A basic tenet of outdoor leadership is to make sure novices have a positive experience when they encounter untrammeled nature for the first time. Their initial outing need not be grand, but it ought to be fun and non-threatening. Stark conditions and rugged terrain may appeal to seasoned outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen, but beginners need their introduction to the backwoods or backwaters to be less daunting. The key is to avoid any unpleasantness that might permanently close a door before it even has a chance to open. I wholeheartedly agree with this simple rule of thumb, but you’d never know it from the way I’ve been taking people out lately. 

My most recent example of poor leadership, or at least poor judgment, happened this past weekend when Manyu and I took two Chinese friends paddling in the backwaters of the Mississippi River. One of them had been in a canoe one other time in his life, the other not even that. I picked the most paddler-friendly route I could think of, but still the trip presented a challenge beyond the skill level of my companions.

The two friends are Xiao Wu and Joy. Xiao Wu is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who recently returned to the United States for graduate school at UW-Madison. Joy is a middle school teacher from La Crosse’s sister city of Luoyang. She is here to take a semester of classes in Teaching English as a Second Language. 

It was the weather that got us. The forecast was a 50% chance of precipitation, but since La Crosse has been in a partial drought for most of the summer, I almost welcomed a chance to get a little wet. Xiao Wu was in town only for the day, so it was either paddle in the rain or not paddle at all. I grabbed enough rain gear for everyone, and we headed out.

About thirty minutes into our short excursion, we heard distant thunder. As the storm approached, I realized we needed to get off the water, and I directed everyone to beach their boats on a narrow spit of sand. When I suggested we step into the woods, Manyu, Xiao Wu, and Joy all told me that they’d been taught not to sit under trees during a thunderstorm. I had to convince them that so long as we kept away from the roots of any of the tallest trees, it was better to go into the forest than to expose ourselves on a sandbar. 

Xiao Wu and Joy helped me balance an overturned canoe across a pair of downed tree trunks. All four of us (five, if you include the dog we’d brought along) hunkered under the canoe until the worst of the storm passed. We received more rain in thirty minutes than La Crosse had seen in a month.

Joy checked a weather map on her cell phone and discovered a temporary break in the storm. We timed our escape and paddled back to the car with no lightning and only gentle rain. We quickly loaded up the boats and drove to my house. Everyone put on dry clothes, and we sat in the breakfast nook with hot tea and one of my better bottles of wine. 

I thought the day was a failure, but Xiao Wu and Joy disagreed. They are young and daring, and both want to have unique experiences during their stay in the US. Once Manyu and I got them warm and dry with a glass of wine, their first thought was to send photos of their “American adventure” back to friends in China. Both claim to have had a great time, but I’ll wait to see if either asks me to take them out again.

Steven Simpson