by Paul Lazarski
Decades ago hikers would typically be guided with little focus on the long term issues of sustainable use. Exposing guests to Nature's beauty was enough to help protect these areas. Today, with an increased use of 'wild' places and a greater understanding of human impacts, a guide needs to do more. Education is the cornerstone of sustainability! More and more adventure travellers are expecting to be educated and looking for positive ways to protect the environment.
Education is the tool that a guide uses to 'give back' to the environment. Looking forward to the future, and educating guests of what that future can be, is the secret to long term success. Education can take many forms. As guides, a large part of our day is spent telling stories, joking, pointing out interesting geology and wildflowers. More often than not, its being 'real', telling guests what we genuinely feel about what we do and sharing our personal passions. Not until the last few years, however, has the need for education taken on a new meaning.
By far, the hottest topic today is that of climate change. This is one of the more difficult topics for guides to deal with and many opt out from giving an opinion for fear of jeopardizing their credibility. People tend to trust people who believe what they do, and tend to expect those they respect to repeat what they believe in. Confidence is the cornerstone of guiding, it enforces safety, creates trust, and encourages personal growth. Educating about climate change caries a real risk of damaging a guide's credibility by downgrading a guest's confidence.
I discovered this a year ago, when I was asked about global warming. I began by saying that I've been seeing glaciers recede far more quickly in the last five years. I also mentioned that I had been marking the margins of one particular glacier with cairns and photographing them through the years. I went on to talk about the big picture, looking at glaciers through the lens of deep geological time. I remember, however, being told once not to talk about religion or politics in public for fear of offending someone. I deliberately didn't talk about present day climate issues for that reason. One of the guests seemed agitated and he wasn't as friendly for the rest of the day. Later I read his comment card criticizing me for not believing in climate change, stating that he expected little more since I lived in Alberta, a conservative, oil rich province and obviously didn't care about the environment. It was at that moment that I realized that nothing I said had made a difference and that the beliefs he had arrived with were the ones he 'expected' to hear from me. I had lost credibility by not repeating what he believed in. The fact that I lived on Vancouver Island, had never seen an oil-field and was once a young idealistic member of Greenpeace didn't fit his required stereotype. Since then, I educate about climate change in a different way. Initially, by listening to the way in which a question is asked helps give a clue to the language the guest is expecting to hear. Secondly, by being honest and open, framing my answer based upon what issues the guest values the most. Communication is my goal and encouraging discussion is how real learning takes place.
Education is important for the guide as well. Investing in the guiding team by providing them with the tools to communicate on environmental issues is a major part of CMH's sustainability effort. Every year, a guide's training session is held. Often special educators are brought in to cover such topics as grizzly bears, learning styles, wildflower pigments, geology etc.
There are many special issues that a guide needs to be aware of in order to guide sustainably. We need to be educated in helicopter noise reduction techniques, flight paths as well as landform considerations in order to protect the public and wildlife from undue noise. Knowing wildlife behaviour better allows a guide to avoid wildlife and if encountered, how to ethically retire without causing undue stress. A resource book, detailing all of the hiking areas alerts guides to environmental concerns and is reviewed prior to the day. Record keeping of weather, wildlife, number of guests, and hiking areas is a required part of the job and adds to the long term knowledge base of the guiding team. Ongoing educational projects including, specific wildlife counts, trampling plot evaluations, and wildflower blooming times help provide the guide with valued information to further educate the guest. In addition, helicopter fuel efficiency is one of the most important sustainability issues and is stressed daily.
To guide sustainably and ethically is probably the single most important part of our job and our being able to give back to the environment, our guests and ourselves through education is our greatest gift and responsibility.
Cairn from 1980. The Vowell Glacier(in the distance) has receded over a kilometer in the last 30 years. As one of 11 such cairns, this one is the starting point from which all others are measured, providing an invaluable learning tool for both guides and guests.