Tools of the Trade: The Kayak Guide Training Course

August-September 1998

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.

by Sue Handel

Some people have a way of making things look easy. Take for example some of the great sea kayak guides out there. What a life! Enjoying the outdoors, keeping in shape. But after taking Ecomarine's Assistant Guide training course this past April, I recognize that kayak guiding is not quite as easy as it looks. Truth is, if it does look easy, you're probably in the presence of a guide with the right combination of tools for the trade.

Last winter I came up with the idea of pursuing a career as a kayak guide. I had graduated from University, but rather than create work for myself, I really only created work for the bank employee who now oversees my student loan. I wasn't sure what my next move would be. Back to bed? To the fridge? My mother encouraged me to take on something a little more challenging. So I sat down to consider the true ins and outs of kayak guiding.

My idea of being a kayak guide boiled down to three things: travel opportunities, keeping healthy, and travel opportunities. Let's face it. The job has sex appeal. I searched the internet and discovered that Ecomarine in Vancouver offers a nine-day guide training course in Tofino. A few months later, I found myself with seven others on the doorstep of the Paddlers Inn in Tofino ("the" place to hang out if you're a kayaker).

Instructor Marty Rosen talking Ted Chisholm through the elusive eskimo roll.

We had no sooner introduced ourselves than our instructors, Ken and Marty, put us to work on the water, reviewing basic strokes and working on bracing, ferrying, rolling and crossing eddy lines. We were all pretty keen on pushing our limits, knowing we were within safe showering distance of the elusive Paddlers Inn. But this luxury only lasted for the first three days because on day four we headed out for the most intense part of the course - a six day, self guided trip in Clayoquot Sound. (Actually, the trip may have extended much further than that. A certain ill-planned surf launch one morning resulted in numerous pieces of gear being torn from our decks, swallowed up by the cycling crash of waves making their final exit. Some of the stuff was salvaged but we considered posting lost gear posters in cities throughout Japan.)

When I say a "self-guided" trip, I mean this literally because from the first morning that we hit the water, the route was up to us.

Two people per day were assigned to run the show, meaning that the destiny of the whole group lay on the shoulders of the designated leaders, for one long day. In retrospect, Ken and Marty were teaching us something, by not teaching us. We had been placed in an environment where the learning would be experiential (the best kind) but safe. Ken and Marty were always there in the shadows of the green backs that rolled under us on those stormy days.

With some strong technical skills under our belts, we left the beach on day one under the guidance of Shelley and Ed who'd been granted the dubious honor of being the first to take a stab at leading. Shelley knew a lot about the history of the islands in Clayoquot as she had been born and raised on one of them. As we paddled along she told us how the natives managed to fall the huge cedars along the shoreline and then spend months carving canoes from them. And Josee, even though she wasn't guiding that day, taught us about "usnea". You know the lacy green moss sometimes called witches' hair or old man's beard? According to Josee 'usnea' is edible when it has an elastic-like flexibility to it. It is also makes a great windsock for judging paddling conditions. Spot some usnea in the trees high above and you might get an idea of what the weather will bring.

In the afternoon Ed took over the lead from Shelley and we followed him to a site they had picked out for our first night's camp. He had a way of communicating which was subtle but very effective. Without saying too much, we knew what he wanted from us and we followed him. Although he made it look easy, Ed was planning every stroke, labouring over every decision.

In the evenings, after the guides for the day had set up camp, made dinner and checked in to see that everyone was happy and healthy, Ken and Marty would call it a day and we'd debrief. By this point, of course, the day's guides would be completely exhausted - not so much physically as mentally. While we "clients" had followed along, enjoying the beauty of Clayoquot Sound, the guides had been sweating over their every move. Up early, they'd had to figure out what the weather was going to do. Could we even go out that day? Was the wind going to pick up or die off? Were we going to be able to take advantage of the current? When did we have to leave? What was for breakfast?

With each of us taking our turn guiding, we had the opportunity to evaluate each other and learn what worked and what didn't. We decided for example, when Ted tried to move Shelley and her sore arm out of her single kayak and into a double, there probably shouldn't have been a stove strapped to the deck getting in the way. What did work however, was the portable "travel" guitar that Joe had tucked into the front hatch of his kayak. This little wonder, along with Joe's ummm...creative lyrics, made for the perfect close to a long day on the water. What better than the strum of a guitar accompanied by the hum of the waves.

By the end of the week, the seven of us had a much clearer idea of what guiding was all about. We understood that Ken and Marry had spent years creating their own kayak guide "tool box" while the seven of us were just getting started. We understood that only a small part of guiding a kayak trip was about kayaking. The rest was about spending days in a remote area with people you've never met before and possibly don't even like! We realized that yes, good guides have strong paddling skills but they are also weather forecasters, navigational specialists, doctors, chefs, entertainers, biologists, natural history experts, psychiatrists and most importantly, leaders. These skills are not easily acquired and we came to appreciate Ken and Marry in action, making it all look so easy.

Three months after finishing Ecomarine's Guiding Course, my head still buzzes with words like "impact zone", "fetch" and "neap tides". Some of the concepts from the course are still clear; others are fuzzy.

I guided my first trip as a "certified" assistant right here on Gabriola Island. The weather was superb, winds calm, we were in protected waters and our group was... well, our group was my family OK, so they weren't "real" clients. And I didn't use very many of the navigation or weather predicting skills I'd learned from the course. But I did feel a greater sense of self confidence, and I think that I might have even made the job look, dare I say it... easy.