by Tom Bergh


Traditional guides led - clients followed. This insulated participants from the values of wilderness adventuring. But these are not traditional times. A modern guide introduces one to basic guidelines and principles while allowing the day to develop each traveler's knowledge and skills in a safe context.

A strong paddler does not necessarily a good guide make. All professional guides are devoted to development and enhancement of the technical aspects of ocean kayaking, basic skills of paddling, search and rescue, repair and maintenance, navigation, wind and waves, tides, weather, and group skills.These are a given.

Yet the cornerstones of competent guiding are one’s judgment, skill, knowledge, experience - and a natural ability to foresee and immediately, effectively, and creatively respond to any personal issues or emergencies that arise. The modern guide relies upon his intuition and foresight. He must see a threatening situation and take corrective action before it develops into a serious emergency; it is handled before another knows of the danger. Thus the potential incident becomes a controlled educational tool. Remember, experience is a tough teacher...it gives the test before the lesson.

A guide must strive to always exercise that perfect, balanced level of judgment allowing others the opportunity to enhance their wilderness adventures in a safe framework. Guides are form-holders, creators of crucibles within which others experiment. A guide provides sensitive, intuitive leadership, conducts herself with maturity and dignity, and all the while maintains a razor sharp attentiveness to each and every action and event in each moment. Experience assists the judgment of when to make a crossing, who can handle that day's surf, what is one's susceptibility to injury today, who says they are OK while actually not. But insight and the fiercely focused mind are critical to achieving the right balance between safety and adventure - between leading and allowing others to evolve.

A guide engenders respect for others’ positions and values, avoids fruitless arguments, never openly judges others, maintains warm, friendly relations with all traveling companions, and strives to understand, support and nourish those around him. A guide assists in building the unique spirit of that trip. Thus she holds in her mind's eye a clear image of wishes and needs of the travelers on that journey – while remembering that in an emergency, the decision-making is not a democracy. Guides do not show favoritism, do not brag, and are not tough and macho. A guide is always considerate and understanding, and holds genuine concern for all persons well being. A guide thinks positively about one another and herself. A guide reaches out to all boaters in a natural, comfortable way. So she must be aware of August burnout: how it looks, when it arises, and how its effects are minimized.

A guide instills respect for the ocean and island environs, studies natural systems in detail and has a working knowledge of the flora, fauna, history, geology, and the eco and social systems of the areas he is guiding in. The guide is a translator between the suburban world of our clients and the natural world we are lucky enough to work in. The guide is responsible for implementing well-developed ethics of land use, and must face the dilemma of not being able to adequately teach low impact camping to a recreational minded group on a shorter trip. As a steward of wild places, a guide must decide when a group would be too abusive for a particular site, for he alone is responsible for the actions of those he travels with, the future use by others flowing from the current journey, and the protection of those natural resources we work in.

Any guide is highly aware of the importance of the smallest detail of leadership: scheduling, signaling, rigging, packing, launching and landing, menu planning, shopping, cooking, gear fitting, camp siting and the myriads of environmental effects. A guide is keenly attuned to the impact on the areas we drive through, park in, paddle by, land and camp on. She subtly communicates a clear picture of the different lifestyles and values of the communities traveled through so that our often-urban clients may appreciate the differences of the rural lifestyle of the area they are traveling in.

All guides have excellent group skills and are able to instantly obtain necessary responses. They may entertain and story-tell, yet must know when to be quiet, to enjoy the silence and allow others to come forth or muddle through their issues. A guide assists his travelers in developing the unique quality of the current journey, be it ethos, spirit, community or tribe-like, while being crystal clear when events are out-of-the-box and “no” is a necessary statement.

For wilderness travelers are seeking a peak experience in their lives. The modern guide orchestrates the rejuvenation and regeneration that flows from journeying in the wilds; she stands off to the side and lets Nature be the teacher. This is a guide's special service to both her fellow travelers and a more peaceful world.

Are you a guide?

*credited to Ken Fink, Poseidon Kayaks

Tom Bergh has been a guide for over 30 years in kayaking, canoeing and rafting the big Western rivers, journeying in the Great Basin desert and back country skiing in British Columbia, Colorado and Utah. Since 1986 he has owned and operated Maine Island Kayak Co, on Peaks Island, Maine, a dedicated ocean kayak school, trip, and guide service specializing in long trips to outer islands with small groups of guests. He is a Registered Maine Guide, British Canoe Union Coach and ACA Instructor who believes that outdoor adventuring, particularly on the sea, offers a rich forum for development of judgment and personal responsibility.