Have you ever paddled a canoe? Ever tipped one over? In a river? The first summer Kate and I were married, I was the adventure trip director at the YMCA camp where we met. I led three trips that summer, one to Colorado for backpacking and whitewater rafting, another to Minnesota, and one river canoe trip on the Current River in Missouri.
That canoe trip began as one of the most frustrating trips I have ever led but it ended well. There is a sad fact for any business that leads experience-based programming. You can send as little or as much information as you believe necessary to help participants prepare, but the vast majority of it goes unread. The irony is that parents want their kids to have an experience so they can come back home more responsible while they are demonstrating their own irresponsibility. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of very responsible parents and children out there. Unfortunately, this irresponsibility tends to punish the prepared because they have to suffer through the ignorance of the unprepared. Each trip has its own dynamic based on the chemistry of the participants, I think on this one, everyone expected to hop out of a minivan and into a canoe while someone else loaded their gear and cooked their supper. The kids were terrible listeners. I quit counting how many times I had to repeat simple instructions. Packing the vans and was a nightmare. I finally sent everyone to bed around midnight and finished loading the gear and food myself.
After making the 10-hour-drive to the river, things did not get much better. Thankfully the canoe rental company had aluminum canoes waiting at the launching spot. With persistence, and precious little help from the campers, we got the canoes loaded with all of the gear tied down. We must have been no more than 30 minutes into floating when the first canoe tipped over and it was a doozie.
I have had canoes tip over in much more precarious locations, even some get tangled up in low-hanging branches with snakes dropping in the water right next to the canoe. Some have gotten swept under to root wads. Once we even temporarily lost a boat that sank and got pinned under a submerged tree. That was when the river was way up. About a week later, when the river went down, we found the canoe wedged under the tree.
This one was simple. It was just beyond a low-water crossing. The water wasn’t more than four feet deep. The banks were clear and the only tree nearby, probably a 75-year-old sycamore, had fallen across the river sometime before. Someone had topped it off about 10 feet from the roots leaving only the trunk jutting out and ample room on the right to paddle around the tree. However, despite plenty of warning and instruction from a fellow staff member, the pair in the canoe managed to ram their boat directly into the trunk. I paddled from behind just in time to see the canoe turn sideways so that it was parallel to the current being pushed against the tree. The two had the normal reaction (not the correct one). They leaned their bodies upstream away from the tree. It took about a half second for the gunnel to catch the oncoming water. The boat flipped over and swept passengers and gear underwater and swiftly under the tree. The gear was tethered to the boat. The passengers, thankfully, were not.
The pair bobbed up just on the other side of the tree and were able to stand up and fight the current until they got to shore. The canoe was now on its side with the bottom of the canoe pinned to the massive trunk, held in place by the flowing water. All boats stopped. I pulled over upstream from the tree and went to work unleashing the battered gear from the boat and release it from its underwater torture chamber. Now all that remained was to get the canoe off the tree, dumped the water from it and move on.
I had gotten plenty of boats upright before and was confident I would do the same with this boat quickly. Not so fast. The water was clear. Even though only a small section of one side was above water, I could see the entire boat. It wasn’t caught on anything but was being held in place by the relentless flow of water against the hull. I got in upstream of the boat and grabbed ahold to pull it free. Not only did the canoe not budge a millimeter, the current was pulling my feet under the tree with every tug. No problem. I will brace myself better and try again. Nothing. It was absurd. Other than the force from the current the canoe was totally free. I will never forget the sensation of being out there with my back to the current and the water rushing around me, pulling on the thwarts and getting zero movement. I remember thinking in that instant,
“I wish somebody would turn off the water.”
I might have even thought.
“Can’t You see what’s happening here? I need some help. This thing isn’t going anywhere.”
As you probably guessed, the water didn’t let up. But it would have been a cool story if it did!
With everyone now gathering around to watch this idiot try to pull the boat off the tree, I stopped to try a new way. I rallied the whole group. We all tried to pull together but it took two seconds for half the group to get swept downstream. Eventually, I had the idea to have as many as could fit stand on the tree. We held each other for balance, and all together, we stepped down on the stern of the canoe. It worked! Little by little the bow began to emerge from the water. Finally, the canoe got enough surface area peeled off the tree trunk for the still submerged part to get swept under the trunk and downstream the boat went.
Best part. That moment turned the entire trip around. We had all bonded over our shared victory. All the nervous energy was gone. I didn’t need to repeat a single instruction from that point on and we had a blast.
So many times since, I have had that same sensation, feeling like I am fighting the current of life instead of flowing with it. It happens most often when I have more to do than I can possibly get done. No one is turning the water off. That moment with the canoe taught me plenty about collective victory, but it also reminds me that when I feel overwhelmed and I am pushed beyond my limits, a shift is coming.
For the aware person, there is always growth outside the limits but for the unprepared mind, only more frustration.
Let’s keep pushing and expect a breakthrough.
“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”