Posted by: trevormeers | July 4, 2011

Guiding Plight

Adventure guides must possess a few key things, many of which have nothing to do with cool technical gear and skills. I remembered this all over again as I spent last week in Michigan’s farthest northern corner, running around the woods, rock faces and Lake Superior bays with the local outdoor gentry. When a guy in a local gear shop hands you a liability waiver and a rental paddle, you can pretty reliably size him up against a standard checklist.

Gore-Tex jacket worth more than your TV. Check.

Chris the head guide marks one more day with Lake Superior as his cubicle.

Enormous watch that predicts the weather better than a small-market TV station. Check.

Longish, unruly hair. Check.

Soft, slow, slightly dude-inspired speech pattern. Check.

Ability to make any tourist relax by assuring them that falling out of the kayak before it leaves the dock is something every adventurer does all the time. Check.

College degree gathering more dust than a home exercise machine. Check.

Maybe that last one’s a little more optional, but in Michigan at least, I met a steady run of guides with degrees still in their original packaging. Technical communications. Microbiology. Industrial management. Outdoor leadership. All earned (mostly from the same local tech university). All piling up student-loan interest. All stuck on a shelf in the interest of chasing a few more good days of paddling or powder.

A classic study is John, a 20-ish kayak guide who looks a lot like Napoleon Dynamite and likes to mix Bill-and-Ted-style philosophizing into a day on the water. Paddling together, John and I passed toothy basalt outcrops along Lake Superior’s shore, peered down into the clear water for the ribs of a barge wrecked more than a century ago and pondered the cosmic balance of avoiding The Man’s rules while still earning something like a living.

John sports a curly mop of hair squeezing out from under a trucker’s cap and wears sunglasses that mock the spendy mountaineering shades I bought a year or so ago after a lifetime of cheap glasses. “These right here are truck-stop shades, man,” John says with a shake of his head at my idiocy over spending so much on something I’m bound to lose or sit on. “10 bucks, and I got no worries.”

That pretty much embodies his current life philosophy. He recently wrapped up a degree in outdoor leadership and decided that even that field, which probably sounds like an invigorating path to people plodding through a finance major, was feeling a little restrictive. So he’s taking a different path. Swinging his paddle through Superior’s cold water, he proudly told me that he stocked up his summer pantry with only one perishable ingredient: cream cheese. Everything else in his guide quarters behind the outfitter’s shop can survive pretty much indefinitely on a regiment of neglect.

He plans to keep traveling light once summer paddling wraps up. “In September, I’m heading for Florida, maybe stop a little sooner. I’m going to get a job doing construction or roofing and pay off some loans. Then I’ll be back up here next summer if things go well. And I have to say, man, after the first couple of weeks, things are going pretty well.”

Chris and John hold their version of a staff meeting out on the big water.

For his permanent living quarters, John’s setting his sights on a boat or RV. A rambling man doesn’t need a lot of storage or a lawn to mow. “You can’t really get cell service here,” he says. “I don’t own a computer, so I don’t get into Facebook or any of that. I’m pretty much cut off from the world. I don’t mind a bit, and the world doesn’t seem to have noticed I’m missing yet. That’s OK with me. Because this right here (and he swings his paddle toward the water, rocks and trees around us) is all the reality I need.”

After only a couple of weeks on the job, John’s still working on his guide patter. It won’t take long for his Into the Wild-style existential riffs to give way to more standard-issue lines about local history and geology. During our paddle, the lead guide (robotics engineer turned ski instructor and paddling guide) told John to pull in at Silver Island. “Is that the first island here?” John said, tilting his head toward an upcoming outcrop. The lead guide said, “Well, I’m not sure if it’s really the first. Geologically speaking, the first island….” and then ran off on a Wikipedia-esque refresher course on local volcanism and the origins of Silver Island. After the two-minute lesson wrapped up, John said, “So is it the next island we’re coming to then?”

By day’s end, I felt middle age coiling itself around me more intensely than ever. These days I detect only the tiniest pangs of envy as I check my rental wetsuit back into the boathouse and leave the guides to their carefree tomorrows. I like having health insurance. I can handle some days at a desk. I’ve actually come to enjoy sorting out some of the personnel and market problems that come my way. And after years of office life, I don’t know if I could ever shake the feeling that while I’m out on the water, a mound of paperwork is growing in an inbox somewhere with my name on it.

But the aspect of the guiding life that did have me pressing my nose to the van window as we pulled away was the utter lack of worry about whether the grass is greener anywhere else. As we made the two-minute commute from dock to outfitters’ office, the lead guide Chris said, “The thing about living up here is that everyone is here because they want to be. No one’s trapped here. That makes for a pretty happy community.”

When you have a lot, you only realize how much more there is yet to get in this game you’ve committed to playing. When you’ve decided that a pantry full of boxed dinners and cream cheese and a degree gone fallow is all you need, there’s not much point in looking for more. It’s simply the outdoors version of every painter, author or rodeo cowboy who’s ever lived on the lousy side of town and gone hungry rather than give up the dream. It may not work for everybody, and it may not even work for the guys in the guide quarters in the long term. But it sure makes for a good way to handle the five months a guy has to kill off between ski seasons.



  1. Perhaps it’s unwise to admit it, but I live somewhat vicariously through your experiences, Trevor. I appreciate being able to “see” things through your vision. Thank you!

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