The important life lesson I learned from a day on the water.
There is nothing I like more than a good adventure. That’s why my family and I went for an 8.5 mile paddle down the Milwaukee River last weekend. The weather was perfect. The water level was ideal. So we loaded up our 3 kayaks and our 17-foot canoe and set out for an afternoon of paddling, floating and fishing.
3 miles into our trip we spotted an inviting island in the stream. We paddled towards it, half expecting to see Dolly Pardon and Kenny Rogers. We pulled our boats onto the island and had a fun break in our trip. My kids swam. I fished. My wife Dawn relaxed and took pictures.
When I got out of my canoe I noticed something alarming 200 yards down the river. From bank to bank, in a straight line across the river, I could see the water was frothing, foaming and white. It looked dangerous, like a low overhead dam. That kind of water obstruction is never something to mess with.
As I mapped our trip I hadn’t noticed any damn dams that we would have to portage around. But that’s exactly what this looked like. I anxiously pulled out my phone to see if I had missed something. But I didn’t find any insights to the boiling water just below me.
I didn’t notice any good place to portage around the water obstacle either. This wasn’t good. Especially since we had over 5 miles to paddle to get to the takeout point where our other car was parked.
I called my family together to discuss the challenge in front of us. I told them that I was going to paddle down and scout the boiling water. I wanted them to paddle to a spot on the right side of the river where they would be close enough for my followup instruction, but out of the current.
Preparing For The Worst
I gathered all the valuables (phones, wallets, sunglasses and beef jerky) and sealed them in the waterproof pack in my canoe. I filled the pack with plenty of air so that it would float downstream if the boat flipped. Then I reminded my children that if they got flipped out of the boat that they should float feet-first down the river to avoid hitting their head on a rock. I thought my advice would make me look good when Family Services came to visit me afterwards.
With my family as prepared as they could be, we pushed off Albrecht Island. The Celine Dion song from Titanic was playing in my head as I slowly paddled down river for a closer look at the whitewater. To add to the pressure of the moment, my 9-year old son Magnus was my co-pilot, sitting in the bow of the canoe. If things went bad, he was my first priority.
Upon Closer Inspection
As we approached the whitewater I could see that it was as lively and frothy as it appeared upstream. But as I scanned the water from bank to bank there were no signs of a dam, boulders or a tree in the water. There wasn’t any banjo music either, which was a huge relief. What I saw was textbook whitewater rapids. The kind of rapids that add an exciting roller coaster moment to any paddle.
Let’s Do This!
I smiled broadly knowing we were going to run the rapids, rather than portage around them. I shouted instructions to Magnus that we were going to point the boat straight downstream, then paddle hard, directly into the foaming, rolling rapids. I signaled enthusiastically to Dawn, Ava (13) and Johann (12) to follow us.
Then Magnus and I dug our paddles into the water, and sped into the roiling water. All around us the water was loud, heaving and foaming. The speed was exhilarating. And the rocking of the boat was thrilling. A moment later we had passed through the whitewater and found ourselves floating on the rapidly flowing flat-water below.
I was giddy, My heart was pounding. And I shouted to Magnus, ‘What did you think of that?’
He immediately shouted back ‘That was awesome!’
We quickly wheeled the canoe around and paddled back upstream to wait for the others to shoot the rapids. We positioned our boat so that if anyone tipped we could quickly paddle to them. We were prepared to grab their kayak, paddle, flip flops, or any other items lost in the adventure.
One by one Ava, Johann and Dawn approached the rapids and shot through them, fully intact, fully upright and with full sets of pearly white teeth flashing in wide smiles.
Reunited And It Feels So Good
A minute later we were all reunited downstream. Everyone was smiling, laughing, high- fiving, and talking about how much fun that was. The kids said the rapids were the best part of the trip so far. Dawn and I agreed.
We pointed our boats downstream and paddled for 2 more hours, covering 5 more miles. The river was beautiful and we had a great time. But the highlight of the trip was the rapids.
There was a great lesson in this experience. The part of the trip that I was most worried about turned out to be the most fun of all. It was when I felt most alive and most engaged. Life often works that way.
It was a reminder to take on difficult challenges. We must continue to try new things, and hard things and scary things. By pushing ourselves we grow and learn and enjoy life to the fullest. We gain experience, confidence and perspective. And we add interesting chapters to our personal story.
When I launched my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, it was a lot like approaching whitewater in a canoe. The adventure was full of threats and opportunities. But the scariest parts have turned out to be the most exciting and rewarding. The rapids provide the best stories. And the best opportunities to learn and grow. I’ve come out stronger than I went in. I’ve also learned the rapids are more fun when you have others with you. Because life and business are team sports.
Don’t avoid the scary stuff. Scout it out. Prepare for it. Then paddle towards it, fast and straight. You’ll navigate your way through it, and find that it wasn’t nearly as scary as you thought it would be. In fact, the scary parts are often the best parts. You just don’t know that until you reach the other side.
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We paddled from Saukville, Wisconsin to Grafton’s Veterans Park. We all thought the name of the park where we put in was pretty funny. But the Tendick family probably didn’t think so…