An honest account of Patagonian Kayak guiding.
Last week I passed my 50th journey down the Rio Serrano. I am now in my second season in Patagonia. On the 45km ribbon of wilderness I have covered the equivalent to paddling around Scotland turning round and paddling back to the start. So I thought I would share with you my honest account about learning to lead in this spectacularly demanding part of the world and perhaps share a few lessons.
The Rio Serrano is a 45km grade 1-2 river leading a winding path between the Torres Del Paine and Bernardo O’Higgins national park in Chilean Patagonia. Lined with wind sculpted forests filled with wildlife and surrounded by the creeping glaciers of the worlds third largest ice field the river is a true wilderness adventure. To paddle the length of the river is possible in a day, we normally lead our journeys between 2-3.
– Before reading this excerpt I would like to emphasise that this is a monologue of my own experiences of learning to become a kayak guide and my views on the import differences between personal experience and guiding. The Rio Serrano is and will continue to be one of the true gems of Patagonia, I truly believe that under the excellent management of the numerous river guides based in Puerto Natales it is a rewarding and safe experience. This year I am working for a company which has a fantastic attitude on safety with good practice and who have a willingness to listen to guide concerns to provide the best experience possible for our clients.
One year ago a chance phone-call led my path to Patagonia. I flew on just three weeks notice with zero ability to speak the local language; Spanish. I was also diving head first into the world of professional kayak guiding.
I felt confidently secure that after kayaking 1600km around Scotland that I was a competent and capable paddler. I had experienced the value of personal adventure and was ready to share what I had learnt with others. But upon returning to my new home in Puerto Natales after my first ‘training tour‘ where I and my new fellow guides had been battered in 40knot winds, snowstorms and 3ºC waters I then felt daunted and terrified.
A decent chunk of personal experience now put aside the reality that I had little more than a BCU 2 star (British canoe union qualification). Consequences of inaction now seemed all too real. I could kayak, I could guide but I was left questioning, could I kayak guide? Placed in an environment more suited to a BCU 5 star remit the difference between personal paddling and that with clients was something I was then very aware of. I started to compare myself to my fellow guides, I felt like an imposter. What was I doing here? I don’t belong in this place.
My first month leading clients on the Serrano was a steep learning curve. I learnt a lot about safe guiding in kayaks and also myself. I had had to learn quickly about how to instruct with simplicity and with clearly understandtable terms. How to use a spray deck, what to avoid, how to stay close…’Look for the Bad V’s ( the shape of the current pushing around a submerged object). The river had numerous ‘strainers’ (trees or rocks) some of which held severe consequence, shepherding by kayak was now my mantra.
In my spare time I secretly revised online BCU training videos, books and whatever I could find to better improve my ability instruct. I found that what I already knew needed a new perspective when trying convey to others, but as any sportsman knows the only way to truly learn is real experience.
I put in place techniques and scenarios to deal with every difficult stretch I had found on the river, when things did go wrong I simply reacted with that plan. Yet I still questioned everything about myself (I still do) with an always silent fear of what if I kill someone keeping my attention sharp at all times.
To paraphrase Mad eye moody from Harry Potter I learnt the key to leading the Serrano and for that matter any kayak journey is ‘Constant Vigilance.’ Always be aware of what is going on ahead and what the clients are doing behind kept me in control of the situations I faced. I am always asking in the back of my mind the ‘what ifs,’ what if a sudden gust hits, what if a new tree is around the next corner, what if someone capsizes.’ When those ‘What’s’ become ‘Whens’ it is time to get off the river. The day I stop asking these questions will be the day I stop guiding forever…and maybe take up golf.
A great piece of advise I was once given by my summer mountain leadership instructor Jon Cluett was to always put the words your honour after any decision. ‘I thought it was fine…your honour doesn’t sound very good in court.
On the river I can now draw from memory every turn, every submerged tree and every challenge I know to expect, I have seen it at every level from low to flood. I am more familiar here than many places in my own home town. I can predict where the wind will be, where it will be strongest and where I can escape to shelter if I have to. Drawing on experience from difficult rescues, exhausting tows and quick decisions for rapid escapes I feel able to provide as safe and enjoyable journey as I can possibly deliver. Yet with each new trip I will learn more. Taking lessons from incidents and successes alike I continue to expand on this.
I have: pulled total beginners through 40knot spin-drifts, fixed broken rudders with my shoelaces, watched a double kayak blow 50ft into the air, spent 3 days stuck in a fjord with a vomiting client waiting for a rescue, dealt with panic attacks, anger and fear, rescued numerous capsizes, hidden in forests clearings to watch trees fall nearby, been made redundant and then re-hired by the Chilean government (invasive algae prevention) and even warmed a hypothermic client who got himself lost for 6 hours during the night in nothing but his underwear…(always take a torch and a jumper when you go for a pee). I have more ‘gnar’ stories in the past 8 months in Patagonia than the entire rest of my (relatively short) career put together. So why on earth do I still do it?
Simply put, I truly believe with correct management, adequate procedures and safe cut offs it can be done safely. An ethos I feel responsible to uphold.
I am lucky enough to have been brought up surrounded by adventure, to have had the chance to explore and assess my own perception of risk. I know that hard work reaps the greatest reward that being fit is easy and to be hard is hard. The reality of Patagonian guiding is that it can be brutal, but more often than not it is the most rewarding and excellent paddling this world can offer.
There is a saying: to be ‘in Patagonia,’ where there is a quiet perception that simply being here deserves some form of ‘extra’ respect. I feel this reputation is untrue- The tactics of guiding here are no different to anywhere else on earth. Vigilance and appropriate respect for the environment breeds good practice from the tropics to the poles.
Yes here there is weather from hell but in that carves a landscape from heaven. Being ‘in Patagonia’ puts me in a position to introduce other eager strangers to what matters to me most, the draw and reward of genuine adventure.
There is wind, it can be cold, it can be hard but in turn I have shared countless sunsets, watched sunrises light passing storms like a ring of fire, come face to face with wild horses, sampled the tasty fruits of the Calafate bush and drifted relaxed upon the gentle downhill flow of a melting glacier.
The Rio Serrano is for me both one of the most challenging and special places I have ever had the chance to guide. Returning this year with my 4 star and 5 star training I feel more prepared, stronger and more comfortable to coach and lead in Patagonia. On occasion it can be stressful and punishingly hard but then there within lies the greatest reward. It is magical, alluring and oh so worth it.
What I have taken most from my experience so far is the importance between personal and professional paddling.
Alone or among friends boundaries can and should be pushed, limits need stretched to improve yourself.
In guiding the only boundaries that should ever be pushed are those of the client and should be done under careful, clear and safe coaching. As a guide it is most important to be truly comfortable.
A good guide has three roles.
- Formal responsibility for each and every client at all times always.
- A responsibility to uphold outstanding personal and company values.
- To create an enjoyable constructive learning environment.
To learn all three at once in a foreign place is difficult. At first I was unsure I could so chose to triage from the top down. Once I felt I was as safe as I could, then and only then did I feel comfortable to work on making tours interesting. If everyone is comfortable teaching about the wild-life, geography, history and culture is most fun.
I hope to add another 50 safe and enjoyable tours to my last. I am and always will be drawn back to the start, for each time is different and each adventure a new amongst familiar surroundings. For now I must pack; not for the next trip which we have cancelled on safety precaution for excessive wind but for the next.
The pursuit of a comfortable adventure shared amongst new paddlers awaits.