The Delicate Dance of Floating Free

The innovation workshop facilitator scribbled on the flip chart and then turned to us for discussion:

The seeds to a problem’s solution are often contained in the problem itself.

My mind raced back to an event that took place some three decades before – an event where I would experience that wisdom first hand.

Masters of the Universe

Sitting around the campfire that night, it seemed like a reasonable plan.

My brother and I decided to break camp before sunrise, paddle the remaining 10 miles or so back to civilization, take showers, pack up the car, drive into the nearby Canadian town for lunch – anything but fish, please – and then drive west for 90 miles to Fort Francis, Canada. Once there, we would turn left and knock on Minnesota’s door. So, as the last embers from our last campfire lifted toward the stars, and as we finished the last few drops of scotch we religiously sipped every night before retiring to our tent, the plan sounded reasonable.

After all, we had been to Quetico Provincial Park – a wilderness canoeing haven in southern Ontario – numerous times. And while we were suburbanites, we were calloused suburbanites: we had admirably co-existed with nature for a week or more during each of our visits. We’d become adept at starting fires in a downpour; traversing mud-soaked, bug-infested portages with a canoe and a fully loaded pack on our back; and paddling against wind-driven waves that threatened to sink us.

“We got this,” we thought.

For the first few miles, everything went according to plan. There was no wind, so our paddles bit easily into the river, which in the pre-dawn light was the color of Macadam. Our visibility was somewhat limited because of the early hour, but this stretch of the river was nearly a straight shot, and we could easily make out the forests growing up from the banks on either side of us. We tracked to the center of the river we had paddled numerous times before.

With the current at our backs, we moved along rhythmically.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Then we came to a sudden and abrupt stop. I don’t remember hearing a sound as the submerged tree – long since toppled by a storm, disease, or age – caught us. We began a slow, clock-wise rotation. The current, which had been our friend only moments earlier, was now our enemy. As our canoe rotated perpendicular to the current, it was clear that any panicked move on our part would cause water to spill over our gunwales and scuttle us.

My brother, who was in the bow, craned his neck to look at me.


We began to speak in snippets of less-than-attractive solutions and worse–case scenarios:

“Capsize. Lose everything.”

“Swim to the river bank. Very wet. Very cold.”

“Walk out to civilization? No accessible portages.”

“Wait for other canoeists to pass by – at a sane hour – who can alert the authorities?”


I was reminded at that moment of my favorite Winston Churchill: “When you are going through hell, keep going.” So, for the next few minutes my brother and I tried various actions to free us:

• Paddle like hell to power us off the limb. Stuck.

• Shift the packs to make one end of the canoe lighter and lift us off the limb. Stuck.

• Lean our bodies over the side of the canoe – without tipping it! – to reduce the weight on the center. Stuck.


We slowly turned like the second hand of a clock, and watched the tress on one side of us rotate into view, then the river behind us, then the trees on the other side, then the river in front of us. Repeat. Just sitting quietly, we realized we were in no danger of capsizing. We were stuck, but we were safe. Safe, we momentarily retreated into our own reflections of “What if we. . .”

My brother then leaned over his pack and slowly poked the water with his paddle. It sank deep, touching nothing. He poked again. Nothing. He poked the water a third time, and the paddle stopped.

He looked up at me.

We rotated, and then he pushed with as much strength as he could muster lying in a prone position across his pack. The center of the canoe raised ever so slightly. Our boat seemed to move ever so slightly.

He pushed down again. Our boat inched a bit more.

As the boat rotated a third time, he pushed down hard. We moved further off the limb. And then we floated free with the current.

The answers reside within.

Back in the innovation workshop, I thought of our efforts that morning and smiled. My brother had used his paddle not as a paddle, but as a rod to push against the limb that was at once rigid in its grasp, but also water-soaked and pliable.

The seeds to a problem’s solution are usually contained in the problem itself.

And it’s a lesson that has always resonated with me. Today as a leadership and career coach, I abide by a key principle of our discipline:

People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.

My clients’ answers don’t come from the outside; they don’t need me to solve their issues for them. They just need me to help unlock the beautiful solution that already rests within them.

So, we dance in a mutually agreed upon choreography, sometimes acting and sometimes just being with what is. We paddle one way, and then another. We hold thoughts up to the light and look at them from different angles. We acknowledge the limbs that keep them stuck. We poke here and push there. I ask, “What… .? My clients respond. I ask, “What else… .?”

And slowly, with their hands pushing on their paddle, they float free.


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. Wonderful story, Jeff. Your storytelling ability is top notch. I can see why you thrive as a teacher, a coach and an author. Love the lesson learned within your journey. In dealing with a recent situation with a neighbor, I told her “This is only a problem until we find the solution.” The solution is always there somewhere.

  2. Your writing resonated all the way from the poetic title to the uncanny descriptive power of your analogy to tackle problem-solving by adopting a different mindset to what created the problem in the first place. And this takes pressing pause and listening to silence to provide a way out. Great share Jeff.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful read and comment, Noemi. The key, as you point out, is giving ourselves the right and ability to stop before we act.

  3. I love everything about this piece. The real life situation and the application of the pause and listen for solutions that have not been explored. I believe that it is true that in silence we can hear best. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking piece. Here’s to practicing the pause and allowing ourselves to be stuck sometimes before we attempt to move forward.

  4. Jeff I loved your story. My Daddy always told me to pause and reflect before I acted. This is sage advice for all and certainly for those that choose to be bold and embrace all that life gives. Thank you for sharing this great story.

    • Appreciate your read and comment, as always, Larry. You mentioned ‘sage’ advice. In coaching, we speak of two internal dynamics: (1) the inner critic, the saboteur, the gremlin who is always whispering shortcomings in our ear and (2) our Sage. In most of us, not your Daddy, the Sage is underdeveloped; the scrawny kid who is always getting sand kicked in his face by the bully saboteur. But the Sage knows if we choose to listen.

  5. This is beautiful. I felt as if I was right there with you. My sister and I haven’t spoken to our brother in nearly five years. What if we had to depend upon him for our very existence? Make it through a dire situation, as you and your brother did? Thank you for sharing.

    • Sherry, thanks for your read and very personal comment. I love that my story prompted your question. I am fortunate to have a brother who is not prone to panic, which could have resulted in a very wet and cold morning.

  6. My friend, you have painted a picture, a series of images here that were a joy to read. As others have said, I felt that I was there with you. Be glad that I wasn’t, as I would’ve been a hindrance to your eventual resolution. I would most certainly have helped with the scotch, but experience tells me that most people don’t need help with that. I love that not only was the solution within the problem, it was something that there can be no manual for, an event like this can’t be planned, contingencies can’t be sketched out for these types of things. It relies on quick, calm thinking, and makes for great storytelling. Yours, here, was masterful. Thanks for sharing it, Jeff!

    • “…there is no manual for an event like this…” Brilliant. What I have to remember in similar problematic situations is that I’m probably staring at the solution. Thank goodness my brother was too. Thanks for the read, Tom. It means a lot to me that you would stop and read my reflection.

  7. I love this one, Jeff! The solutions to our problems are almost always right there in front of us. Whether we choose to see them or not is a different story. I just wrote a piece on “contrarian thinking” today that aligns with this concept of seeing things from a different perspective. We must be in parallel worlds today.

    In other news, have I told you lately how much I love the way you write in such a way that makes me feel like I’m right there on the water with you?
    Thank you for sharing your gift!

    • Thanks for reading the piece, Melissa. I know you are incredibly busy. The Quetico always offered both challenges and opportunities for reflection. Getting to see the Northern Lights at night never hurt the pauses to examine life! I look forward to reading your piece on contrarian thinking.

  8. Jeff, I felt like I was there with you. You have such excellent storytelling ability. Sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances where we try the obvious to get unstuck only to find it isn’t working. Your point about “being” rings true. Often, it is in these moments where we find our clarity and can navigate a solution that works.

    Thanks for sharing this story with us today. I enjoyed reading it.

    • Thank you for the read and comment, Laura. Sometimes you just have to sit back and look at “it” from a different angle. And sometimes, as in this case, that’s all you can do. Our canoe wasn’t going anywhere and there weren’t any other fools out at that early hour to “rescue” us.

  9. Always amazing how excellent writing can transfix the senses in a Canadian wilderness and then transmute to the mental terrain to find personal resolution, sometimes as challenging as removing deep-rooted stumps. Appreciate the new image of the attack of a floating tree and calm resolution to break free of unexpected circumstances…a story to share with others.

    • Ah, a perfect name for this piece if I had thought of it: “The Attack of the Floating Tree.” Thanks, Annemarie!

  10. Nice article Jeff. There is something to be said about keeping a level head under a stressful situation. Instead of panic, let’s see how the situation resolves itself. Or… in your case, let’s seek a logical way out of this mouse trap instead of climbing some mountain and losing more than is necessary. Great stuff!

    • Thanks, Aaron. We didn’t have many options at the moment, seeing that we couldn’t get to shore even if we had wanted to. There were no mapped portages where we were, and I’m not big on bushwhacking. So all we had is what we had. I was going to quote Charlemagne ‘Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds of the sky.’ but I just read he never said or wrote that. Instead, I’m reminded of the comedian Jonathan Winters who had a hilarious comedy act of taking an everyday item and using it in multiple ways. Thus, my brother looked at his paddle, which for its then intended purpose of moving us down the river useless and instead used it as a poke.

  11. Jeff, I salute your abilities to write, to evoke, to conjure, to connect the esoteric with the pragmatic, and to remind us of the resourceful gifts we all possess. The joy you derive from living is palpable. And all of us are the better for your sharing it with us.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you , my friend. The Quetico was a powerful place for me back in the day. It required a lot of resourcefulness and offered great opportunities for reflection – hence the name of my company.