In late 2000’s, my good friend Subhayu was visiting me in Seattle. In India we would often hike together through remote hills in Western Ghats. So it seemed appropriate that I sign up myself, Subhayu and another friend, Ben, for a day of adventure. Whitewater rafting seemed appealing at that moment. My friends had no prior experience with whitewater rafting. My adventurous self had only once been through the Skykomish river Class IV and Class V rapids, wherein my group avoided some of the dreaded Class V rapids and walked our rafts along the shore. This time however, I wanted the real deal and signed with a professional guide who would coach and guide us through Class IV and Class V rapids on the White Salmon River. To my excitement White Salmon River rafters have an option to paddle through air while falling fourteen feet over Husum Falls.
Subhayu, Ben and I reached rendezvous point on time. Parked our car, checked into wet suites, and signed release forms. We drove in a shuttle to the launch site where we were provided very important safety talk by our guides. Which, and I blame it on too many airplane flights, I did not pay much attention to. The agency that I had signed us up with had many professional guides and many other people like us, so we were divided into groups of six with one guide per raft. My group had my friends and three other guys who I had never met before.
First hour on our trip was as gentle as whitewater rafting can be. During this period, our guide patiently explained how we should position ourselves on the raft and how to paddle through water. She explained some voice commands and we practiced steering our raft as per her guidance. Initially we struggled a lot with our raft practically going nowhere, however as we practiced and practiced our group got a hang of it.
The next hour and half was far more challenging, full of excitement with twists and turns often spinning our raft 360 degrees. We soon realized that unlike typical boats, rafts in choppy whitewater do not have a fixed bow and stern. It changes all the time where in once you are in the front and the next moment you are at the steer end of the situation. Over the crash of the waves, screams, big boulders and near misses we stayed tuned to voice commands from our guide. She did a great job of keeping her head above the fear and thrill of the moment to harness our energy towards an exciting ride, so far. During brief moments of lull she would tell us stories of other trips that she had taken through these waters. These ranged from pleasant stories of wildlife sightings and terrifying rescues of overturned rafts. We had our first scare while navigating around a big boulder. Subhayu lost balance and was hanging upside down with only one of his feet in the raft and the rest of him getting tossed around in water. Through combined effort from a couple of group members we were able to pull him back up into the boat – disaster averted! We played with a few minor scares wherein later Subhayu grabbed me just in time to save me the experience of chilled water head first.
In retrospect, these scares prepared us well for what Husum Falls had in store. Husum Falls, with its fourteen feet drop is the cherry on top this cake. This is why I had dragged my friends along. Prior to negotiating the falls, we rested our raft on the shore, walked a bit to visually inspect the falls and pep talk each other to sign up for the adventure. Having secured our agreement our guide coached us for the specifics of rafting over this insane drop. We were to paddle until we catch the current, then we steer to get the right angle of approach for the falls and when she yells, we all crouch down with our paddles rested to cling as close to the floor of the raft as possible. This last bit about crouching was very important because as the raft hits the bottom of the falls it behaves as compressed spring. First bending and then springing open to regain its shape, and this rubber band effect is strong enough to flip people overboard.
And she said, “you don’t want that” – in a tone reflecting her motherly meanness.
So we earnestly practiced a couple of dry runs to get the crouching part right. She observed and corrected us. We were now ready and just in time, since the current was now pulling us rapidly.
To see what its like to raft through Husum Falls (See Video Link)
Our guide, she steered our raft, just as she said she would. She positioned us for the angle of approach, just as she said she would. We couched to the bottom of the raft, just as we said we would. We hit the bottom of the drop, just as she said we would and then our guide, our coach fell overboard.
Joyous rapture of our accomplishment was soon terror stricken by the realization that our commander was rapidly drifting away from our raft. I remember the deer in the headlights look on the faces of the guys in the boat, I remember people from the shore yelling something at us.I also remember one of guys on the boat throw the “Hail Mary” towards our coach.
This was a joke that our coach had shared with us a few hours ago when we were in calmer waters. She was talking about a throw bag that is shaped like a football that you throw towards a person who is overboard hoping that they can catch on to the rope and have a chance to get back into the raft. Fortunately the throw was good or the gods took mercy, our guide was able to fight the undercurrent of the falls and get to the bag. Crisis one averted.
Crisis two and this had all of us gripped in fear. We were without our guide in the boat and were drifting rapidly downstream with no experience to navigate the rest of the course. Something happened at that moment of crisis. Without a word being exchanged we all realized the gravity of our predicament, we picked a direction, we all paddled in unison and like a single self-organized unit put into practice everything that we had learned over the last couple of hours to get to one of the shores. Having secured a stationary position on mother earth, we reeled in our coach from choppy waters into our raft.
Much of what happened next is a blur. The experience shadowed rest of my journey down the river. I remember feelings of bitterness and abandonment, for if our guide was really good, really professional, she would not have flipped overboard in the first place and I would not have had to fight for life and limb at the bottom of Husum falls. Our guide on the other hand was very complimentary, saying that she was very proud of us and that we pulled it all together just like a great team would.
On our return car trip back to Seattle, my friends and I talked about our guide. Initially we questioned her effectiveness and ability. But as long road trips go, there are sober moments of reflection where the truth dawns upon you. We realized that we probably had the best coach we could have ever asked for, she trained us on the basics of navigation, she trained us on working together, and she trained us on dealing with crisis. She prepared us enough that when it mattered most, we delivered. This realization that coaches are humans too and do err, told us that her moment of coaching greatness was realized when she was not in the raft guiding us.
My rafting experience can probably be related to coaching software teams; I however will not attempt to draw lengthy parallels. Having coached many software development teams, I tend to value my contribution by what a team does when I’m not with them over what the team does when I’m with them.