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Why Pay To Play?

by Tamia Nelson

Why pay to play? Tamia posed that question last June, when she made the case for commercial outfitters and guided trips. But as she readily admitted, she was writing about something she'd never done. So this time around, Tamia's enlisted the help of a couple of veteran paddlers with many guided trips under their respective belts. Are you wondering why you might want to pay to play? They've got the answer.

January 10, 2017

Article by Tamia Nelson It's the start of a new year, and with the new year come new plans. I've always found that planning trips can be nearly as much fun as making them — even when, for one reason or another, the trip doesn't come off entirely as planned. Or, as sometimes happens, doesn't come off at all. But not every paddler shares my passion for planning, and not every life has such a broad margin that hours or days can be devoted to poring over maps and making menus. Fortunately, outfitters and guides stand ready to step into the breach. And as luck would have it, my grandad was a guide for many years, taking hunters and fishermen into the Adirondacks. This was back in the day when colleges didn't offer degrees in outdoor education, of course, and my grandad, though not especially absent‑minded in most business matters, never got around to obtaining a state license. He wasn't alone.

Be that as it may, guiding is now a licensed profession in most states and provinces, and regulations are much more stringent than they were in my grandad's time. Nor are contemporary guides' clients invariably middle‑aged men with three‑day stubble and a hankering for shore lunches and venison. Commercial outfitters now cater to all tastes and interests, from birding to landscape painting. Yet despite this, Farwell and I have given the subject of guided trips short shrift in this column. Why? Because we've never used the services of an outfitter, and the only group trips we've been on since our college years are ones we've helped to organize ourselves. Which is why I tried to redress the balance in June of last year, when I wrote "Making the Case for Commercial Outfitters and Guided Trips." I'd like to think I did a workmanlike job, too, but the fact remains that I was writing of something about which I knew very little at first hand, and my belated effort lacked the sureness and certainty that come only from experience. Luckily, the column elicited mail from paddlers who've taken many guided and commercially‑outfitted trips. The upshot? I can now let …

The Voices of Experience Speak for Themselves

David Kolar — that's a name that will strike a chord with regular readers of this column — has been enlisting the services of outfitters for more than a decade, and here's why:

I am a major fan of the "commercial" sojourns that are usually run by outfitters or conservation groups, for several reasons:

1. I've got no friends who want to nip off for three to seven days on a stream somewhere on our own. OK, I've cajoled a couple of guys over the years, but otherwise I'm a solo paddler, which means day trips out and back. With no shuttle available, that rules out most flowing streams.* A commercial group handles the shuttling arrangements.

2. Unless I've done a ton of homework (which I have on occasion), finding a place that's both nice and legal to camp can be hit or miss. The outfitter arranges them for you, and while portapotties are standard, sometimes they even have real bathrooms and showers.

3. I'm not a cook. I can survive on my own, and someday may try camp cookery (I do have the equipment), but guided groups provide three good meals per day, usually catered by local businesses from little towns along the way; so it's no fuss and helps the locals appreciate the river.

4. I'm not over the hill, but I can see the crest from here (aged 70). I prefer a little interesting white water (up to Class III) to flat, but on my own, it might be a little risky. In these groups there are knowledgable people
along to scout, to pick you up if you wipe out (I never have, but there's always a first time), and the larger groups sometimes have a trained and equipped medical person along. Safety. So far my only medical problems have been blisters and poison whatever.

5. You have to bring your own camping gear but, depending on the shuttle arrangements, you either load it in your own car for the daily shuttle, or put it in the company truck to be there when you camp that evening. No skimping on things because they don't fit easily in the boat. Camp chairs and inflatable mattresses are great inventions, especially for aging bones.

6. These groups usually arrange some educational or social activities along the way or in the evening: finding abandoned locks from the heyday of canals, [visiting] local museums, [talks on] history of the area (I've learned a lot about the lumbering industry and early coal mining and smelting), touring a local brewery, and checking in with local festivals that happen to be going on at the time. All in all, it's entertaining as well as getting outdoor exercise.

These sojourns are advertised on the Internet sites of their organizations. Links to them can often be found on state websites that deal with conservation or streams. I tend to favor the ones run by conservation groups. Costs have ranged from USD125 to USD650. I've been on eight or nine different ones over the last dozen years, ranging from two days (when the competing schedules were tight) to eight days covering 97 miles. And so far I haven't even been out of my home state. I highly recommend commercial trips for novice trippers and those who, due to circumstances, can't take off and rough it for weeks with a few friends.

I don't suppose I need to add that David's points are all well‑taken, do I? And if I found myself in his shoes, I'd probably do just as he has done. (Being married to your paddling partner is convenient, I admit, though it's certainly not the norm. Nor can all paddlers be expected to be keen cooks.) Lest you think that David's is a lone voice in the wilderness, however, consider what Richard Johnson has to say. Richard's name should also be a familiar one to readers, and though he's not averse to solo outings, he, like David, has often taken advantage of the services offered by guides and commercial outfitters, always with happy results:

I admit that I am a person who enjoys guided tours. I like to take a tour because the guide will know things and places, and dangers to avoid, that I would never discover by myself. Then I retake the same tour with a different guide, because each is different and will tell me different things, including different dangers. After a couple of these trips, I feel comfortable on my own. My daddy never raised no coward, but I am fortunate that my momma did! And being unable to swim, I am always nervous about exploring a new waterway alone.

That said, there is something to be said for solo exploring. I did a recent river trip where the guide, who had been on that river a dozen times, forgot to mention a particular place until I brought it up. I'd found the place myself, by chance. I have found a lot of wonderful places on rivers ‑‑ places that never made the maps ‑‑ by exploring that narrow opening that only a short kayak or canoe can enter. But I have also had a lot of guides show me things that I never knew existed because they are not on any map. I do enjoy a good guided tour.

Why pay to play? David and Richard each have good answers — answers based on many years' experience. And while Farwell and I aren't yet ready to abandon our DIY approach to outfitting, that day may come. I just wish we could take our first guided trip with my grandad.

* There are ways to work around this difficulty, though they aren't as convenient as a shuttle. For a few ideas, read "There and Back Again: Doing the Car‑Shuttle Rag."

Questions? Comments? Got something to add? Just e‑mail Tamia.

Further Reading From In the Same Boat

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Copyright © 2017 by Verloren Hoop. The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

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