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

Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned from the river.

Today is an early start, and it reminds me of the many early starts during my time in the Forks.

But not one of the good ones. Today reminds me of the days when you knew you weren’t going to the river.

For me the good days started with the low rumble of a tired Suburban and the sound of its tires rolling over the gravel up to the door of my pop-up camper. That was usually enough, but if I delayed, a honk from the horn soon followed. Jon always seemed to be up before anyone else and ready to go.

The good days started with a trip to Berry’s General Store. Large coffee, and egg salad sandwich with the biggest “blue” flavour Poweraid on the shelf. That sport drink didn’t last till the register. Pay for an empty bottle and recycle on the way out.

The good days started with a slow drive to Moxie Pond just to turn around and drive back. Jon believed in commuting to work, even if you literally live where you work. So we drove, sippin’ coffee, laughin’, sometimes we just sat in silence enjoying the cool fresh air though the windows.

The good days meant heading to the river. It never mattered which one, or who you were with. On a good day the river was the destination and those days I cherished and miss.

But there were other days.

We often joked that we were a professional painting company, that happened to raft a bit on the weekends.

The other days started out similarly. There was always a trip to Berry’s but instead of river gear or that old pair of favourite Carhartts, you put on whatever you didn’t mind being covered in forest green paint, or spar varnish, and added to the list of coffee and egg salad a jug of paint thinner. I hate paint thinner.

In eight years as a professional whitewater raft guide I learned that you spend a lot of time doing things you really don’t like doing, in order to live for the good days. I miss the good days, and I will always miss my friend Jon, but I don’t miss the painting at all.

Now that I’m older the “bad days” of life can be much worse than a day of painting. A good hot coffee, friends, laughs, and some good tunes remind me that when you are with those you love you can survive the bad days and it makes the good ones that much sweeter.

I still really hate painting….

Hot tips for productivity: Spelling

I am on a journey, battling my tendencies of procrastination and abhorrence to administration. The fastest way to improve leadership is to work on self leadership. Understanding weaknesses and blind spots is the first step. Second, is leveraging strategies and resources to bolster the weaker links.

Personal insight: I am the most very worst at spelling and grammering.

Spell checkers are a gift from heaven. However, half the time my spelling is so bad I get “no recommendation” in response to clicking on the little red line under the word in question. After 13 years my wife is well tired of me asking all the time.

So here is a quick tip that I recently discovered. If you have no idea how to spell the word _____________, then on a Mac press “fn” button twice and just say it, boom there it is. MS Word now also has a dictation function as well.

“dyslexia” “Serendipity”  or “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”   (actual results)

Not as convenient, but you can also ask ‘Siri’, or ‘Hey Google’

Your welcome.

To My Bride

Like puttin’ on the hits, 

Or stayin’ at the Ritz,

They givin’ me the fits,

Cause I love ’em to bits.

Not to have ’em would be the pits,

Baby, I love your… eyes.   Happy Anniversary

swallow a frog

“If you know you have to swallow a frog, swallow it first thing in the morning. If there are two frogs, swallow the big one first.” – Mark Twain

Prioritise the first, biggest or most important tasks in your day first.  Then, no matter what, you end the day feeling productive. 

In life, leadership, marriage, or ministry, we all have the things we are not as passionate about or we just downright don’t want to do. My natural inclination is to put it off.  However, some things have to get done.  Two things I hate, taking out the trash, and conflict, But my wife says it’s my job to take out the trash, and God says conflict is an opportunity to live out the gospel.  Putting these off leads to stress and anxiety and early death.   Swallow the big frogs first, save the passion till after lunch.

Take the First Step…

“The first step to becoming is to will it”
― Mother Teresa

Sometimes the path to overcoming fear, or a self-limiting belief is to just will the first step to happen. Waiting for the inspiration, passion, or “the want to” may never get it done. I have a fear of writing and a limiting belief that I am not a writer.  Even though I have written hundreds of pages of sermons I live in fear.  So in faith, this is my first step…  What is yours?

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