Wilderness
Credit: David Webb

Three of the students forgot to bring sleeping bags. Five didn’t pack rain jackets. And none of them brought enough cigarettes to last three days of backpacking through the cold, wet woods. Anxiety levels peaked, arguments erupted, threats were made. I drank half a bottle of whisky the night I got home.

That was the first of four “students-at-risk” trips I'm leading this fall. Maybe I should reconsider my career choice.

Over my years of guiding, I’ve had more than a few bad trips due to dysfunctional people and poor group dynamics. I had a very spoiled seventeen-year-old boy refuse to carry any gear on an eight-day canoe trip because his parents were paying me to guide him. I had one of those weekend-warrior types dressed in full camouflage eat some poisonous mushrooms after I had warned him not to; he didn’t die but some of the other clients on the trip wished he had. One wealthy fellow shot heroin into his veins every day for five days. A bunch of grade-school teachers drank straight from a bottle of rye while blindly running rapids. A group of university professors left me on shore to deal with an aggressive bear while they escaped downriver with all the canoes.

Recounting these unfavourable memories reminds me what friend and seasoned wilderness guide, Hap Wilson, once told me of the skills required of a good guide. He emphasized that skills such as lighting a fire in a rainstorm or setting up camp are a very small part of what is required from you. It’s the ability to read your clients that’s really important. “Forget reading rapids or reading the weather,” he said. “If you can’t read each client’s personality traits than your trip can go wrong real quick.”

Hap’s advice holds true when thinking back to one of the worst back-to-back guided trips I’ve ever had. They were booked just a month before my daughter was born. I booked them prior to her birth; basically because my wife and I needed the money for the baby.

It started with an eight-day trip in the Temagami region with four clients: a middle-aged man, his wife, his employee (a 23-year-old woman) and her new husband. The couple had just been married and the trip was a gift given by the employer.

On day four, we were camped on a very small island on Diamond Lake, and this—of course—is where the middle-aged man decided to make an unwelcome pass at his young employee. His wife caught him and all hell broke loose. I was tending the campfire at the time and thankfully I had previously asked the young woman’s husband to go look for wood on the far side of the island. My first action was to walk back into the woods to calmly inform the husband what had just happened. He was angry of course. He never did trust his wife’s new boss; understandably, he wanted to go punch the guy out. I pleaded with him not to seek his revenge until after the trip, telling him that I was only making a few bucks a day guiding and that my main job is to keep everyone safe—not to act as their social worker. I asked him to hold off any violent act until after the trip was over. Surprisingly, he agreed. There were strong words exchanged when he returned to camp of course, but no aggressive vengeance deployed. I figured my plan worked and by the time the trip was over the young husband’s hostile tendencies would have subsided. 

My second act was to approach the group to see what our options were for the remaining part of the trip. The man that started the whole issue, and the one who was paying for the entire trip, suggested I use the satellite phone to call in a bush plane. It was a good idea. The problem was, he wasn’t willing to pay for it; and since it wasn’t a survival situation (at least not yet) the plane wouldn’t be coming in. Our other option was to use a shortcut I knew back to the access point. It would make it possible for us to return in two days rather than four.

Those were the longest two days of my life! Tensions grew each day with the older man and his wife; the young woman simply shut down and became mute and her husband was calm—too calm. My anxiety level was through the roof. I can deal with characters like the middle-aged man. He’s a control freak who disregards social norms and lacks concern of others. He’s textbook and can easily be put in his place when he’s out of his element. I simply informed him that I’d leave him behind for the bugs and bears if he didn’t behave himself the rest of the trip. I also put him in my canoe and let the two women paddle together. They were both full of self-doubt—and being together gave them confidence that was long overdue. As for the new husband, I placed him in my solo boat. He worried me and I figured it was the safest place for him to be, considering the circumstances. Our next campsite was also placed separate. I camped with the middle-aged idiot and his wife and the young couple took another site nearby.

On the afternoon of the second day, we beached the canoes at the launch and began loading up the vehicles. As I was hauling packs up to my vehicle, the young husband, still unemotional, walked up to me and simply asked “So, is the trip over Kevin?”

I replied, “Yes.”

Then he handed over a $100 tip and, in a composed manner, sauntered over to the middle-aged man—and started beating the hell out of him! The assault started with a series of punches to the man’s head, followed by throwing him down onto the ground and repeatedly kicking him in the stomach. By the time I ran over to try to stop it, both wives were pleading for him to stop, and he did. I waited for the victim to get up, and then drove off—never to see either client again.

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