Planning for the Rapids

Literature is full of passages comparing life to a river.  Rivers have force, direction, peaceful stretches, and challenging rapids.  The analogies are obvious and numerous.   As a whitewater canoeist, I spend many hours exploring rivers and streams throughout the hills of Tennessee. By far, the rapids are my favorite.

Arriving at a significant rapid, I will get out of the river and scout the rapid. Scouting is a process for developing a plan of attack.  The first step is to move to the end of the rapid.  It is important to first understand where I want to finish my travel. Still water, away from hazards, maybe a shallow spot to stand up in case my boat and I have been separated from one another, these are all considerations.

Once I know where I want to end up, I work my way back up the rapid and start choosing a path to the end.  Perhaps other hazards exist.  Are there trees in the water, undercut rocks, maybe a hydraulic feature that could ensnare me?  The process goes on identifying these challenges and planning a route around and through them.

Every significant rapid has a critical feature that has to be done correctly. This is called the crux of the rapid. Failing to handle the crux of the rapid correctly will often lead to failure and risk of harm.  The crux is usually a move that has to be made, an obstacle to avoid, or a line that has to be hit.

One of my favorite rapids drops about 40 feet over a 100 yard stretch. Named Triple Drop, I must negotiate a 6 foot drop onto a slab of rock tilted about 30 degrees downstream.  Then I slide down the tilted rock and break through a strong diagonal wave before dropping another 4 feet into a river-wide hydraulic.  The last drop is another 4 feet into a pool at the end.  The crux of the rapid is successfully dropping over the first 6’ falls. Everything that follows is predicated on correctly landing in my boat and moving on from there.

Having scouted the rapid, I now have a plan.  But, a plan is simply an outline of the work to be done.  It doesn’t execute itself.  If I simply float out into the current and passively move downstream, I will not be successful.  The river has power and it will move me where it is headed.  So, I have to work, sometimes fight to maintain the line that I have laid out.

A favorite feature of any river is an eddy.  A boulder in the river blocks the flow of water.  As water moves around the boulder, it has to fill in the space left empty behind the boulder.  The water does this by flowing back up stream behind the rock.

I can bring my boat into that eddy.  The current will actually hold me in place behind that boulder.  In the middle of the chaos of a rapid, I am able to rest.  I can look back up river and consider what has happened that has brought me to this location.  I can make mental notes for the next time I come this way if I would do something differently.  I can also look downstream from the eddy.  The rapids always look different when you are sitting in them than they do when scouting from above.  I can now consider what lies ahead from a different vantage point and adjust my plan for the new information gained.

Lastly, whitewater sports should never be undertaken alone.  I always travel with friends.  The more senior of the group often give guidance if they have run the section of river in the past.  We share our experiences for the safety and education of the group.  We also are able to set safety for one another. From vantage points on dry land, we stage rescue resources.  If one of us is in danger, perhaps swimming from his boat, we are able to throw a rescue rope and pull that person to safety.

So, is the planning process evident from this analogy?  This is an illustration of the plan-do-check-act   model of strategic planning.  Consider the final goal.  Uncover the obstacles to goal attainment.  Determine the key resource or challenge to be overcome.  Do the work!  The plan will not execute itself.  Involve people who have come this way in the past.  Plan on reaching an eddy to reassess progress and adjust course.  Preplan resources that will be needed to overcome a failure along the way.  As you’ve read this, consider this time a rest in an eddy.  Reflect on what brought you to this point today.  Consider what lies ahead and commit yourself to doing the work.

About the author – Adam Bernhardt has been the Controller at ATC Automation for 19 years.  Whitewater canoeing has been a passion for the past 9 years after learning the sport as Scoutmaster for his son’s Boy Scout Troop.