Illustration by Sara Wilde
Guiding is a hands-on way of living. Hands that start fire in the rain, coax meat from game, offer a hot plate of food miles from civilization. Strong enough to tame a displaced northern pike, yet gentle enough to allow for its release. Hands that help call animals, with fingers that point the way. A hand-up when fallen, and pat on the back when you done good, because guides know their strength.
Them smarts and that confidence come from choosing a profession where the work is your passion. As guides, there is something about the fish and animals that lure them from “good jobs”, urban centres, and relationships, or that shelter them from those distractions in the first place. It’s their calling. And for those who are so fortunate, the more time you spend in their company the louder you hear it.
They know how to have a good time, but also how to ask the right questions and reserve passing judgment. They’re not afraid to mention when you’re getting out of line. While you choose to pound beers, the guides are fixing equipment and prepping gear, and that focus is a part of what makes them professional-grade. What they accomplish out there in the middle of nowhere raises the bar for what qualifies as an adventure. Their techniques approach that of a whisperer. But if you think they fish and hunt for a living, that oversimplifies the art and craft of their practice.
Guides show you to their best spots and never fire a shot or cast a line; they present opportunities for you to make something of yourself. Not so much as a hunter or fisher, but rather mentor or conservationist. They can show you down that path, to where your imagination runs wild. But step back and realize that without scouting, your precious vacation time is not as productive. After that morning bird hunt and during the siesta that follows, trust your guide is at work with mind and body to improve the next experience. As a bonus, the cooking and cleaning keep you alive and comfortable. They have an energy.
Driven by the wisdom of youth to explore what you’re made of, guides will push. Back home, the old rich men would bristle at the idea of such a young punk even suggesting he park their luxury car. In camp, they trust their lives in the hands of guides with wilderness educations and their first beard. They have no choice. Guides are alphas and social animals that can read a situation, adapt, and deploy charm to keep everyone happy. Fear their reprimands for non-compliance, or even worse, their silence. Know that they want to push you out of your comfort zone and test your mettle. And in that regard, they lead by example.
Try standing at the tiller to ride the rollers, the boat through the storm impervious to rain and wind. Try turning geese with one of several languages they speak. Try to get a sense for where big game moves. And while you’re trying, make it look easy. This life is 24/7, the quarry changes with the season, and those repetitions result in mastery, and perhaps a certain harmony. Living in close quarters with no roads out, limited access to the usual vices, guides indulge in other kinds of risk. Success in the face of nature’s challenges brings about a special quality that makes others feel like they too can belong. The untamed becomes a playground because of their skills and first-hand knowledge. And in return, their expectations are modest.
Guides want you to come prepared and offer an honest assessment of your abilities. Good listening skills trump all else. Recognize you are out of your element and relinquish control to your guide. Some expect a hard day’s work in return, driven by their contagious enthusiasm. They know what’s good for you. Don’t waste their energy by letting trophies keep you from having fun. The biggest compliment is coming back next year, supporting their way of living, and in doing so, promoting the consumption and conservation of fish and game.
For a guide’s work impacts rural economies, stocks food banks, informs scientific research and attracts outside monies for local improvements. Notice who donates to banquets, who champions youth hunts, who shows up and is hands-on. Guides understand. If given the chance, shake their hand and share a story.
John went on an inspiring sandhill crane hunt in western Manitoba this fall with the owner and guides of Birdtail Waterfowl. With much respect to Paul, Mike (Dr. Crane), Sean, Ryan, Darcy, Jason, Tyson, Jay, Andrew, and Jordan.