet of garlic and cheese. Even after a wash, it only takes a splash of water to re-release the pungent oder of a bloated dead whale at low tide.

With the need to stay warm and adhere to Rule #1, there are other options. There is another magical fabric that is made of plastic that stays warm when wet…Polyester and you know what is made of Polyester? 1970’s leisure suits. I had a beauty!

The colour could only be described as “calf scour tan,” the collar as wide as the east is from the west, and the matching striped tie resembled the deck of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Complemented by gold framed Elvis shades that sparkled like the sweat-covered king himself. Rule #1- check!

There was little like the buzz in the air on the morning of a Dead River release. However, it could easily be mistaken for the buzz left over from the “put-in” the night before.

That’s a story for a different day…

After crews were divide out, and the marathon safety lecture was given by a long-winded blow hard dressed like a New Jersey pimp. We load up the buses and head to the river.

The crew I landed for the day was a group of men on stag-do weekend. Sowing some adventure oats before the groom to be entered marital bliss. They had lofty expectations for the trip ahead. Having skydived the day before they saved rafting for the crescendo of their trip….they wanted it turned up to 11.

Now I think whitewater rafting is as exciting as the next guy. I have had some pretty harrowing moments, but if you are simply after that feeling of adrenaline surging through your body, I am not sure rafting and jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and falling to earth at terminal velocity is an apple to apple comparison.

but challenge excepted.

The Dead River is a bit unique. It is a tough river to guide, not because it’s hard to navigate or that it is particularly dangerous. Even thought it’s graded as class IV. It’s as wide as a football field and the challenge is not missing things that are dangerous but finding and hitting all the good waves and holes. Don’t get me wrong, there are some of the most sketchy hydraulics I have ever seen on that river, and in recent years a few folk have died on the river, but a nasty deadly hole has miles of space to go around it.

To hit something dangerous on that river you either have to be stupid or intentional. Or both….

We had a huge trip, lots of boats. It was always good to be towards the back to watch the boats in front hit or miss the good juicy waves, so you could make adjustments in order to get the big hits, and you guessed it, Rule #1.

I was having an epic day, huge hits, swampers, and standers. Yet it was met with “more” and “is that it?”, “Is there anything bigger?” My best effort and one of the best rivers in the country didn’t seem to be enough for these duffers.

Where IS the line of giving the customer what the customer wants vs what you know to be best for the customer. I guess it was time to test the answer.

The Dead River saves the biggest for last. I was third boat from the back and as we sat in the eddy before the final rapid, I leaned out of my boat and let the two boats trailing me know what I planned to do. Unless my memory fails me, Jeff, out of the corner of his mouth simply said a loaded “dude.” Brenden acknowledged by giving his trademark high pitched giggle while flapping his hands and clapping like a penguin.

The final rapid on the Dead river is Poplar Falls. It is billed as the longest continuous rapid in the state of Maine. The set up is to river left and the object is to run right down the meat of this beautiful wave train that seems to go on forever. Just to the left of this wave train in the top third of the rapid is a huge drop into a hole big enough to swallow a bus, that churns and boils with pure hate. Known by many names, some simply call it “Poplar Hole,” while other companies refer to it as “Unemployment hole.”

My misguided adrenaline junkies had disrespected the river for the last time. As I leaned out of the boat I loosened up my striped tie and slid my fogged up shades down my nose, and told the guys behind me “I’m dropping Poplar sideways”

As the boats pulled out of the eddy for the final ride of the day, I leaned forward and told the guys if you find yourself out of the boat, you’re gonna want to keep your feet up. Then I commanded “all ahead.” As boats lined up and we began to see boats standing on end in front of us… we simply drifted just to the left of the action. Then, with a couple draws of the paddle, I parked the boat sideways and yelled, “You’re gonna want to hold on here!”

What happened next can only be described as symphony of pain and destruction. Most of the boat fell out upon first impact, sucked into a white frothy vortex of misery. The stragglers and myself road the trashing hole of violence until the boat flipped casting us into the belly of this angry beast. It’s unclear what came next. The only two things I remember, I was the first back on top of the up turned raft. And I am pretty sure I heard one of the guys say “please help, I want my mommy.” As the water calmed and a mist hovered over the warm river in the cool of the afternoon. I pulled the last guy out of the water and surveyed what looked like a civil war battlefield. Helmets had been ripped off, wetsuits torn open, knuckles bloodied, paddles to never be seen again. As I knelt there amidst the snot and tears and heavy breathing, a smugness overcame me….

Are you not entertained, Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here!?

Gladiator Maximus Meridius,

One of the guys, as he coughed and sputtered, said. “I have done a lot of crazy “stuff” in my time, but that was easily the craziest, scariest thing I have ever experienced.”

So what did I learn?

Fear of drowning is worse than the fear of hitting the ground at a height.

Polyester leisure suits will keep you warm in cool water although might not be the best choice for swimming class IV whitewater.

The bigger the hits, the bigger the tips, baby.

But, as a leader you are responsible for others, it might be their safety, or livelihood, job productivity, or overall customer experience in your field of expertise. Leadership is not about you! Leaders must be focused on the others.

I got luck, nobody got badly hurt, and I got to keep my job. It could have and has in recent years ended very badly.


If you want to have epic stories….

Que outro music