A paddler's approach to teamwork

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
  • I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

Just before 9/11, my father asked me along on a grand canoe trip to the Boundary Waters with his Hudson-valley paddling friends. We’d drive from Schenectady in upstate New York to Ely in upstate Minnesota to spend a week exploring that maze of placid waterways in the vast wilderness area between the United States and Canada.

My dad had his one-person canoe, but his friend, Joe Nicolella, needed a tandem canoe partner.

I met Joe on that trip for the first time. I was 33, and he was in his 70s. We were both military veterans. From the start, Joe and I agreed that he would sit in the bow, which gave me the stern.

I thought that the trip could go either way - a serene and peaceful exploration on glassy waterways, quietly gliding up on flora and fauna; or a clunking, wobbly ride, spent struggling to steer, lug gear, and keep pace with the others.

If you have not paddled a two-person canoe before, you should know that choosing a tandem partner is not something taken lightly; especially for a trip that includes navigating a vast network of waterways. Just a few minutes of tandem paddling becomes frustrating if each person does not pull their weight to make the canoe move as one.

Canoes require skill and teamwork. The bow paddler can’t see what's behind, and the stern paddler can’t see what’s ahead. They must communicate with each other precisely to navigate turns, rocks, and rapids. The bow paddler sets the pace and rhythm. If the person at the stern does not paddle that same stroke on the opposite side, the canoe goes off course. If the bow paddler strokes too fast, the stern paddler has little time to steer, and the canoe goes off course again.

If you never watched professional marathon canoe racers, those like the great Canadian, Serge Corbin, it's inspiring to see their level of fitness and synchronization in competitions reaching 120 miles. I could go on, but you get the point; without a team effort, you are wasting energy, you're going nowhere, you're losing.

Fortunately, I chose to make the trip, as Joe turned out to be an excellent paddle buddy. He even told me, “Let’s go, Michael,” a few times; as we portaged our heavy backpacks and the canoe through the brush. We found a rhythm and a pace that allowed us to enjoy the scenery and relax while making good progress.

This approach to good paddling applies to most things done well with others. I use my skill and unique position to compliment teams and make progress toward a goal.

Not to get off subject, but Joe was the also the guy who shared with us that he heard of a plane flying into the World Trade Center. He had limited information from some campers who heard it on their radio. We did not fully believe that until we got out of the forest. Weeks later, I rejoined the military for 17+ years.

But even back then I never considered age as a measure of someone's capability. And Joe is an excellent example of why. I maintain my lifestyle of running, strength training, and outdoor activity in part, to stay as physically and spiritually fit as Joe when I hit 70. After all, I want to see new and wondrous things well into my retirement too, as well as show up those whippersnappers, just a bit.

I keep paddling through life with skill and with an open mind. Lean into the stroke and appreciate what’s around the bend.