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Shepherding – Club Trips

The last time I wrote about shepherding groups, it was in a commercial context. Often, intermediate paddlers will find themselves in the role of shepherding trips with their clubs, which can introduce different dynamics.

Why Are We Going?

I’ve belonged to a couple of different clubs in New York City, and paddled with people from other clubs as well. One question that is rarely asked, and answered even less frequently, is, “why are we going?”

Clubs that rely on volunteer membership will use trips as rewards to their volunteers. Special trips for volunteers only, which are not open to the public or general membership, allow volunteers to feel like their efforts are appreciated, and give them perhaps their first set of bragging rights. Volunteer trips can also be training trips, putting the volunteers in more challenging conditions than usual, and using teachable moments to practice the skills they are expected to have when running the clubs regular programs.

Clubs that are more collegial – for lack of a better term, where members are more or less equal in status and simply band together as an organization for the mutual operation of activities – trips are very much social, and the goals of trips may vary with the leadership of the club. Trips can serve a number of functions, from providing opportunities to less experienced members to socialize and learn from more experienced members, to providing programs, or at least evidence of activities, to ensure club growth. For example, “members X, Y, and Z went on a twelve mile trip to the island and back, so aren’t we a cool club?” Additionally, as with clubs operated by volunteer effort, trips can serve as training exercises.


Unlike commercial or walk-up programs, clubs have ongoing relationships. The same people, more or less, show up for any given event. What this means for the club is largely up to the club, but for those in shepherding roles, it’s an opportunity for coaching and sharing knowledge. Whether formally qualified or not as an instructor, shepherds can give their flocks insight into what they’re doing and why, building the strength of the club and widening the base of qualified leadership – a great way to avoid being the only people anyone ever asks to lead a trip!

The flip side to the relationships in clubs is that some paddlers may respond differently to various members. There may be a friendly rivalry, or a grudge about a trip that happened months or years ago, that makes someone not take direction well, or only take direction from certain people in the club. These kinds of issues are more social problem than paddling problem, but it’s good to be aware of how they can affect a trip.

For example, I led a trip of a small group of experienced paddlers once on a circumnavigation of Manhattan. Two paddlers had a history of racing and tended to keep too far ahead of the main group until I talked to them. Another was an skilled but slower paddler who dropped out earlier rather than deal with the forced march pace of the lead paddlers. Another paddler, as new to the group as I, kept steady but shared some of the concerns I had in keeping the group together and making decisions about when to stop and when to move on. We talked about it at the end, but along the way it took a while to figure out how to herd even this small group of cats.

Club Development

Regardless of the purpose of club trips, they all serve to develop the club as an organization. Unlike commercial trips, or walkup programs, there’s a good chance that the people who come along on a club trip will come again, and again and again. The paddlers learn not only to be better paddlers, but to work well with one another. This makes for a stronger group, and that is never a bad thing.

Published in 2014 Backpaddle Leadership New York


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