Monday, July 20, 2015

Herding Bunnies

While I try to keep what I share here positive, and I never want to share things about clients that they wouldn’t want shared, I also want to present a balanced and honest perspective. I don’t think most readers think all guiding or teaching kayaking is fun or easy, but I tend to write more about those better days. This is about a less-better day.

I’ve heard people refer to kayak guiding as “herding cats.” The thing about cats though, is that they are difficult to manage because they are independent and curious with a strong will of their own. I met a guide a few years ago who told me that you need to recognize who the “bunnies” are. She meant the passive clients who are along for the ride, and seem to forget that they need to paddle their boat to go forward, and that they need to make it turn, or perhaps stop before their momentum propels them up onto a ledge. They will just sit there in their boat, like a bunny about to be devoured by a predator, and watch it unfold, rather than do anything about it. I thought she was being a little cynical, but she was right. If your clients are in tandems, you don’t want a really passive person steering, nor do you want to put two passive paddlers into the same tandem (who’s going to make this thing go?).

Here’s how I spent two hours of my life.

Six clients, most of them children would occupy three tandems while a crowd of  adults, bristling with cameras watched them paddle away. With some of them, there was a language barrier, and this may account for our lack of understanding that the adults intended to send the kids off on their own (not gonna happen). Suddenly I was on guide duty. The weather was cloudy and breezy, a bit cool, with occasional rain spitting down. The forecast called for mid-teen winds with gusts, which hadn’t materialized - yet.

Rebecca got the crowd outfitted while I changed into my gear. As we went through the footpeg-adjusting process, it became clear that this was a challenging group- in their ability to pay attention and focus and perhaps even to understand English. And probably, there were some attitudes as well- after all, they came here to rent their own boats. The crowd of parents didn’t help with their distractions. Usually, I’m just relieved to get on the water. My job becomes more focused; get everyone headed in the same direction.

This was tough. One boat, a yellow one steered by a four and a half-foot-tall blond kid, did just fine. The others started going in circles and paddling into the shore rocks. I repeatedly demonstrated paddling backwards and returning rudder controls to neutral to straighten the boat. In this fashion, we proceeded along the shore, toward Buckmaster Neck. Before we got to the point though, as the wind and waves increased, and I towed a boat off of the rocks, I turned us around and we went in to Webb Cove. As we passed the ramp, I got Rebecca to come down and switch the paddlers in one boat, since one stern paddler just didn’t seem to get it, and kept slouching way down, slapping the water surface with his paddle instead of actually paddling.

We proceeded into Webb Cove. They’d wanted a two-hour trip and I still had an hour and a half to burn. I figured it would get better in calm water- maybe we’d see some wildlife. The wind was really picking-up by now.

But I could hardly get them to paddle. They were on a carnival ride, especially the boys in the red boat, and it sounded like it from the way they shouted at each other. In the calm water, I suggested to the two boys who were doing well that they switch with the others, so we might actually get somewhere. They looked at each other and said no, they didn’t want to be in a boat with the others. We proceeded very slowly into the cove- I’d take a few strokes and wait, watching the red tandem teeter precariously back and forth as the two teens exaggerated their stroke... and yet propulsion still seemed to elude them. The other boat would see us stop, and would follow suit- fifty yards behind us. When we were all together again, I pointed-out an eagle, but no one seemed to care since it was a juvenile and didn’t have a white head.

They all wanted to stop on an island, so we did. It was wooded though, with no obvious trails, and at high tide the shore was a bit sea-weedy. Yuck. I demonstrated that we could walk out to a ledge and have a look around, but they seemed content to stand beside their boats, as though uncertain hazards lay waiting on this island. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that the former inhabitants were buried there.

By now the parents were in the office, seeing how the conditions had changed, asking if they should be worried. It took a lot to get us all pointed up the cove (into the wind) and I ended up towing the red boat and waiting for the other one, while reigning-in the boat that was doing well. I had to keep yelling “put your paddle in the water!” By now, a small crowd had assembled on shore, watching our glacial progress and documenting it with cameras with big zoom lenses. I wanted the boys in the red boat to save face and paddle-in on their own steam, so I gave them a quick pep talk on getting their paddles into the water and steering and released them from my tow. But they didn’t paddle and didn’t steer and I had to chase them down and re-connect before they were washed into shore.

We all landed, everyone survived. I overheard a mother in the office as she was told the new price that included the guide and she wasn’t pleased by the amount. Her son told her that the guide told him that he’d done really well. One boy said thanks and shook my hand. Other than that, they all went away without a word of thanks or an appreciative gesture. Imagine if they’d sent these kids out without a guide. I can’t imagine what they were thinking. But I was thinking that if guiding were like this very often, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s part of the reason that we like to teach people and do longer and more challenging trips... since it tends to weed-out the bunnies. I changed my clothes and went back to work in the office.


John Foster said...

Having taught now for about 20 years, I feel your pain. Although we have had several great kids come through our courses, I do not have the personality to teach kids, and always try to avoid working with just kids. Always an adventure.

Anonymous said...

Some of us with real jobs have a trifle more stress and pain than dealing with whining kids on a kayak.
Geez, be happy you are on water all day, paddling for a living instead of actually working . LOL @ U

Susan Coleman Cohen said...

LOL at Anonymous comment..."real job" ...I guided back in the early 80s when I was young and patient enough to put up with some of the people you described. It didn't happen often, but enough to make being a nurse in the ER seem calm AND easy. Guiding undisciplined children was not just trying, it was dangerous, stressful beyond my expectations.

Paddle2See said...

I guided for a short period in the Castine area - I had some days like the one you describe. It was enough to make me realize that guiding was really not for me. I love paddling - but I just don't have the patience - or the entertaining personality - required to be a good guide. As for the "real job" comment above - that person maybe doesn't realize the incredible responsibility the guide has. Not only do they need to entertain and teach people of all abilities and interests - they have people's lives in their care. A mistake can mean that people die. It's a pretty tough job.

BaffinPaddler said...

This does not surprise me at all and this is why I avoid going on public guided tours with people I don't know when on vacation. Once in California on the ocean during a guided tour to sea caves, a fit woman in her 30's got blown back to the beach as soon as we headed out into the ocean from a protected bay. She was a painter dipping her paddle like a paint brush! That dumb bunny was followed back to shore by one of the guides. Meanwhile the rest of us paddled in the wind - and a 70 year man was able to keep up. Some people have good paddle personalities and some just don't! I guess this is why many guides stop guiding beginners and tourists and go into teaching. Beginners should be required to take and pass a basic short course first :) Gee, that'll make me popular! :)

Charlotte Davis said...

You are such a great guide and teacher. I remember you doing the rafting, trying to keep us more or less together and seeing the birds on the ledges. I also remember how quickly conditions change. Hope to get back out there next year. In Touch