What a Canoe Trip Taught Me About Life and Making Progress

March 21, 2023

by Ravi Raman

Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip with dog

While on sabbatical after leaving my previous job, my wife and I headed to Northern Minnesota to explore the Boundary Waters for five full days of canoe camping and trekking. It involved two humans, our dog, a big canoe and a few massive dry bags carrying all our gear.

Along the way, we crossed dozens of lakes and portaged the canoe over muddy swampland and root-infested hillsides. It was quite the adventure, mosquitos included.

Such canoe trips are a sort of rite of passage for Minnesotans. They are tests of endurance and will. Moreover, they are a mindfulness practice as back then there was no cell reception, let alone wifi. Orienteering is also part of it. Wayfinding with a map and compass was the name of the game.

We were accompanied by plenty of Moose (two swam in front of our lake-side campsite one evening) and serenaded by Coyote (and Wolf!) howls at dusk. Bald Eagles were everywhere.

Moose crossing in front of us! They swim shockingly fast.

A few days in and I was bug-bitten and tired. My hands were starting to blister from paddling. I was always hungry. The portages (where we carried our canoe above our heads as we went from lake to lake) and route-finding were challenging. It turned into a test of willpower, which I knew was not the type of game I wanted to play for very long.

Then, just as I was suffering my way across a vast lake, the third of the day, moving my paddle gingerly to avoid popping a fresh blister, I glanced back in the canoe to notice my wife (and dog!) – GASP! – chilling out and relaxing. Chillaxing as we like to say.

How dare they!

A bit miffed, I shot a dirty look, curious about how long Alison was freeloading ๐Ÿ™‚ . She encouraged me to relax, so I said, “If I relax, we won’t make it to our campsite by dark!“. She sorta ignored me and just said something to the effect of “slow down and it will all work out!”

So, realizing that my wife was often correct in matters like this and used to be a canoe guide in her younger years to boot, I rested my paddle for a minute and enjoyed a snack while bobbing around in the lake.

It was just then that I noticed something quite shocking.

The canoe was actually moving.

Moving? Why were we moving? We are in a lake and there isn’t even any wind. We should not be moving!

My drive to get to our campsite quickly had caused me to overlook something quite evident and helpful. Alison pointed out that the lakes we were traversing were connected and at different elevations; as such, there was often a subtle current moving through what might be seen on the surface as still water. It was like riding a bike with a tailwind. Silly lakes!

Instead of going nowhere, the current was indeed present and moving us directly to where we needed to go with stunning accuracy. In fact, my paddling was a bit off-camber, leading us a little off-course. By easing up, I could see where the flow of the lake, which was moving more like a river at this point, was taking us and interfere less with this natural flow.

One of our many scenic waterfront campsites.

This new understanding that the water was indeed moving changed the rest of the trip for me. At times, it helped me understand when to muster more effort, to go against the current or move forward when we were adrift in still waters. Mostly, however, it showed that there was more going on than just my effort in service of moving our trip forward.

I could chill out, relax and let the subtle current of the river, masquerading as a series of lakes, support the trip.

So how does this relate to getting ahead in a career?

It also seems that life (including a career) flows much more like a river than sitting static like a lake. There is always more going on than it seems on the surface. Knowing there are unseen currents can be pretty helpful, and to surrender to them is to understand that you don’t need to overwork to move forward and progress.

After all, if there is a current, why not let it work for you?

Counterintuitively, sometimes working less can actually speed things up! Just ask anyone who worked furiously hard on the wrong project for a day (or month or year) about that. Doing nothing can absolutely be better than doing the wrong thing with gusto!

From this understanding, it becomes easier to deploy effort wisely and know when to relax and enjoy the ride and also when to throw yourself into your work wholeheartedly with everything you can muster.

How about you:

Does your life feel more like you are paddling in a moving river or a still lake?

Are you connected to the invisible current in your life that is moving things forward or -on the contrary – do you feel that progress is impossible without your hard work?

How you respond to these questions has a marked difference in the feeling you have when you show up to work every day and the performance that flows from your efforts.

After all, one thing that high performers know is that their best efforts don’t feel like hard work. Instead, it emerges from full engagement in the present without the struggle and effortful feelings that come from too much thinking.

It also comes from knowing full well that there is much more going on behind the scenes of your life than you think and that this invisible power can be relied on and harnessed to work in your favor.


  1. Pradeep Venkataramanan

    That was a wonderful read Ravi ! Thanks for this…

    Yes I have observed this in my life before when things do get moving with less or no effort from me. Sometimes I have not been able point to what it was.

    I just tag it as a blessing & feel grateful for it ๐Ÿ™‚ .

    • Ravi Raman

      Indeed, gratitude is a great response to the such an invisible, yet helping, hand!

  2. Valentina Alessi

    Love this story, and love the common thread of your water based metaphors!

    • Ravi Raman

      Thanks Valentina! Sometimes I can’t help it…the metaphors just bubble up in the mind and are often water-y in nature ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Bobby Bakshi

    Brilliant, Ravi. Thank you. I so get it. What a profound reminder.

    • Ravi Raman

      Hi Bobby, reminders are helpful for me. The deeper movement and momentum behind life can be both obvious and elusive at the same time!

      Hope you are well and thriving.

  4. Sanjay Kidambi

    Thanks Ravi. As always, so well written and thought provoking

    • Ravi Raman

      Appreciate your thoughtful comment Sanjay.

      Have you experienced something like this in your own life? A sense that thereโ€™s something moving you forward beyond your own efforts?


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