Canyon Snapshots: Leading from Behind.

Posted by jlubans on November 26, 2013

(This is the second in a series of vignettes from 8 days on the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande in Texas. I was one of 11 expertly guided by Burt Kornegay. We paddled 6 canoes 90 miles.)
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Caption: The tandem canoe entering Class 1 rapids. Photo by Burt Kornegay.
The two-person canoe defines my notion of leadership: a leader and a follower working together in pursuit of a goal. Technically, the canoe’s leader is the person in the back, the stern paddler. The stern has the most influence on (and the most responsibility for) the direction the canoe travels.
The follower, oddly enough, is the person in the front, the bow. The stern paddler can guide the boat through a forward stroke with her paddle, trailing it alongside the canoe like a rudder, causing the canoe to swing to the left or the right. When done well, the leader in the back moves the canoe along a straight line. When done not so well? The canoe goes in a circle or jitters from bank to bank.
In rapids, the leader’s role is shared. The bow paddler looks for approaching hazards invisible to the rear paddler; in fact, the bow blocks the stern’s vision. When the bow glimpses a hidden rock, he has to take action: do a draw stroke to avoid colliding with the hazard and, simultaneously, yell what’s happening loud enough to be heard in the stern over the rapid’s roar so the stern paddler can steer the canoe past the hazard. The action taken by the bow is not meant to be frenzied or desperate; rather it is a couple methodical draw strokes. The stern paddler, seeing/hearing the bow’s action, uses her paddle to follow the direction given by the bow. Usually, this is done calmly and avoids smashing into the rock.
My canoe was trapped against a rock because I did not do the above steps; I assumed the stern was supposed to lead us through; that I was pretty much a working passenger. Wrong.
So, when the current rushed us toward a rock, the stern – with no help from me – could not avoid the smash. Once we hit, our canoe filled with water, but somehow – with me paddling strenuously - slipped away from the rock. I thought we had dodged the bullet, (whew!), but not for long. The current with its tons of water propelled sideways into another rock, bigger and badder, pitched me (or did I jump?) into the raging water and wrapped the canoe athwart the rock. Trapped, the stern paddler stayed with the canoe and all our gear. This entailed a subsequent rescue of paddler, canoe, and gear and all worked out, but not until a harrowing half hour had past.

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Caption: Capsized canoe at top of Class 3 rapids, paddlers submerged. Me with rescue rope -more on that later. Photo by Burt Kornegay.

If I‘d done a better job in avoiding the rocks, calling back to the stern paddler, we might have avoided our dangerous predicament. As it was, both of us learned from it.
Because I was by myself on this trip, I got to paddle with four different people in the stern. Of these only one was an expert – Burt – so three of the stern paddlers and I got to learn together on how, as a two-person team, to approach and get through rapids, how to avoid getting smashed into the canyon walls (“wall shots”), and how to stay clear of the overhanging cane (dubbed the “car wash” because of its scraping and scouring everything in the canoe, including the paddlers. You quickly learn to bow deeply into the canoe to avoid getting trapped and scoured by the cane).
I, for one, learned to communicate with the stern – over the water’s roar, and to talk us through several rapids. Usually, mine was the fourth or fifth boat through, so I’d watch others to see where they entered the rapid; we’d invariably enter higher up, but the point was to gain speed and to go in at an angle. This used the current to push us through and out, paddling all the while just enough to slip past canyon walls and the overhanging cane.
And, I asked for the stern to give me direction as much as he could whether in calm water or rapids: on which side to paddle - it makes a difference for steering from the back - which stroke to use: forward, draw? Each of us got better – communication was essential.
Of course, an expert paddling team communicates tacitly, each paddler knowing what stroke to use, and the stern responding to (and trusting in) whatever the bow does. An expertly done eddy turn, spinning and parking the canoe in a 180 turn, is a marvel.

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Caption: The incomparable Lower Canyons.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

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