Note: This article was originally published the blog Don’s Place, hosted by award-winning travel journalist Don George.
What does a great guide add to a trip? And what are the skills a guide needs? I talked to top guides from the Adventure Collection’s member companies to collect their tales of how they have transformed travelers’ journeys. Their stories illuminate the diverse roles guides play on a trip – and the incalculable value they can add to a journey.
The obvious advantage of taking a trip organized by an adventure travel company is that all the logistical details — transportation, accommodation, meals – are arranged. This is a boon on any ambitious adventure and is critically important on expeditions to remote regions. But in my experience, a less obvious advantage has turned out to be equally important: the guide. When I think of the best adventure tours I’ve taken, five stand out: a Galapagos Islands small-ship exploration, a safari in East Africa, whitewater rafting in Idaho, heli-hiking in Canada’s Bugaboos, and whale-watching off the coast of Baja California Sur. The common element in all these has been the guide — expert and impassioned, with a lively sense of humor, who has elevated the experience from good to transformational.
Of course, not just any guide can enact this magic. A great guide is a combination teacher, therapist, entertainer, shepherd, navigator, nurse and oh yes, wilderness sage – ensuring clients are safe and satisfied while keeping their own passion and humor intact. It’s an extraordinarily demanding role, but when played well, it can add incalculable value to a trip.
To put a human face on these exceptional folks, I asked a number of Adventure Collection guides to recount a situation where they had made a difference in their clients’ experience. Their answers illuminate the multiple roles great guides are called on to perform – and the multiple ways in which they can enrich a traveler’s experience.
1. Inspirational Coach
Sometimes guides help inspire travelers to surpass the limits they had imposed on themselves. Michael Olsthoorn, who leads heli-skiing and heli-hiking adventures for Canadian Mountain Holidays, recounts such an experience: “One gentleman had joined us for one week in the summer. He came out hiking every day and it was all totally new to him; he’d never been in the mountains before. After a few days we’d already blown his socks off. Then one morning we had a solo guide spot available, and it was a perfect day to go climbing right in the Bugaboo Spires, so we landed the helicopter with this gentleman, and we went to do a day of mountaineering, just him and me out in the hills. It was an incredible clear blue sky day and we climbed up to 10,300 feet. The look on that guy’s face all day was – well, at the end of the day he sat down and looked at me and said, ‘That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.’ Before that day, he never would have thought he could have done that. For him, it was enough to be hiking in the hills, looking at glaciers, and going places that barely anyone else goes to. But then, as the icing on the cake, he got to learn some mountaineering and to climb this peak. He was totally blown away by it. That was rewarding for him — and it was just as rewarding for me.”
2. Insightful Insider
Guides can often impart inside knowledge or expertise – and extra effort — to bestow a special gift on their travelers. Nathanael Dodge of Off the Beaten Path describes two such occasions. “Nature has taught me that getting up early can give you the most special of times. Last year I cajoled a family to head out especially early. The payoff was the hair-raising experience of wolves howling around us in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park. On another trip last year I was guiding a group in Yosemite, and an older gentleman told me that he had a poster he really loved of the photograph ‘Moon and Half Dome’ by Ansel Adams. I calculated roughly when the moon would rise above Half Dome (1:00 am), and we made the hour-long drive back into Yosemite from our lodging. I think I can confidently say we both will never forget that sight.”
Mike Greenfelder of Lindblad Expeditions provides another example of a singular gift: “I have spent most of my adult life being in and around nature, so I believe that I am able to get a feel for what wildlife is doing, or will do. I can use this knowledge to give travelers a better encounter by trying to stay with the action and experiencing it as it is happening, instead of following it from behind. One specific example was kayaking in Mexico when we came upon a school of Mobula – small, Manta-like — rays. It was an incredible, circling mass of hundreds of them, spinning around in an underwater dance, but from above water, you couldn’t appreciate the magnitude of the scene. I convinced a number of folks that they were completely harmless, and we slipped into the water and snorkeled in the center of this ray tornado. Convincing them that they would be perfectly fine and to just float and enjoy provided some people an experience of a lifetime.”
3. Cross-Cultural Connector
Philip Kibet Rono has been a safari guide with Micato Safaris for 19 years. His tale shows how a great guide can weave specialized knowledge and local connections into a tour, stringing a human bridge between cultures: “Once I took a group of our travelers to a tribal village which had just concluded a sacred ceremony. This was a very rare opportunity to see a fascinating culture at a joyous time. Though they hadn’t planned on having guests that day, the villagers were extremely welcoming, answering questions and laughing with the guests. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a great opportunity for two very different cultures to better understand each other. Our travelers said they had never experienced anything like it.”
4. Buoyant Bridge-Builder
Sometimes a guide serves to transform a serendipitous connection into something far greater. Pam Fritz, who has been leading Backroads trips for 10 years, recalls a special encounter in Costa Rica: “About four years ago, we started visiting the small community of Santo Domingo, which is in the Savegre River Valley. We were looking for a way to help support more of the local community and connect our travelers to life in rural Costa Rica. We decided to try to have lunch at a local’s home in Santo Domingo, and through our connections we met Edith Tapia and her family. We were able to arrange the lunch and it turned out to be even more fantastic than we had imagined. It was so rewarding to know that just as we were being given highly unusual insights into village life, we were also helping a local family. We have continued returning ever since: We usually get a game of soccer going with the community, and our guests have the opportunity to see a local home, meet the people who live there, and taste a traditional, home-cooked meal.
“This has been so successful that Backroads has ventured beyond the Tapia family to help the larger community as well. The Savegre River separates the villages of Santo Domingo and Quebrada Aroyo. The only way to get from one village to the other is via a cable crossing over the river. The cable crossing was destroyed in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina when the levels of the Savegre River drastically rose, wiping out roads and bridges. The government did very little to help the community. As a result, in order to get to school, work, or visit friends and family, the locals were crossing the river daily on a make-shift piece of wood that was very dangerous. I approached Backroads and asked if there was any way that we could help these communities and their commute across the river. As part of our Responsible Travel program, Backroads decided to donate money to rebuild the cable crossing. Now, up to four people and a bicycle can cross over the river safely. It’s a small gesture that makes a big difference in the lives of many people.”
5. Transformational Teacher
In addition to seeding and growing connections in this way, guides can also impart life-changing lessons to their travelers. Fausto Carbone has been a guide in Africa for 20 years and leads tours for Bushtracks Expeditions: “My clients’ most special experiences,” he says, “have been when we have been closest to nature, on either a walking safari or a canoeing safari. Being amidst potentially dangerous animals without the protection of a vehicle or solid structure, is a real leveller for everybody. Very slowly, the reality of being outside our sheltered life kicks in. Soon people become very respectful of nature. Some may be a little frightened at first, but this soon changes to excitement, especially after having had the privilege to be “studied” by a wild animal. More often than not, at the end of a trip most people will feel incredibly humbled by these experiences. Not only do they learn that most animals are very non-confrontational, but they feel as if they have really experienced the natural world at close proximity.
“This impact is especially strong with children. In the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, I ran safaris in Zimbabwe exclusively for children. In this setting, I had the pleasure of looking after twenty children at a time for a whole week without their parents in one of the most pristine wilderness areas of the country. After a whole week of fun and games integrated with nature learning, the kids would go back to their parents. Years later I would come across some of these kids and hear from them that these experiences in the bush had had such a great impact on them — a very large percentage of them had gone on to study natural sciences!”
6. Wilderness Therapist
Eric Rock leads Alaska expeditions for Natural Habitat Adventures. His tale illustrates how adventure travel can be a form of therapy, and the guide a therapist who helps channel the healing: “On every trip I make it a point to lead a walk in the forest. One particular walk stands out. I was traveling with a guest who just recently had lost her husband. Early on, she stated that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be on the trip. Then later, after spending some time with the group and observing bears in their natural wilderness, she turned her grief into appreciation for a new understanding. On the last day of our journey, she confided to the group that while on a nature walk in a particularly large stand of old growth cedars, she had come to peace with the feeling that everything in life had purpose and that, when in close balance with nature, there is a cycle to life that even we humans undeniably participate in.”
7. Navigating Negotiator
Guides have to be expert navigators – but sometimes they’re forced to become negotiators as well, as Vassi Koutsaftis recalls on a journey he led for Geographic Expeditions: “On our first trek across from Tibet to Nepal after circumnavigating Mount Kailas, I was able to ‘negotiate’ with the Chinese border guards and we were allowed to cross via a remote border post. We were the first group allowed to do so. If we hadn’t been able to do that, we would have had to drive for 5 days to get out.”
8. Impassioned Life-Changer
In all these ways, guides have a profound effect on the lives of their travelers – in the field and long after the trip is over. Some guides’ influence goes so far beyond their immediate circle of travelers that they end up enriching the lives of countless people. Jeffe Aronson, who navigates travelers through the Grand Canyon for OARS, is one such guide. “I instituted Grand Canyon river trips for people with disabilities, against great political odds,” Aronson recalls. “These trips are now done by the outfitters themselves, and are no longer considered too risky or too much of a hassle. But at the time no one had done it. I will always remember some of these first pioneers, bogged in deep sand in their wheelchairs fishing, or gazing at a waterfall after believing they would never be able to do that again, or being held by their helpers in a rapid, terrified and joyous. The effort was painful and I took a hiding, but I am very proud of it, nonetheless.”
9. Resourceful Life-Saver
And finally, guides can sometimes literally save their clients’ lives. “Our Peru trip involves a 13-km hike along the Inca Trail which climbs 2200 ft and passes through the Gate of the Sun, and finishes at Machu Picchu,” recounts Backroads’ Pam Fritz. “About halfway through the hike, one of my guests started having trouble breathing. She just couldn’t catch her breath, and started losing feeling on her left side and going in and out of consciousness. I knew it wasn’t altitude sickness because she had been fine for the first five days at higher elevations. I called for a stretcher from the trekkers’ hostel and along with two porters and an assistant guide, we carried her up 350 steps of the Winay Wuayna ruins. At the hostel, I hired 10 porters to help us carry her another 5km into the Gate of the Sun, where a doctor was on the way up the trail from Machu Picchu to meet us. I held her hand the entire way, telling her she was going to make it. When we finally met the doctora, she listened to her lungs and diagnosed her with a pulmonary lung infection. With just a shot from the doctor, my guest instantly felt better. We carried her down for a view of Machu Picchu and then got her to the hotel, where she was able to rest and recover.”
In all these varied roles, these guides have harnessed their expertise, compassion, humor and sixth sense of group dynamics to craft an unforgettable adventure for each and every traveler. The members of the Adventure Collection are proud to offer transformational travel experiences under the leadership of such extraordinary people. As one company head said, “These trips aren’t just our business; they’re our passion. We want our travelers to love the places we visit just as much as we do, so we make sure our guides are the best in the business. It’s the Adventure Collection advantage.”