Meditation on American Guiding: Frontier Era to Now

February 19th, 2024 by Carl D
Heart of the Park Backpacking trip, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska.

It’s sad that opening up the book on the history of guiding opens up the book on the history of colonization. It definitely does.

That being said, there were early frontier guides that were closer to native life, and some that wanted to destroy it.

Kit Carson (1809-1868) was in the camp of the former.

In the frontier era, many guides roamed the wilderness, yet none garnered as much admiration as Kit Carson. He never made it to Alaska, but he made it everywhere else. Renowned for his pivotal role in the USA absorbing California and New Mexico, in his later career Carson led the defense against Confederate attempts to seize the nascent American West. To delve deeper into these captivating stories of how our country relied on this man to create a bi-coastal nation, I recommend losing yourself in Hampton Side’s Blood and Thunder. Carson forged close bonds with numerous tribes, fully immersing himself in their languages and lifestyles. 

What captivates me about guiding during the frontier era is the emphasis on hiring highly skilled individuals equipped with the ability to navigate wild, uncharted terrain. A frontier guide’s toolkit encompassed a spectrum of skills, from hunting, trapping, and horseback riding to fighting other humans, tracking water sources in the desert, and communicating in native languages. 

Fast forward to the present, where we not only sell backcountry trips but have a flourishing multi-million dollar industry generating gear tailored for every kind of adventure. Some of Expeditions Alaska’s guides can hunt and ride horses. None of us are at all skilled at fighting other human beings. That’s definitely a GOOD thing! : )

The key to an excellent frontier guide was to find someone who had lived by traversing the wild; most of them hailed from the fur trapping trade, a lifestyle only role played today, yet I can easily envision Rhane flourishing in it. 

Despite these changes in the responsibilities of the guide’s role in keeping you safe, the fundamental formula remains the same: regional weather, predictable logistical obstacles, terrain, and the fitness of a group, determine the duration and provisions needed for the journey.

Contrary to common belief, guiding isn’t merely about knowing the way; it’s about finding the way. This involves a regular and intuitive consideration of variables like weather, terrain, health, and fitness. Thoughtful analysis of these variables ensures a well-guided trip.

Alaska guiding companies face a unique challenge, particularly absent in the lower 48: navigating people through miles of constantly changing off-trail terrain in what is often dubbed “the last frontier”. Although it sounds difficult, GPS and smart phone technology has immensely simplified off-trail navigation. Learning to interpret these tools is akin to possessing 3D binoculars that provide a bird’s eye view of the land. 

To think that in just two hundred years we are where we are, in so many ways, will make you think we are living in the dreams of science fiction.

The question is, what role will “the wild” play in the future?

Globally accessible high speed internet, from anywhere, is certainly on the horizon. As civilization fits more easily into our pocket and on our phone, perhaps guiding will fit more easily into the pages of history.

One thing’s for sure: Alaska will remain a wild place where expertise and experience informs crucial judgement calls. Just like avalanche forecasts are constantly evolving day by day, sometimes hour by hour, so does the decision making involved in crossing rivers and glaciers, picking a line over a pass or trough brush, and managing a group around large wildlife.

In the end, nature will always give guides a wage. 

kit Carson
Kit Carson in the 1840’s. Why so grumpy back then?
Carl Donohue in the 2000’s. Let’s go! 

Piece written by everyone’s favorite fella, Trevor.

One Response to “Meditation on American Guiding: Frontier Era to Now”

  1. Tom Boley

    Well said, Trev! Having been a guide for most my life, and having just paid for a guide service to take me down a river here in Idaho, I was overwhelmed at watching how hard our guides worked from 6am till they hit their sleeping bags at 10pm, offering a high level of safety and service!! We arrived safely at camp, at the end of the day, to a tent already set up with sleepings bags laid out and wine and apps ready with a waiting chair by the campfire. After all the wide variety of skills are challenged to safely arrive clients at camp, the tasty meals rolled out! The guides shared knowledge, love, and passion for the place they were taking us through. The real “ace,” in the card stack for me…… are guides ability to authentically connect with clients, enjoy and share their love of a place, and help make people feel emotionally and physically safe! Hearing Trevor’s stories of work in Alaska, clients must appreciate a solo guide taking a wide variety of clients with different outdoor experience, physical ability, and motivation, through a remote and beautiful settings, keeping them safe from a host of hazards, and return them at the end with an experience of “wildness!” What is accomplished in that effort, is a level above what I was ever paid for, and should be greatly appreciated! My hat is off to all the Expedition Alaska staff!!!! Cheers! Tom Boley. …… oh, and nice job Sonnie!

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