Saturday, June 11, 2011

Lessons from the Tour Guide

The kingdom of heaven is like . . . a kayak tour.

No, it isn't in the Bible, but that's only because there weren't any kayaks in ancient Israel. There are, however, kayaks aplenty in Florida nowadays and—after leading tours for six years—I can state with confidence that, if Jesus had ever taken a kayak tour, He might have used the experience for one of His parables.

The tours I lead are guided, on-the-water excursions around parts of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 150,000+ acre federally managed refuge adjoining the Kennedy Space Center.  They are rated "beginner level" so anyone is welcome to join one of the tours.  By my count, I've taken approximately 5,000 people paddling.  I've paddled with a woman in her nineties and I've paddled with a six-week-old infant. I've paddled with people from Japan, China, Germany, Israel, England, and New Jersey.  I've paddled with people of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, diverse sizes and shapes, diverse languages and creeds.  I've even paddled with people who
were deathly afraid of water (although why anyone who is afraid of water signs up for a kayak tour . . . this I have yet to figure out).

Before we launch the boats, I give everyone some basic instructions and equipment to ensure a successful and (hopefully) enjoyable trip.  Once we're on the water, but before we leave the launch area, I demonstrate some techniques and run the paddlers through a few practice scenarios, and then we're off!  On a large tour, I have several helpers along, but on a small tour I ask everyone to stay within earshot of me or someone who is within earshot of me.  (Ever play "Telephone" shouting at the top of your lungs?)

I do ask that no one paddle ahead of me, since I know where we are going and, presumably, they do not.  Even if someone has paddled with me before, it's a bad idea to paddle ahead, because I seldom take the same route twice.  Our estuary is a wind-driven system, which means that the currents are constantly changing depending on the weather; also, our water depth is affected somewhat by the tide and a great deal by the rain levels.  The first thing I have to do when I arrive at the launch site is evaluate the conditions and plan a route that will take these factors into consideration.  Once on the water, I am constantly re-evaluating my plan and making adjustments.

My boss, Mike Mahan, with a rescued heron.
Because it is a tour and not just a paddle, I also try to keep up a dialogue with my patrons, pointing out sights of interest ("That box on the horizon is the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building") and wildlife ("If you look under the mangroves to your right, you'll see a bobcat"), sharing interesting facts ("This snail is actually an ambush hunter and harpoons fish as they swim by"), and answering questions ("Those bubbles? Hold your breath! That's manatee gas, silent but deadly").  Those patrons who stay close to me get a lot more out of the tour than those who lag far behind.

[Are you starting to see the lesson behind the parable?]

Paddling is a real challenge for some people.  Usually, the basic instruction I give at the beginning is sufficient, but sometimes I have to come up alongside one of the patrons and give them some extra help. Since I am in my own boat, all I can do is call out instructions: "Flip your paddle over.  No, not like that, like this . . ." and then I demonstrate.  "Now put it in the water like this . . ." and again I demonstrate.  "Try to hold it like this . . ."

Sometimes, no matter how much advice I give, it's just not working.  For this reason, I carry a tow rope.  I hook one end of the rope to the patron's boat and clip the other end to my vest, and pull the boat for a while.  Sometimes I just have to pull it off a rock or a sandbar, but on rare occasions I have to tow it half a mile or more because the paddler has given up.  Once I pulled a tandem kayak containing two strapping young men who simply couldn't get the hang of it, listening to the jeers of the fishermen along the bank of the canal ("You gonna let that little girl do all the work?").

Once in a rare while, someone falls out of a kayak.  When this happens, it's my job to get that person back into the boat.  Ultimately, the procedure is a "self rescue" but I talk him through it and provide any help needed.  I can do this all by myself, but it's really easier—and much more fun—if everyone on the tour lends a hand.  It turns into a bonding experience, and the capsized paddler gets lots of encouragement and applause along the way.

About half of the tours I lead are at night.  Yes, we go kayaking in the dark.  (It's amazingly beautiful, especially when the bioluminescent creatures start their underwater light show.)  "How do you know where we are?" the patrons always ask.  

The answer is simple.  "I've been out here hundreds of times."

One of our night tours.
At night, each paddler wears a little glow stick, a small light in the darkness that keeps us all together. As the guide, I wear a different color from the others so they can always find me.  I also have a system for calling the group together; I blow a whistle and then hold up a flashing red light.  That's the signal that we're about to move on to another location.  Once everyone is gathered, I count the boats to make sure no one is missing, and then we head for home.
Once, on a tour that a friend of mine was leading (I wasn't there), someone ignored the whistle and went off exploring on his own.  The entire tour came to a grinding halt as the guide left the group with one of his helpers and went in search of the missing paddler.  (He was found, by the way.)

When the tour is over, we all pitch in to put the gear away, I make sure everyone is accounted for (I haven't lost a paddler yet), and give them directions on how to get back to civilization.  There are lots of smiles, a few moans and groans, and several promises to come back and do it again.  Those promises are usually kept.  (In a down economy, this kayak tour business has grown by at least 25% every year — some years doubling in numbers of tours — mostly through word of mouth and repeat customers.)

[Did you get it? Would you like me to explain the parable?]

The kingdom of heaven is like a kayak tour.  Jesus has given us equipment and basic instructions for having a successful life, and He comes alongside us to help when we aren't quite getting it right. If we stay close to Him, we will get the most out of the experience.  If we paddle off on our own, He will come looking for us.  And if we capsize, He'll get us back in the boat.  So spread the news!  Even in a down economy, the kingdom of heaven is growing, usually by word of mouth from satisfied tourists!  (And never forget, we are all just tourists here . . . one day the whistle will blow, and then we'll all go home.)

For more information about my kayak tours, or to join one, check out or visit us on facebook.

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