Team Building Icebreaker for Strangers: 14-Mile, All-Day, Class III Rafting Trip

Chris Scherting | Sep 01, 2017

Working in the training industry you become more observant and appreciative when it comes to well-trained, employee interactions when you shop, dine, travel etc. Last week on vacation in Colorado I went on a 14-mile, all-day rafting trip on the Arkansas River in Brown’s Canyon National Monument with Performance Tours.  It was completely out of my comfort zone and really tested my limits.  In retrospect, it was a crazy team building icebreaker and team building exercise for six willing strangers.

I should explain that white water rafting wasn’t necessarily on my bucket list. It just seemed like a perfect activity to do while in Colorado. It would give me a full day out in a beautiful setting that you couldn’t access by car or a hike. I don’t think I fully grasped how dangerous it could be until I arrived and began looking at the photos on the wall of other tourists in the middle of the rapids. (I am on the far right holding the yellow oar in the picture above. Note my terrified expression.)

I checked in and received all my gear:  wet suit, splash jacket, water shoes, helmet, PFD (personal flotation device) and oar.  A group of us gathered on the patio and waited for the bus that would transport us to the put-in spot. We made light conversation but had no idea who would be sharing our raft or how crazy this team building icebreaker would be.

Program Overview

Before the six of us officially met, we listened to a safety talk by one of the guides on the bus.  In my version of this story, he is one of two team building facilitators and this first talk began ‘framing’ the activity.  He incorporated a bit of comedy to bring levity to his potentially, life-saving instructions.  The main lesson being “stay in the boat!” He did not incorporate any team building toys or puzzles. He did explain the importance of us always keeping one hand on the T-grip so we don’t accidentally hit a fellow rafter with an out-of-control oar.

Framing

We were divided into two rafts. Each guide continued the safety and ‘framing’ orientation talk as we stood around the raft. Again, the most important piece of advice “Stay in the boat!” In addition to enjoying the ride, this became our collective purpose and objective for the team exercise.

Rules

Additional ‘rules’ of our team building icebreaker:

  • Follow the guide’s directions to paddle forward or back and do so in unison.
  • Tuck your feet under the boat’s tubes to secure yourself.
  • Keep your hand on the T-grip.
  • Stay in the boat.

Introductions and Roles

We introduced ourselves and negotiated our spots and roles in the boat. The group consisted of two couples, the guide and myself.  The men were designated as the front paddlers for the first leg.  The other two women were seated behind the men and I was in the back near our guide, Kean. He reinforced our roles:

  • Stay in the boat!
  • Listen to his paddling commands (Forward or Back)
  • Try to paddle in unison on each side.
  • If we miss a stroke, don’t try to make it up.
  • If we hit a rock, do not try to push off, let him handle it.

Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

I doubt Kean has heard of the Tuckman model, but I think we went through all of these stages in the first two hours of the float! They strategically mapped the trip so the first three miles or so are pretty calm with mild class 1-2 rapids.  We quickly learned to row together and to listen to Kean’s commands. I would compare the rapids to the usual team obstacles in this analogy I am creating.

I think we encountered three class 3 rapids in this first leg.  These were a total rush! Adrenaline was running high with the waves! Yes, I was scared.  I think it’s obvious in the pictures!  I don’t know what I was thinking signing up for this!  But as a group, we performed!  In order to safely navigate these rapids, we all had to listen to Kean, tuck our feet and paddle hard.

As our ‘facilitator’ Kean did a great job of explaining the upcoming obstacles, giving directions and reassuring us of our abilities.  Every time he said “Great job guys” after a big rapid, I felt my fears lessening and my confidence building. Our ‘high fives’ with our oars helped too!

Lunch break

The riverside lunch was a time for nourishment and to let our blood pressure get back to normal. The team building icebreaker continued as we chatted in the shade and got to know each other out of the raft. We bonded over the first two hours of our accomplished rafting and everyone achieving the goal of staying in the boat!

The Second Half

We had no idea but the second half was jam-packed with class 3 rapids!  By this point we were truly operating as a team, paddling in unison and having fun. With rapid names like Pinball, the Widowmaker, Devil’s Punchbowl and the Staircase (a series of 7 back-to-back class 3 rapids) we knew we had our work cut out for us!

Characteristics of a Successful Team

Both of the rafts in our group made it through all 14 miles with everyone staying in their prospective boats!  Our guides did an amazing job of navigating the rapids and giving us the right paddling directions.

We saw several other competitor rafts get stuck on rocks in situations that the guides described in the safety talks.  This just speaks to the skills our leaders demonstrated when navigating our boats around those same obstacles.  I doubt they have ever watched team building training videos like those created by ej4 but they have definitely mastered some of the same topics such as:

  • What is Team Building?
  • Effective Team Members
  • Teams in Crisis Situations

Characteristics of a Successful Team Building Icebreaker

It turns out that two of the people in my raft were from my resort in Breckenridge.  They offered to give me a ride back to the hotel. We exchange emails and planned to meet up later in the week. (Consider the ice broken.) They are the two people smiling and having an awesome time right in front of me in the picture above!

Whitewater rafting might be considered an extreme team building icebreaker and team building exercise but I certainly enjoyed it!

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