A Guide’s life

Posted by Ken Campbell May 30, 2010 0 Comment 1231 views

A couple of days ago, when I was at Spencer Spit in the San Juans, I came across a group of more than 20 kayakers, part of a commercial tour, led by a guide I know who works out of Anacortes. Watching him work, juggling boat repair and food preparation, first aid and island history, brought to mind something I wrote years ago on the subject of being a guide. It is reprinted here in its entirety.


If you are comfortable in the outdoors, have a strong personality and an abiding sense of humor, there is a strange and tragic (in the classical sense), job that can be yours for the taking. There is a paradox, of course, a catch: once you take it, you may not want it.

I’m referring to the lifestyle profession that is the Guide. The act of taking someone else into the wild for money is both an art and a science, and open to constant trouble. You will be misunderstood, second-guessed, berated and openly defied, called a liar behind your back and have fabricated stories told about you years from now by people you have never even met. And those are the good things about the job.

I can hear you, saying that perhaps I’m being a tad facetious. But consider the situation for a moment, if you will. A guide is the last line of defense between the Omaha banker and the Olympic bear, between the architect from Sacramento and the raccoons of Cedar Creek. Always responsible, at any hour of the day or night for the clients in his or her charge, liable for the consequences that befall them for doing the very things they have been instructed at great length not to do in the first place. “Don’t cook in your vestibule; don’t leave candy in your tent; don’t feed the wildlife.” When they get bit, when the tent vaporizes in a cloud of flame or when the mice shred all their gear to get to that half-eaten chocolate bar, it is the guide who must adapt, who must generate a solution, who must try to salvage some enjoyment from a lose-lose situation.

In these opening days of a new century, we demand that our guides be professionals. That is how the guide services sell them anyhow, as “Professional Guides.” They should have some sort of advanced medical skills and certification to prove it; they should have graduated from some kind of course work that qualifies them as experts in their field, whatever that field might be. It is incumbent upon them to spend each and every hour they have, on their own time, working toward something that will improve and reestablish their status as guides, whether that means climbing Aconcagua or running the Nahanni, circumnavigating Africa or hang-gliding the Khyber Pass. They must be constantly striving to improve their skills, or they are stagnant, has-beens, and they will slowly fade away. They must be professional, but they will earn only the minimum wage, plus tips, if they’re lucky.

It doesn’t stop there. Any guide that hopes to work professionally needs to have a variety of different personalities. Not talking about schizophrenia exactly, more of an ability to channel different entities, simultaneously and at a moments notice:

There is the Cheerleader, that ebullient soul who is continually engaged in positive feedback. “You can do it,” even though it is clear to God, man and beast that the poor bastard can’t, and probably never will.

The Risk Manager, who is constantly watching the group, like a lifeguard doing his 10-second sweep. Keeping an eye out for changing weather, gauging the capabilities of the individuals without their knowing it. Knowing when to fall back, to reassess, to initiate the back-up plan.

The Teacher, coaching paddling skills and climbing technique, as well bearing the responsibility of imparting knowledge about selected items relating to history, geology and wildlife.

The Chef, because food is critical, even to people who say it isn’t. There is no margin for error here at all. They say an army travels on its stomach… it may even be more of a factor on a guided tour. Although people always say that food tastes better outdoors, they are still watching the menu for any flaw, real or imagined. The food needs to be superior to that which can be cooked in a real kitchen, and you won’t have a real kitchen in which to operate.

Then there’s the Counselor. This aspect is often looked upon to offer advice to clients, usually late in the evening, when the guide craves sleep more than anything. Whether to allow the daughter to get a navel piercing or not, how to really communicate with the wife, whether taking that job offer from Microsoft means selling out.

The Entertainer is another vital element of the successful guide. To be a comedian or a musician is great, but even starting a fire or pitching a tent needs to be an act that leaves the audience wanting more. Because if they don’t want more, you’re out of a job.

So why do it? Why subject yourself to this torture, to be required to be a professional, yet be paid third-world wages? If it’s not the money, and it most assuredly is not, then what would make a person want to get involved in the first place, much less stick with it? The conventional wisdom is that guides are just doing what they would be doing anyway, so why not take some rubes along and pay some bills while you’re at it? After all, if you’re a guide, your office is the summit of some far-off peak, or the misty morning water of some exotic island chain, or the deep green of a temperate rainforest. You get paid to go on other people’s vacations. It sure beats the downtown shuffle, right? And that is worth making a bit less on payday, isn’t it?

But that isn’t it at all, really. After all, the real work takes place away from the enjoyable part of the activity, whatever that activity is. It is more complicated, and simpler, than saying that guiding is a lifestyle choice, and leaving it at that. The truth of the matter is that guides choose their occupation because they have something to learn, and guiding is the best way to learn it.

To be a good guide, you need only two qualities. Seriously, there are two items, and that’s it, that any client will demand of you, when all is said and done. The first of these is that you must be interesting. You must be able to converse on a wide variety of topics, from economics to basketball, sex to roofing materials. You have to possess a range of experience that makes you a resource for others in some way. If you can tell a joke or catch a

crab, sing a song or prepare a quiche, so much the better, but people have to be able to walk away from time spent with you with the realization that you are an interesting soul, someone they’d like to get to know better.

The second simple requirement is the yin to the first ones yang: you have to be interested. If the monotoned boor who’s number three on your rope is a librarian for an HMO, or the mousy woman in the bow of your canoe has worked data entry for an insurance company for the past 22 years, you need to be able to listen to him or her talk about those jobs, and be genuinely interested. They will be able to smell false interest; you need to cultivate a real fire for who they are, the lives, the joys and the sorrows of your participants, if you have any hope of excelling at the guide business.

The funny thing is that these two essential qualities are what each of us looks for from our own friends and respected acquaintances. We all desire to be interesting to others, to have a personality that makes people want to be around us, and at the same time, we want to be surrounded by others who match that description. Guiding, done well, will get you to this place. I’m not sure there’s any other job that can do for you what this one can. To be a guide, to be a really good guide, is perhaps the best way to ensure that you will turn out to be the person you’ve always hoped you would be.

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