Reflections of a West Adventures’ Guide
When I started guiding in Guatemala last year I thought it would be very short term, just a way to have a change of scenery and live an outdoors lifestyle. But in June this year I found myself back in the routine of a pre-trip meeting and introductions with a new group embarking on an adventure together.
I had told myself that I wanted a break from guiding, to start using my brain a bit more. However, I did not feel like I was ready to go into an office job, and I had heard too much about Canada’s outdoors to confine myself to a big city. So when I came across a job to be a trip leader and guide two week tours through the Rocky Mountains I felt like I should at least apply. But, as a Kiwi, could I really apply for a job to guide people around Canada? Turns out I could. After a Skype interview I was locked in to at least four trips for the summer.
The trip I guided was BC & Rocky Mountains Spectacular. It was 14 nights, starting and finishing in Vancouver, with 7 nights camping, 1 night on a houseboat, and 6 nights in hotels. On the way to the Rockies we went white-water rafting on the Thompson River and stayed on a houseboat on Shuswap Lake, known as the house-boating capital of Canada. In the Rockies we had three nights camping in Lake Louise, two nights in a hotel in Banff and two nights camping in Jasper. Our last night camping was a canoe trip to our campsite on Clearwater Lake, after which we stayed at a horse ranch for the night before finishing the tour with two nights in Whistler. It was a great way to see some truly beautiful places and it also provided a lot of variety. I never got bored of the itinerary, and every trip was so different.
White-water rafting the Thompson River, semi-arid climate and it was about 40 degrees celsius on this day!
The company, West Adventures, was still relatively new; however, it was a very good learning experience for me to see from the inside what it takes to start a tour company, things to think about and having to solve some of the issues myself. It was also nice being part of a smaller, less established, business because I had a bit more freedom to put my own spin on each tour. Although there were certain compulsory places and activities on the itinerary, there was also a lot of free time and flexibility to run each day how we wanted to. For example, taking breakfast up to Moraine Lake to watch the sunrise over the lake, or writing our own trivia night to provide a bit of friendly competition for the guests.
We had a vehicle for each tour that transported us for the whole 15 days with everyone’s luggage and camping gear. For bigger groups we had a 20-seater bus, and 10 or 15 seater vans for smaller groups. It was almost always a bit of a squeeze to fit in all the camping gear, food and everyone’s luggage. I became a great Tetris packer, always consolidating and placing everything just right so that it could all fit in. Of course it also depended on how our guests packed . . . it amused me to watch some people wheeling their gigantic suitcases into their tent (apologies to those reading this who did that!)
The camping component of the trip probably provided the biggest challenges, but also some of the best nights and group bonding. We approached camping as a group exercise where everyone contributed by setting up their tent and helping in the kitchen . . . I would have struggled a lot more if I’d had to set up camp and cook for everyone! I also always worked with another guide/driver who knew what to do and helped out a lot too.
The campsites we went to in Canada were all very established, not like just plonking your tent on a flat patch of land and going pee behind a bush like I’d done in Latin America. All campsites, bar the canoe trip, had a check-in station (please laugh away, all those who laughed at me when you heard me say it in my lovely kiwi accent), built gravel campsites with very clear boundaries, a picnic table, fire pit, bathrooms and running water.
The canoe trip was “wilderness camping” because you had to canoe there but there was still a long drop toilet, set spaces for tents, a covered picnic table and perfectly good drinking water from the lake so it didn’t feel like too much of a hardship! Camping is a great group bonding experience, with everyone setting up camp, cooking a meal and hanging out around a campfire making s’mores together. It was also one of the parts of the trip that tended to push some people out of their comfort zones and I enjoyed the challenge to try and make sure these people enjoyed camping and had a positive experience . . . even if it did get down to 0⁰C some nights!
My guiding time in Canada reminded me how much people can surprise me, in both good and bad ways. I had a huge range of guests on my tours, from a 78-year-old ex-mountain climber, to a 19-year-old on her first solo travelling trip. It is always interesting to meet and talk to people from different walks of life, and spending two weeks together meant I always had time to get to know everyone.
A lot of people had not spent much time in the outdoors, or at least in the mountains, so some of the activities were new experiences for them. It is great to go on a hike which is a real challenge for someone to complete, encourage them to climb to the top of the hill for a view that is always worth the hike, and see the look of satisfaction and pride they get when they finish. Other people were nervous to go white-water rafting, or horseback riding, and again it was really cool to see them overcome this fear and come back from the activity with a smile on their face.
Canada is extremely beautiful and it is very easy to see why it has become such a popular place to travel. Amazing rivers, waterfalls, canyons, glacial blue lakes and dramatic mountain ranges. We encountered such different landscapes and weather during our trip, from a canyon in a semi-arid desert and 40⁰C temperatures, to glacial lakes and snowy mountains with temperatures dropping to 0⁰C overnight. We even woke up to a winter wonderland of fresh snow one morning, which was very unusual for September; I am very glad that was a hotel, not a camping, night!
It was also very interesting to learn about Canada’s history including the arrival of the gold miners in the late 1850s, building the trans-Canadian railway in the late 1800s and the first explorers in the Rocky Mountains. I felt it was important to imagine all these people making their way on foot, horse or raft through such extreme, rough landscapes over 100 years ago, whilst we can now enjoy looking out the window as our vehicles travel on paved highways. They must have been extremely brave to embark on a journey through rivers and mountains without knowing what was going to be waiting for them when, or if, they made it to their final destination.
Lake Agnes, Banff National Park: 1h 30min hike from Lake Louise, a tea-house was built here in the early 1900s to encourage hikers to visit and it is now crawling with tourists on a summer day at Lake Louise.
Wildlife was also a big component of our trips, and again something a bit foreign to me as a New Zealander where you are lucky to see anything more than birds, insects, sheep and cows on your standard road trip! Canada, on the other hand, has some pretty unique wildlife including bears, moose and elk, as well as countless deer, chipmunks and squirrels.
The tricky thing with wildlife is that it is very unpredictable. People would always ask me when we were going to see wildlife, and although there were some spots where it was more likely to spot wildlife, it wasn’t like we could call ahead to the mother bear and her cubs and ask if she wouldn’t mind coming down to graze by the side of the road for a few minutes while we drove past. Nevertheless we did manage to see something on every trip, almost always black bears and elk.
I was lucky enough to see two moose, on two separate occasions. The first was a baby just grazing on the side of the road, and the other a fully grown male walking across a plain and then across the road in front of us as we drove around the corner to get a better view. It is very special to see wildlife in its natural habit, usually relaxing and eating, without regard for the line-up of cars and the countless tourists snapping photos of them. Luckily for me, I did not have any scary wildlife encounters on foot. The only time I saw anything other than deer and chipmunks on foot was, going for a run one morning, I heard a loud rustle from the bush next to me. When I turned to see what it was, I saw a small black bear running away up the hill and, needless to say, I picked up my pace a bit and kept running in the opposite direction!
I ended up working five trips throughout the summer, finishing up in mid-September. Life on the road was fun, busy and exhausting all at the same time, but I always had a different group of people around me to keep me on my toes and make me smile.
I was very lucky to experience some incredible places five different times, which for many people are a once in a lifetime visit. And, of course, I worked with and met some amazing people, and it is the people who always enhance your travel experiences and who you have your best memories with.