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Group Dynamics on the Greatest Lakes - Zack Kruzins

August 09, 2023 3 Comments

Group Dynamics on the Greatest Lakes - Zack Kruzins

"There isn't an easy exit, there's no development in sight for days... It was probably the most remote feeling trip I've ever been on. More remote than Antarctica."

I was so far away from a single sign of human development, a boat, another person, we didn't see anybody - because it was so remote. That profound remoteness sat heavy with me as a guide.

There's not many other guides with who would choose to guide a trip of this nature. If you didn't have group ... I'm like, Wow, I'm out here. If anything happens. To any of these people... sure, I have an reach. I can call a helicopter. I can get a boat to come. It's just not easy.

 

TRAK's Hans Trupp caught up with TRAK Pilot Zack Kruzins upon his return from a 14 day 280 mile self support expedition along the northern shore of Lake Superior in Canada. His philosophy of earned self reliance and gratitude for the wilderness is a perfect companion to the way he approaches group dynamics in remote locations.

 

 

Hans Trupp
Zack thanks for taking the time to speak with us! Tell us a little bit about your trip and how you went about preparing, and building the right group who would be up to the task!

 

Zack Kruzins
Over the years I've gotten good at the idea of group dynamics, and knowing you'd have the right people, the right fit for a trip. I like to build relationships with my clientele and with some core paddling communities, and those people kind of extend that out to their communities through word of mouth. Collectively we decide what kind of trips we want to do, and now it's kind of like every six months, we plan a big one. I think it really comes down to knowing who you're with.

 

HT
Totally! You've mentioned in the past there are three elements to really getting it right...

 

ZK
If you have a good group of people, they'll have all three. Skill level is one, personality fit is also super important, and of course their resiliency both mental and physical strength. You have to match all three of those amongst the group and pair it with the right trip. But that's just the start, once you get into the trip you have to manage the risk and the group dynamics throughout the expedition.

No matter what kind of group you're in, you'll always have some people that are a little bit stronger, maybe go at a faster pace, and some others who might be a bit older or less experienced, and you're going to have to manage everyone together. It's never quite perfect, you have to balance that and manage expectation and patience, to keep the group safe. "Hey guys, either you have to slow up a bit for the rest of the pod, or you guys will have to speed up a bit" and it's something you keep on top of through trust and communication.

For example, on one of the crossings we had a bit of fog, a bit of wind, and we decided to do a line tow. I've done that in other situations in the past when it was necessary. It's unique to be able to travel with different generations on the trip, but sometimes it necessitates using all the tools so we can all get there safely at a right pace - and people have to be OK with doing that and working as a group.

 

 

HT
Ok great! Take us back to the start of this 14 day 280 mile self exploration expedition. How would you describe it in terms of understanding the scope of what you took on as an endeavour?

ZK
I've been wanting to do this trip for a long time. The fact that it's the highest class of remoteness you can get. It's very remote. There isn't an easy exit. There's no human development. It was probably the most remote feeling trip I've ever been on - more remote than Antarctica, because we were so far away from even a single sign of human development, a boat, another person... That profound remoteness sat heavy with me as a guide.

Some of these crossings, they're 20 kilometers out to a remote island and being able to see the arc of the landscape. The scale of the wilderness, we really had to take care of each other.

HT
What would you say then were the highs and lows for you on the trip?

ZK
Just being up there, seeing the arc of landscape and thinking "Wow, that's a floating island of wilderness". It just goes on and on, and there's absolutely nobody there. And of course cooking some really good meals, the company, and having great weather to take rest days and make a hot breakfast. Having a second cup of coffee and just chatting with each other. Definitely the highs.

The biggest challenge was definitely managing group dynamics. You've got a few people that are getting a little bit impatient. They wanted to go at a faster pace, and some people either weren't physically able to or simply didn't want to go at that pace. Managing the group to stick together and work hard together, it's a hard thing to do and especially in this kind of remote expedition with a large group.

HT
What about accomplishments, what do you see as the biggest ones from this particular trip?

ZK
For this trip, everyday really! We'd have the weather and say "Ok we're leaving camp at this time." and we'd get to camp at 3, 3:30 and we'd have an hour or so to reflect and relax before we had dinner. Little accomplishments daily. And then when we got to the island after that big long crossing that was a good accomplishment. For everybody to paddle through the fog, pushing four hours of paddling to get to the island... and when the lighthouse kind of appeared in the fog, that was a good moment. It was like the completion of an entire trip in itself.

And of course, finishing the expedition at the end was the ultimate accomplishment, and strength that people realized they had.

HT
It sounds like those daily debriefings played a big part! What do you think they added to the experience and contributed to the smooth execution of the trip?

ZK
Yeah it was good, we would debrief the day and kind of front-load the next day so people knew what to expect, how far we're going to go. Maybe we'll have a pit stop here, a snack and water break there... have lunch at this site if it works out. Key points of interest. All of that. And it highlighted some good learnings for us too. It helped to build the group together as a unit.

HT
What other learnings did you pick up with this group?

ZK
One that came out of this was people's systems, for their gear, their kayaks, paddling style. Figuring out how to operate together. Picking up the pace, slowing down and sticking together. Understanding that some members could get closer into rocks and poke around safely, while others had to remain within their abilities. Knowing those limits and differences, and respecting them.

HT
Talking about risk management and boundaries, how well did the group follow those?

ZK
Yeah it's tricky when we're dealing with adults and trying to put yourself in their shoes. There's always a degree of some people going in closer, some cutting across little bays or going ahead because they're impatient, with my co-guide Matisse we did a good job of managing things. Especially toward the last few days of the trip when some of the patience runs thin and people are in a rush to get to camp.

We talked as a group in the evenings and having clear goal posts where we're going to go and a flexible game plan, that was important to the consistent communication.

The last day actually was probably the most challenging conditions we had and I was really stern with everybody. I said "no one is going inside of me. I'm this point and people stay outside so I can manage how close they're going to the breaking waves on shore." That tended to manage the group well, it's always tough when you have competent adults to deal with though. How do you do the good cop bad cop dance with your group and your co-leader, to communicate to the group in an effective way.

 

 

HT
Cool, it sounds like you did that really well by just incrementally increasing the formal structure of the pod when needed while still allowing the group some freedom when conditions allowed it.

How was the communication? Did you have any missteps?

ZK
Overall it was good. There was one incident where I knew we were in a good fishing spot and we had already caught one fish. We got caught up fishing a little while longer, while some paddlers went on ahead. We all had radios, but some of those that went on ahead didn't have theirs on and in reality where we were fishing was right off the campsite for that day. So they went on and we had to call people back. There were some frustrations because people didn't quite understand. But in the end when people realized how awesome the planned campsite was, and we ended up having a huge fish dinner right on the beach, everyone was happy.

We had a good, light conversation afterward about what had happened, and what we could've done differently. For me it was a good reminder to make sure we all have the same goal posts in mind, and are working toward them as a group. And that I have to leave the fishing until everyone is at that finish line and to keep from being distracted.

HT
It's sounding like in many ways the biggest accomplishment and the biggest challenge on this trip were the group dynamics! Setting consistent routines, disciplines, communication and clear planning were all critical to your success.

ZK
Yeah absolutely. We were very lucky with the weather as well. Having those conversations early and often, and having good expedition behaviour are all important.

HT
How do you define expedition behaviour?

ZK
I think it's really just mentality and attitude. How you fit within the group dynamics, knowing that you're all on the same page. Having a good understanding of skill levels and ability, what their goals are. That they're willing to change and that they're willing to work for it.

A few years back I had a group of youth in a Voyager canoe, and we couldn't get that expedition behaviour, that mentality from them. Some guides don't care if they go out or not, so long as they get paid. Others just want to be in nature, and they want to spend their time there. They're not as interested in the guiding component or keeping people safe, they're selfishly spending their own time in nature. They don't want to commit to that expedition behaviour, to that level of responsibility of a group in the wilderness.

To focus on that expedition behaviour mentality, that's so important for you, before you go out on a trip like this.

 

 

HT
Cool, awesome. So what's next for Zack Kruzins?

ZK
Still getting through this season, just a short Voyager canoe trip coming up. I'll get to take some youth on the lake and share a good time out in nature. And then I have a festival where I get to connect with people in the local community in Red Rock Ontario, where we'll be getting people out on the lake and enjoying their time.

Another kayaking trip for a level two skills expedition with some good friends and aspiring guides that I'm looking forward to. I'll make a quick trip to Iceland and after that I've got the TRAK Greenland trip which I'm doing again September 6th to 18th. It was a really great program last year and I enjoyed it so much I thought I'd go back again this year.

HT
So you're wrapping up the Great Lakes season with youth groups and some level two training, then you're off to do Greenland, an Oceanwide trip. And then you've got an Antarctica trip coming up?

ZK
I'll be working with Polar Latitudes again starting the beginning of November. I'm pretty excited because my dad's coming actually, on the trip for the first time. After that I'm headed to a kind of bespoke trip in Patagonia in Chile with some friends and clients.

Then I've got a bit of a break, personal time, not totally planned yet.

HT
It sounds like you've got a lot on the horizon, to build your zest for life there Zack!

ZK
Yeah. Rest is important!

-

Thanks Zack! Happy paddling

See his trip photos on the TRAK Flickr page.

Visit Zack's TRAK Pilot Page

https://www.trakkayaks.com/blogs/pilot/zack-kruzins



3 Responses

Todd Mitchell
Todd Mitchell

September 02, 2023

It looks like everyone in camp has a chair. Any recommendations as to a brand?
Enjoyed the entire interview.

Jimmy Jim
Jimmy Jim

September 02, 2023

Zack – a true legend. If you get a chance to spend anytime with this man, take it!

John Mainwaring
John Mainwaring

September 02, 2023

Good info on group dynamics and a few items of info casually tucked in there that I took notice of. Good stuff . . . taking a small group (2 of us have Traks) into a remote area of Tasmania for 9 days in a few months so it will have a few similarities I’d think. Informative chat.

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