by Paul Lazarski
As heli-hiking guides at CMH we are confronted minute by minute by a multitude of puzzle-like decisions. The true art of guiding is to make those decisions appear seamless and ‘easy' to the guest. Many decisions are made for purely environmental and sustainability reasons. Today the word ‘sustainability' is heard everywhere, both referring to many different things and meaning different things to different people. To a guide it means something very simple: caring for your home! In fact caring IS the essence of sustainability, creating a love of place and a sense of ownership, as in when you value something so much, you feel the need to share it with others.
In addition to the behind the scenes work back at the lodge, there are a multitude of in-the-field decisions that take place in the mind of a guide starting with the very first few steps away from the helicopter. As guests are taking in their first excited views of the mountains, they are unaware that the guide has already quietly scuffed over the helicopter skid depressions, protecting that moment for future guests. They will introduce the mountains, subtly changing his/her position and drawing the group nearer to a more group friendly ‘hardened' site. A hardened site simply refers to a micro portion of terrain that is more resistant to the footfalls of a group so as to minimize long term impact. We always impact our environment, the challenge however, is to walk through it in such a way so as to protect its integrity, not only for future guests but simply because it is the right thing to do.
If you watch the line that a guides leads, they will continually be connecting the dots, moving from one harder surface to another (rock, grasses, snow, dry meadows) avoiding if possible the environments that will be more impacted (heather, willow, moist meadows). Creek crossings are areas of special concern by forcing one over the same terrain time and time again leading to heavy impact. More importantly, simple avoidance if possible, can preserve the surrounding plant community. Lunch spots, vulnerable to trampling and washroom issues, need extra diligence when choosing. Often the guest only becomes aware of this process and these sensitive environments when they are asked to "spread out". When appropriate, the guide may describe their decision making process to guests. Education being the secret to good guiding, and the best education is that which leaves the guest with a deeper understanding but without the knowledge that they've been taught.
Being used to hiking in parks and along trails, some guests feel uncomfortable walking through mountain environments, however, plants respond to footfalls in different ways, recover at different rates and are more or less susceptible to lesser or greater numbers of people. Guides use pre-existing animal trails (like the one in the photo above) timelessly created by mountain goat, elk and bear to eliminate human impact. In 2004 CMH sponsored specific trampling plot studies, in which a variety of plant communities where deliberately walked through a varying number of times. In order to determine long term vs. short term impact, these sites are inspected at regular intervals. In addition, as part of this ABLE project (Applying Back-country Landscape Evaluations) hundreds of specific GPS landmarked plots were established to determine the impact and/or non-impact of hikers and game. Both trail and area plots measure the amount of, and percent of species, the amount of cover & bare ground and the width of pre-existing trails if any. These are checked and compared on a multi-year cycle.
The knowledge from these ongoing studies is part of a guides skill set and is paramount in creating a successful hiking day for our guests. All of these behind the scenes decisions are being processed within a framework of other issues (guest fitness & fatigue, the best view & lunch spots, terrain & bear safety, timing, heli pick up sites, guest interests & expectations, the avoidance of wildlife & other hiking groups, water sources and fragile or ‘tempting' geology) to create exceptional guests experiences.
It can be rightly said, that a guide has a ‘love interest' in preserving the landscape and its ecosystems and is fully aware that it is his/her self that has the greatest power to protect the places they love. As guides we have a responsibility to think forward, so that we can proudly share the same amazing places with the same level of passion to our future guests.
photo by Paul Lazarski, Guests using a game trail on Rockypoint Ridge, CMH Bugaboos.