Category Archives: Outdoor Guide
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
You cannot stay on the summit forever. You cannot live in the wilderness eternally. So why even venture off into wild places to begin with? Why put forth the effort, go through the hassle, and willingly subject yourself to hardships, privations, and lack of modern amenities? The reason is simple—what is gained from the experience changes you. The wilderness, though it physically surrounds you only for a fleeting moment, influences your character persistently.
This summer has been one of wilderness travel for me. From the canoe country of the Boundary Waters and the Quetico, to the backpackers’ paradise of the Rocky Mountains, I have spent countless hours leading others through wild places. Each trip I led, though some of them were lengthy, had to come back eventually. We couldn’t stay out there forever. Food, shelter, medicine, modern conveniences, human connections, and societal obligations all dictated that we must ultimately return. We live lives incontrovertibly connected to the civilized world. We are now dependent on technology and society to meet our daily needs. Though wild places may sustain us spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, few of us are truly prepared to have the wilderness provide all our physical needs.
But it is the non-physical lessons we learn in the wilderness that might be the most powerful. Wilderness travel lies in contrast to our otherwise ordinary lives in the front-country. The wilderness is a place to break out of our comfort zones, a setting where we are forced by necessity to be different, more capable human beings. Out in the wild, you survive on your own wits, or with the companionship of traveling partners. You learn to make do with what you have, or you learn to do without. You begin to realize that small things can lead to big consequences—and, instead of procrastinating, you learn to check problems before they become too big to handle. You become more organized in your daily life, more resourceful with what you have on hand, and you become adept at recognizing cause and effect. You become better at planning ahead. You are forced to live in the moment; foul weather can either foil your prior plans or fine weather can just as much beckon you to linger on. You learn to embrace and deal with the uncertainty of changing plans. And the people you travel with—whether you chose them or not, you will learn to entrust your life with those people, and you will take risks and grow close to them too.
All of these things are lessons we can learn and take away from experiences in the wilderness; because, we cannot take the wilderness itself with us—we can only take the memories of our time spent in the wilds. And all of these lessons transfer quite readily to life in civilization, because, you don’t necessarily even need the wilderness to learn these lessons in the first place. But in venturing out into the wilderness, you learn these lessons quickly, and you learn these lessons more thoroughly. Every time you venture out again into the wilds, you are reminding yourself of what you’ve already learned. Though you cannot bring the summit with you, the knowledge and skill of being the person the wilderness made you out to be is something you can carry with you indefinitely. This is the art of living that Daumal was referring to. But you needed that summit first to get there.
And what better place to learn these important life lessons than the wilderness. In wild lands, where nature lies stark and beautiful, “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (1).” Beauty in the wilderness is intrinsic, and the feeling of remoteness is simultaneously intimidating and enlivening. Endless summit vistas and labyrinth-like waterways have an inherent value of their own. It is worth visiting these wild places regardless of any life lessons gained there. But critically important is the knowledge of who we can be that we take away from wilderness experiences. It took the summit to get there, and once there we could not stay forever. But we can keep the memory of the summit, and we are better people for having gone.
(1) Wilderness Act of 1964
Recently I bought a $200 pair of designer snowpants. Seriously. I know. Totally not like me, right? As I have written before, most of the stuff I own has been acquired through very frugal means (head nod to dumpster diving here). So what’s behind the recent splurge?
Though I do have a penchant for acquiring things that are pre-loved and homely, I do also have a rabid lust for things that are new and nice. This lust compels me to page through catalogs of beautiful objects and to browse through websites staring at all the enticing images of attractive things. Psychologists are right when they explain how buying things releases a flood of endorphins in the brain, those feel-good brain chemicals. For the most part, the objects of my desire run the gamut of fancy outdoor gear designed for outdoor enthusiasts. As an outdoor industry professional, outdoor gear is at the top of the list of things I pine after, and surely is also the most expensive stuff I desire to acquire. I can easily spend hours in any outdoor sports store mindlessly meandering through all the aisles and tactilely handling all of the gear with imaginations of future adventures running through my mind.
Of all the people who buy expensive items like this, I’d like to think that I’m in the upper-half of the bell curve who actually put this stuff to use. I frequent the outdoors for my job, plus my wild recreation time puts extreme wear-and-tear on my gear. Thus, whatever I buy doesn’t end up just sitting unused in an attic. I put this stuff through the wringer and then some. Just ask my old pair of snowpants: acquired used in a swap with a friend four years ago, they were used and abused until they ended up in their present state full of ember holes, small rips and tears, medium holes patched over with nylon or duct-tape, long rips in the material or at the seams that have been stitched back together multiple times, and the more generalized state of well-worn abrasion. Any other person would have given up on that pair of pants ages ago, yet I kept mending them contrary to my naysayers. And I didn’t even spend any money to acquire those snowpants either—I simply traded an extra bike-pump for them! If I do take that much care of my gear that costs me nothing, then how much more might I value the things that cost a pretty penny. Hence, why I decided to drop so much money on a single pair of snowpants. If the quality of the brand holds up, then I should be wearing that pair of snowpants for a decade at the very least. If you think about it economically averaged, in ten years the annual cost of those snowpants would be only $20. That’s a pretty reasonable investment indeed.
And it’s an investment that I feel is not only admissible but also justifiable. It’s not a sin to own nice things if you take good care of them and use them well. After all, the stuff that I do own I take splendid care of, whether I bought it at full price or pulled it out of a dumpster. And I don’t consume much in the way of new things, either; I will constantly mend and repair the things I own until they are no longer useful. When it comes to actually purchasing new things, I’m a very reluctant consumer, to say the least.
But there is a lot of baggage with owning nice things, and that just doesn’t account for the expense of having to take care of those items. The nice things that I so frequently lust after—those designer snowpants, those fancy outdoor clothes—they project a status symbol, and one that I am not entirely at ease with bearing. Designer outdoor clothes from the major brands are expensive, and are in fact purveyors of status and privilege. I myself am unconsciously brand-conscious, even though I don’t try to be. Other people I interact with are also brand-conscious, and wearing such brands feeds into their perceptions who I am as a person. As an outdoor professional, I should feel like I have permission to wear such clothes with impunity. Especially since, as an outdoor professional, I basically get 40% off retail price on virtually anything with industry pro-deals, on top of my good nose for bargains. But the average, everyday person I meet doesn’t know this about me. They don’t know that I can buy my clothes at a deep discount. To them, it all looks the same, and in a sense it is. The premium you pay at the cash register is not for the garment quality, but for the label. Wearing those brands, I appear as someone who was willing to pay the premium for the status of the label.
I’ve wrestled with this question of brand-image for quite a long time. I didn’t wear designer outdoor brands growing up, though they were quite popular among my high school and college classmates. I, too, lusted for the status that wearing such brands represented. Yet at the same time, I also felt uncomfortable with that status. I was too conscientious of all the baggage.
After many years of deliberation, I finally caved in and bought myself a garment. It was a very nice green Patagonia fleece, comfortable, durable, beautiful. But it also came at a hefty price tag. Being my first piece of outdoor designer clothing, I was very nervous about wearing it. My friends would see it and would notice the change in attire. They would make comments. I would feel uncomfortable with all the attention. It would feel as if I had started walking around with a giant hickey on my neck—an incriminating mark as to my underlying behavior and values.
But that was four years ago. I still have that green Patagonia fleece, and it still is my most frequently worn item of clothing. Sticking to the intentions I had when I purchased it, I aim to get at least another six years of heavy use from it to make the purchase justifiable. And since that day it still has been the only piece of outdoor designer clothing which I had purchased for myself, until the snowpants. I still am conscious of the impression I give off on people when they see the brands I wear. But the few holes and increasingly pilly texture of my fleece are things I am proud of—signs that I have been putting my clothing to use in the manner it was designed—in the rugged outdoors. The wear and tear, especially on my nice outdoor clothing, gives the purchase of the item some more credibility and eases the conscious just a little.
But still, I remain somewhat uncomfortable with these items and the image it presents of myself. Wearing Patagonia and the like brands are hallmarks of the affluent white culture. By purchasing and wearing such garments, I am making a statement that I am part of that culture. But what about relating to other people, from different, less affluent cultures? Is the clothing one wears a barrier to connecting and empathizing with the less fortunate? Especially those who can’t afford a pair of pants, let alone a pair of $200 snowpants?
As you can see, I enjoy owning nice things, but sometimes I wonder if I can afford to live with the baggage such privilege comes with.
It all began with a quiet evening pontoon ride on a glassy pond.
Radio traffic breaks the silence.
This is Base Camp! Do you read? Do not return to Base Camp! I repeat, do not return!
The seven campers riding on the pontoon boat turn their heads in abrupt curiosity at the surprise emergency call.
A situation has arisen here…something has invaded camp…lurking in the woods…glowing green…
The campers become more perplexed at the emerging crisis.
I repeat, do not return to Base Camp! It is very dangerous here—ALIENS!—ahhhhhhhhhhhh!
I turn to the driver of the pontoon boat and give a knowing nod. “Since we shouldn’t return to camp, I can drop you off on the island in the pond,” he suggests. A moment later, all seven campers and their two intrepid leaders step off the beached pontoon onto the island carrying nothing with them. “I’m going to investigate this situation, and I’ll come back for you later,” says the driver as he pulls away, “I’ll be back shortly!” As the engine noise from the pontoon slowly fades away, we realize that we are now left alone on the island. Left alone to fend for ourselves and survive in isolation for the unforeseen future.
So starts the summer adventure trip known as ‘Castaways’ at YMCA Camp Burgess on Cape Cod. The campers who sign up for this trip come knowing that they would be spending time surviving on a ‘deserted’ island sandwiched between two very active summer camps. They bring their sleeping pads and their mess kits and they mentally prepare to spend a week ‘roughing it’ in the wild. But—they weren’t prepared for all the surprises and pranks that we trip leaders would pull on them.
To be fair, staging an alien invasion on camp as a premise to get the campers onto the island early is a pretty farfetched idea. But, the bigger surprise was that none of the campers knew they would be getting stranded on the island that night. Leading up to the trip, all the campers were told was that they would be spending their first night at Base Camp back at Burgess, heading to the island on their second day. Even once they arrive at Base Camp, they are shown the platform tent where they will be ‘staying’ their first night. But then the surprise occurs: we convince them to go on an evening pontoon ride as a pre-island team-building activity, and next thing they know they are dropped off on the island. The trip has begun.
“Are you serious right now?” asks a camper freshly on the island. “Where even is our stuff?”
Good question, kid. Now go search the island.
Earlier in the afternoon, before the boat ride, we trip leaders held a brief meeting with the new castaway arrivals to address an unexpected situation at camp. A problem had arisen, we told them. The fire inspector had stopped by camp this afternoon, we said. The platform tent assigned to the Castaways was deemed structurally unsafe. We’ll have to send you all to an empty cabin somewhere else on camp tonight. Better pack your bags, kids. Sorry about the tent…not!
Little did they know, but the fire inspector story was just a hoax. While the campers were out on the boat, other camp staff had secretly nabbed their packed bags and transported them undetected to the island.
Back on the island, the search for supplies takes full effect. Pinkham Island, as it is formally known, is not a large tract of land to search, though it offers many good hiding places. An ovular shape approximately 500 feet long by 200 feet wide, Pinkham Island is a sandy forested plateau rimmed entirely by a rocky beach. A few clearings exist for campsites, otherwise the island is primitive. It is barely an island, too. Camp, back on the mainland, lies only 30 feet away, a simple wade through ankle deep water. But the campers don’t know this about Pinkham Island. And right now, they are too pre-occupied with their own survival in the waning twilight. The island is scoured, first haphazardly, then systematically. Supplies are found one by one: coolers full of food, tents hidden in the bushes, military surplus ammo cans filled with coveted essentials. The campers all eventually find that even their own bags have mysteriously appeared on the island.
By now we have spent only a few hours on the island. Our tents are set up and we have settled in to stay a spell. An abundantly prepared camper has brought a flint and steel and is busy trying to light a fire, unsuccessfully. The nine of us gather around the dull campfire circle to discuss what we know about our situation: aliens have invaded camp; the island is the only safe spot left; the U.S. government is keeping us safe and provisioned while they battle the alien menaces; we must use our own wits to stay safe and survive.
The shimmering morning sunlight wakes everyone up early the following morning. They don’t know it’s earlier than six am—we leaders took all of their watches before the trip. Everyone has made it through their first night. The Castaways now mill about the campsite assessing their situation. More feeble attempts at lighting a fire are made before the campers give up in frustration. I was hoping for a hot breakfast, I tell them, but unfortunately there is no fire. Sorry kids. I reach into the food cooler and pull out some hard dry bagels for breakfast. The look of disappointment is priceless.
After the first morning’s ‘disappointment breakfast’, we commence our first challenge on the island. A fire competition—Burn the Twine. The Castaways are divided into three teams. Which team can start a fire with a handful of matches and burn through their suspended twine first? The competition will reveal the victors. Though the campers know that a desirable reward is on the line, little do they know that the winners and losers also get assigned to different island chores. Losers of Burn the Twine—well, they get to carry the groover (our much maligned industrial-strength porta-potty) off the island.
After Burn the Twine, the Castaways have completed their fire challenge and have now learned about the principles of making and sustaining a fire. All the meals from now on will be hot, cooked, and delicious. More challenges await the campers in the following days: tree identification, knot tying, raft prototype building, tribal dancing, scat modeling, Leave No Trace ethics. With each challenge completed, the Castaways learn more about surviving in the backcountry with limited resources. Life on the island keeps getting more luxurious too. With each successfully completed challenge comes a new reward: playing cards, Frisbees, ice cubes, lemonade mix, a hammock, a radio. Life is getting pretty good. We could stay out here for a while…
All the while off the island, the war between the alien invaders and the U.S. Government has been raging on. The battles become especially more pronounced at night, with colorful armaments exploding over the horizon. The climax came on our third night on the island, the night of July 4, when the bombing campaign reached its zenith. Military planes flying low overhead to nearby Otis Air Force Base added to the plausibility for the extraterrestrial scenario. And even though hundreds of people can be seen from the island, it is not safe to approach the others. Their minds have been taken over by the alien invaders, brainwashed into being slaves to their conquerors.
The morning after the epic battle of July 4, we receive no new supply drops from the government. Things seem quiet around camp—too quiet. A spattering of extraterrestrial goo is found around camp. Wait! Does the goo form a trail? Follow it, kids. Where does it lead? At the end of the goo trail is a clutch of glowing green alien eggs. Looks like the invaders are closing in on our whereabouts. Better eat those eggs for breakfast before they hatch…
With our faith in the success of the U.S. Government waning, we decide to take matters into our own hands. Clearly, judging from the eggs, the aliens know where we are. We can’t expect the island to be a sanctuary any longer. We make a plan to build a raft to escape the island. In a feat of unity, the seven stranded Castaways put aside their competitive differences in constructing a raft to hold them all on their escape from the island (in a foreboding omen, however, the raft is held together with nothing but nooses—also lesson for me, if you show a group of young teenage boys a dozen useful knots, the only one they will remember how to tie is the noose). Raft complete! Ready for imminent departure!
Awaiting any further communication from the U.S. Government, we retreat back to our central campfire to enjoy a hearty meal and some group bonding time around the fire. When the daylight fades, I introduce one of my favorite nighttime camp games to the group—Body Body. The premise of the game is that there is a group of townspeople and a few clandestine mafia whose goal is to secretly ‘kill’ the townspeople off without getting caught. The game involves trodding the now-familiar paths on the island in the dark, trying to detect which players are the mafia without getting killed yourself. Round after round of Body Body is played, and the campers get absolutely into it. They feel confident trouncing around the darkened paths and hiding in the bushes in ambush. Nothing scary is going to get them on the island, right?
It’s already late at night, but we gather around the radiant embers of the dying campfire to start yet another round of Body Body. But then, an unexpected rustle in the bushes. Calm down kids, we leaders reassure them, it’s probably just a raccoon in the brush. Let’s keep playing our game. But—more rustles follow. Could the aliens be lurking in the shadows for us, the campers begin to wonder silently. I approach the suspect bushes and shine my flashlight. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. You kids, your imaginations are running wild. But then, spooky music arises from the bushes. And unexpectedly, more quick rustling behind them. The seven boys huddle in a tight circle, sticking close to the fire and to each other. Even the bravest in the group is biting his lower lip in a nervous fashion. More rustling and running figures emanate forth from the bushes. The alien invaders are here! A foreign voice cries out from the shrubbery “You have twelve hours to leave the island or you’ll meet your demise!”
The rustling disappears and the eerie music fades. The once joyful campers are left in mortal fear of their impending doom. In the aftermath of the alien scare, the campers try to decide what to do next. One camper mistakenly heard the dark figure say that they have two, not twelve, hours to leave the island. All seven Castaways then eventually agree that this was the warning that was given. No time to waste now…in the dark several campers start packing up their belongings. They are ready for an immediate departure. For as much joking around that they had earlier about aliens, suddenly this is no laughing matter! Eventually the frenzy that arose during our arranged ‘alien scare’ settles down. The Castaways make a plan to deal with the invaders. They will take shifts to watch for when the aliens come back for us. Some will sleep, while the others will stand guard. Around 12:30 am the call comes to switch shifts. A tired sleep begins to fall upon all the campers. Eventually they all fall into a restful slumber, unconcerned about any alien invaders.
The morning after the alien scare, our fifth day on the island, we conclude that we have lost all hopes for our salvation. The government has been defeated, and we are on our own for our survival. In the clarity of the morning sunlight, we pack up our camp and cook our final breakfast together—fittingly, alien-green pancakes—over the campfire. We then bring our most valuable supplies to our makeshift raft which we will use to escape. Will the raft float? Will we make it across? The mainland lies two-hundred feet away through deep water from this end of the island—but here is our only shot at survival. While we make our final preparations for leaving our island home, a visitor has slowly been creeping up in the bushes behind us. Dressed in all green, our alien visitor from last night has returned! He pops out of the bushes to jump-scare the campers. In the daylight, the Castaways can tell it’s just another camp counselor dressed up, but they happily play along with the fright. They run laughing and screaming back to the raft and clamber on. The raft sinks and falls apart under their weight, but they keep swimming to reach the mainland. They have made it off the island at last, learning and having fun along the way. Another Castaways trip in the books.
Good job, kids.
Getting paid to do what you love for a profession—an idea very appealing to a young, idealistic adventurer. We all have to work to earn a living anyway; might as well find a way to get paid for our passions. For myself, I really enjoy spending time in the outdoors, visiting wild places and traveling in the backcountry. Even if I held a conventional job I’d be doing these activities in my own free time. So, with an ample demand for outdoor guides in the recreation industry, why not become a guide and get paid to do my favorite pastime? Plus I’ve always enjoyed outdoor trips more when I’m with people to share it. Thus working as an outdoor guide seemed like an ideal position for me: I’d not only get to take people to spectacular places in the outdoors, I’d earn a livelihood from it as well.
I had entertained the fantasy of being an outdoor guide for a long time coming, basically ever since I went on my first guided trips and learned that guiding can be a profession. The outdoor guides leading me had always seemed to carry a certain aura to them: super-engaging, energetic, and adventurous. They got to spend so much of their time going out on trips or hanging out and goofing off at the outfitters. I perceived them as experienced gurus capable of surviving outdoors under any situation. They also seemed timeless—living eternally in the carefree moment of the trip and not caring about what happened before or what would come after a trip. Most important of all, they all seemed to be having fun no matter what. This was my preconceived notion of who outdoor guides were.
Now I’ve completed my first experience on the other side. Technically I have been a professional guide, since I received compensation for my guiding services. Yet it still feels really out of place and especially undeserved to consider myself a professional. I still feel like such an amateur, and so many of the skills required for the job I’m still developing. But as I’ve seen from employment, aside from the rudimentary outdoor skills needed to run a trip, a guide doesn’t need to be a technical gearhead at all. In my case at North Star Camp, I wasn’t hired for my technical skills—I was hired for my judgement and ability to relate to children. My guiding job was a whole lot more social than I expected; and perceptive social skills more so than advanced technical skills really make each outdoor trip memorable.
North Star Camp took the kind of people they wanted to hire and made guides out of them. Most trip leaders at North Star, like me, had very little canoeing experience prior to the summer; some had never even canoed before. But we all learned quickly. So many of the requisite technical skills of guiding can be trained in a short period of time. In my case, this included basic wilderness medical safety gained in an eight-day Wilderness First Responder Course followed by an intensive two week trip leader training conducted by North Star. All the trip leaders at North Star Camp this summer were first-time guides; our training consisted of an abundance of practical practice as we essentially scouted all of the trips we would be taking the campers out on. By the time the first campers had arrived for the summer, I had undergone nearly a month of training. By then I was more than ready to start guiding people. Adding campers to each trip just seemed like the next logical step—not much of a stretch at all.
However quickly technical outdoor skills can be taught, the parts of guiding that are most difficult to train are the interpersonal skills and social perceptiveness needed to effectively lead a group through the wilderness. The social aspect of the job can be touched upon during training, but so much of it is developing your own guiding personality from experiences gained on the job. Being an outdoor guide is quite like a big game of improv, a constant flux of evaluating the conditions and then adjusting plans based on a reading of group dynamics. Should we break for lunch here or there, now or later? Should we get to camp early or sleep in late? Does the group want free time or more structured activities? Aside from the generalized structure of a trip which details major trip checkpoints, a lot of events on the trip are still unknown even to the guide. Most of the time we’re just one step ahead of the group with our decisions, but we pretend we had an exact plan in mind the entire time. So much of guiding is just acting the part, looking confident and making decisions on the fly. Constantly we keep weighing multiple scenarios in our heads, evaluating which ones would benefit the group the most based on continually changing circumstances. Although before each trip goes out there is a lot of prep work in order to be adequately prepared, once you’re out in the field there’s a limited amount of control over the circumstances—everything else is just improvisation and making do with the conditions.
Being an outdoor guide may have been the most fun job I’ve ever taken, but still it’s a job. Getting paid to take vacation after vacation is not the right idea for it. Sure, I’d be inclined to take personal outings to the places I led trips this summer. But when leading a trip as a guide the dynamic is entirely different than on a vacation with friends. Being a guide puts a lot of responsibility on you—you are the designated leader, the point-person for any mishaps that occur. Many guides are barely over 21, yet are entrusted with the health and safety of people venturing out into the backcountry—in my case, being entrusted with other people’s children. Perhaps some guides can give the air of being completely carefree, but the position actually requires constant vigilance to maintain the safety and well-being of all the participants.
Additionally, there are always the hum-drum tasks that are part of the guiding position. With so many trips coming and going, I was always in the process of unpacking the previous trip while outfitting for the next one. My guided trips were all of a similar nature, so I ended up doing lots of things over and over again: setting up tents, cooking campfire meals, doing camp dishes, loading and unloading gear, even paddling down the river could become mundane at times. Although a lot of these campcraft tasks are intrinsically enjoyable to me, doing these same tasks trip after trip for a job instead of for personal recreation turned some enjoyable tasks into a chore instead. On my own personal trips, I could do the same amount of work with hardly noticing, but when it’s part of the job description, unfortunately, it can feel more obligatory than self-initiated.
Even for as much work as a fun job like guiding can be, all the hard work seems worth it when the participants on your trip say they really enjoyed themselves. Leading trips may be your job, and you may have to go canoeing and camping on days you’re not feeling up to it. You may have even run this particular trip half a dozen times this summer already. But for the people you are leading, the days they are on a trip are something out of the ordinary. It is far different from the regular hum-drum of their daily lives. These participants come outdoors and notice the beauty of nature and appreciate the recreational activities with fresh eyes and happy expressions. It really makes my trip when I’m reminded of that.
“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known”
-Sigurd F. Olson-
The Canadian. A non-specific phrase in its own right, but at North Star Camp for Boys, a phrase loaded with connotations of all caliber. At camp, talk of the Canadian points specifically to the many facets of one thing—it is the epic journey, a bildungsroman, a rite of passage unambiguously for the boys of North Star. Steeped in over 50 years of tradition, this outdoor trip to the wilderness of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park proves itself as an experience of a lifetime.
They have been looking up to the Canadian trip since they were first year campers—with apprehension, fear, wonder, amazement, longing. They have heard various tales and rumors about this trip from their friends, older brothers, or even their fathers who have completed the trip long before them. Successive cohorts of campers go on the trip and make their return, detailing the experience with tall tales and exaggerated truths. Each year spent at camp, the young boys see the Canadian trip getting closer and closer.
The Canadian is the culmination of North Star’s progressive outdoor tripping program. Every year at camp, the campers take a longer and more difficult outdoor trip. The youngest campers begin with an overnight canoe trip on a nearby docile river. River trips then become progressively longer and more technical as the campers mature developmentally. The year before their Canadian, campers trade in their canoes for packs and go on a hiking trip the length of five days and four nights. The following year, the Canadian trip more than doubles the amount of nights spent in the wilderness. Such an extensive experience is the Canadian that of an entire summer spent at camp, activities directly and indirectly related to the trip take up a quarter of the summer.
The mere thought of spending that much time out in the Quetico Wilderness proves intimidating to some of the boys. The mental and physical endurance required to complete the trip is much higher than any trip these boys have yet completed. Some doubt their abilities to complete the trip. Still, generation after generation of North Star campers handily complete the journey. It is a coming of age for all who undertake it. Though they are becoming young men, they are still a group of children; at only 14 or 15 year old, this is their last summer at camp as campers. The Canadian is the final transformational process in which these boys become men; a more tactile transformation than the symbolic coming of age of their Bar Mitzvahs only a couple years earlier. The transformation of the boys on the Canadian is one that they’ve earned through their hard work and endurance on the journey.
The Canadian, in a way, is a process of giving tangible hardship and practical challenge to a group of campers who face reduced adversity in their normal lives. Most campers attending North Star live in wealthy suburbs and come from privileged families who can afford to send their children to such a camp. North Star itself is not an outdoor camp either—it is a traditional residential summer camp with a tripping program only as one small component. Although every cabin group goes on an outdoor trip each summer, most campers do not come for the trips themselves. Though some boys love the trips, others can’t wait for them to be over.
The Canadian, though always shrouded in mystique, was never anything more than the campers could handle. In fact, the challenge of Canada was substantially less than what it’s made to be. The gestalt of the journey may seem intimidating beforehand, but in reality the pilgrimage consists of nothing more than small obstacles to be overcome in the here and now. Looking back, the group of campers who I led should be proud of what they accomplished. Over the course of 9 days of wilderness travel, my camper group canoed over 105 miles and portaged the entire outfit over 7 miles in 22 separate portages. We faced variable weather, changing from intensely sunny and hot, to shivering cold and wet. Thunderstorms had us seeking emergency shelter off the lakes multiple times, and after storms on the second night soaked most of our gear, everything stayed damp with periodic rain and storms the remainder of the trip. We found strong headwinds could delay forward progress despite everyone’s strongest paddling, or a long muddy portage could take over three hours to complete and leave us pitching camp after 9 at night. Some nights dinner was freeze-dried lasagna unintentionally prepared as a soup, or our rations were reduced because of mice foraging in the food packs. My group even experienced an emergency seaplane evacuation of one of the campers on the second day.
The boys on my trip were thrown a lot of adversity, but the way they handled it was most indicative of their maturity. Though there was much to grumble about, there was little complaining out of sheer desire to complain. The tasks that needed doing were done, eventually with less prodding from me as the guide. Most importantly, a general good attitude was maintained throughout the duration of the trip. My camper group proved to me what maturing men they could be, and what they could handle in the circumstances. As well, the camper who was seaplane evacuated returned later to the group and finished the trip strong.
As an outsider to North Star’s 72 summers of tradition, I had to quickly learn the sheer importance of a trip like the Canadian. At pre-camp training, many of this year’s Counselors-in-Training (who were campers last year) said that their most proud accomplishment was completing the Canadian. At a Friday night ceremony with the entire camp staff later, when everyone was called to share a sentimental object, many more camper veterans brought objects associated with their Canadian journey. Even the camp’s program director, a North Star veteran of 30+ years, brought the souvenir of his first Canadian—a Loony Dollar—that he has kept tucked in his wallet since his first Canadian experience in the early 90’s. As a newcomer to North Star and as a first-year trip leader, I was honored to have the pleasure of being a guide for such a pivotal trip. As a guide, mine would be the responsibility of leading these boys safely through the wilderness and ensuring that they get the most out of their Canadian experience.
As much as the Canadian is a coming of age for the campers, the trip was a coming of age of my own. This Canadian trip was my induction into outdoor guiding, the first trip I ever led as a professional guide. Every trip experience before had been recreational and informal, either taken by myself or with my friends. For the first time, I was the officially responsible party for the safety and well-being of 12 children and two young adult counselors. I was tasked with making the trip a success and making sure the campers got the most out of their experience. Overall, my trip was an unqualified success. I surprised myself at how I could lead others in the wilderness just as much as the campers surprised themselves by completing their Canadian.
The classroom is lined with bruised and bloodied students, oblivious of their apparent injuries, all sitting at attention ready to learn. Though the injuries may look severe or concerning (especially the occasional impaled object), everything here is purely superficial, the product of realistic special-effects make-up used in class scenarios. Although each student is cured of their ails at the end of each scenario, the special effects make-up stays on long afterwards, a constant reminder to the students about the nature of their studies.
This classroom scene is from a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. The WFR (verbalized as ‘Woofer’) students are here to learn the fundamentals of wilderness medicine. Over an intensive eight-day schedule, students go from learning about the critical systems of the human body to applying such knowledge in realistic scenarios of wilderness medical emergencies. The aim of the WFR course is to teach any interested person enough to be able to safely assess and evaluate any emergency situation and provide basic life support to each patient when in a wilderness setting—that is, when definitive medical care is at least two hours away. Medicine in the wilderness context is made more challenging by the lack of medical supplies and a setting that is often hostile to medical emergencies and the rescuers. Thus, WFR students are taught a holistic program of extended patient comfort and care in the wilderness and are encouraged to improvise tools from outdoor gear when medical devices are scarce.
A WFR course attracts an affable and often young group of similar-minded outdoor enthusiasts. Such personalities come with the terrain. Many enrolled in the course are burgeoning outdoor professionals—guides or instructors—but some also take the course for personal development. All share the general desire to help others in emergency situations in the wilderness. With a common interest in the outdoors and backcountry medicine, and with so much class-time spent together, a class group dynamic forms with its unique bond. Being comfortable with the other students in the course is essential too; as a very hands-on classroom setting, WFR students get close and personal in the process of learning: performing spinal palpations, simulating rescue breathing, backboarding, and much more. Having a WFR course taught at a roadless camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area also doesn’t hurt the sense of group formation. Classroom time is shared, but so are meals, lodging, and recreation time in this residential setting. The aura is one continually steeped in the learnings of backcountry medicine.
The WFR curriculum carries no pre-requisites. Class instruction takes the student from the ground-up and quickly builds upon newly acquired knowledge. Starting with the basics, students learn about the three critical life systems of the respiratory, circulatory, and neurologic systems in the patient primary assessment. A deficit in any of these three critical systems could entail death to the patient within minutes. Simple, early scenarios in the course cement the concepts of checking each patient for these critical systems to safeguard each life in immediate danger.
Once WFR students master the basics, they soon learn more about advanced topics—a wide variety of serious and not-so-serious medical conditions. Patients with intact critical systems get a thorough secondary assessment in the field that can uncover many other challenging problems. Discoveries made on the secondary patient assessment will lead to the decision of an urgent evacuation, non-urgent evacuation, or field treatment of the patient. A traumatically injured patient may soon go into shock and need to be evacuated immediately, whereas some simple joint dislocations can be reduced in the field allowing a trip to continue. All problems, from critical to superficial, become the territory of the well-trained WFR.
The apex of practical training in the WFR course comes towards the end, when students put their new skills and knowledge into practice in realistic full-scale simulations of medical emergencies. This is where the special-effects make-up really comes into play. The course instructor will set up a medical scenario in the woods—be it a storm during a canoe trip or a mass rock climbing fall—and use some students as patients. Student-patients get a list of injuries to act out in a scene; fake bruises and blood add to the realism. Other students in the course then serve as rescuers in the scenario, approaching student-patients with little prior knowledge of the scene. Using their newly acquired knowledge, student-rescuers need to perform patient assessments and treat injuries in the field as if it were a real emergency. Even after only eight days of training, the student-rescuers perform their job with a high degree of skill and knowledge. Mistakes are still made in these simulations, but class debriefings help both patients and rescuers understand what went well and what could be improved. Afterwards, student-patients and student-rescuers switch roles to practice additional medical scenarios. One can learn just as much about wilderness medicine by being a patient as by being a rescuer.
Certified WFRs are everywhere. We look just like any ordinary person. You may see us in a city or encounter us in the great outdoors. When the situation arises, we are trained and prepared for the emergency. And we may just be the ones who can save a life.