Business Columns & Blogs

A river outfitter’s balancing act offers a lesson for leaders

John Bernt, an Aggipah River Trips guide, handles a sweep boat, which carries supplies for a river trip.
John Bernt, an Aggipah River Trips guide, handles a sweep boat, which carries supplies for a river trip.

This is a family-oriented news site, so I’ll try not to offend anyone. But I ask for forgiveness ahead of time, just in case.

I had an Aha! moment on a recent river rafting trip that made me think about how business organizations “balance” resources. So much of leadership involves finding the right proportions for actions (being deliberate but not dictatorial, expressing vulnerability without becoming sappy). Understanding balance then becomes crucial. And when I saw it in real life, on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, I just had to laugh out loud.

Small, family owned and run, Aggipah River Trips is one of the oldest outfitters on Idaho’s Salmon River. On a recent six-day trip down the river, I was curious about what makes such outfitters run so well, with guides who work hard but don’t seem to.

A big part is the logistics behind feeding and hauling gear, food, and water for 25 people for a week. And on this trip, I was lucky enough to have John Bernt as my sweep-boat guide one afternoon after we had docked for the day.

Sweep boats are the workhorses of the river. They seem unwieldy, yet they are powerful and, because of their drivers, nimble. John’s boat was crafted from a 36-inch-diameter hypalon-rubber inner tube curved into an oblong, 22-foot raft.

The inner tube alone, made by Demaree Inflatable Boats in Friendsville, Maryland, weighs 450 pounds. Fully kitted, with a frame, deck, and all the gear it can haul, the boat can reach 4,000 pounds or more, sitting 8 inches deep in the water.

Two fixed “sweep oars” run lengthwise. Their handles meet midboat, where the driver stands all day sawing, or pulling, them. Since the boat has no brakes, it’s the steering that is critical, and most of that is done from the front. As a result, the crew packs the boat with a goal of keeping 60 percent of its weight toward the front.

In that front end, on each of the side of the boat, sit huge coolers on top of the inner tube. The left-side cooler carries all-dairy products, the right-side cooler meat (frozen bacon, steaks, chicken) for the whole week. In the center, down lower on the deck, sit four or five round canisters, the so-called “groovers,” which are the portable toilets for the week.

And this is another spot where the careful “balance” of the boat’s weight comes in. As the coolers’ contents empty, the groovers fill up: what goes in, comes out. And that’s what made me chuckle: The guides must balance dairy and poop. In the end, the weight really doesn’t vary much, so the boat stays balanced.

And that small Aha! about the need for balance in a two-ton boat on a river got me thinking about how organizational leaders also need balance, of a different sort, of course. Balance in their leadership styles, balance in the mix of people within a leadership team to complement each other, or balance in their thinking — near-term and far ahead.

But in the meantime, when I think of balance on the Salmon River, I’ll just smirk and relish how much I love to encounter unexpected Aha! moments.

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University,