Once upon a time, Erika Unhold was just one more unfulfilled lawyer, living for her weekend adventures in the great outdoors. “One day, my rock-climbing partner talked me into helping her guide a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. Right away, I realized this was my calling.”
For the last 12 years, Unhold has made that calling her career. Guiding for an outdoor-travel company called O.A.R.S., she steers rafts full of adventurous souls down some of the world’s most pristine white water, exploring Idaho, Colorado and beyond.
If you’ve ever imagined turning your passion for the outdoors into a career, the reality is complicated. Yes, you can have a vocation that lets you sleep under the stars. But the work is seasonal, challenging, and requires extra-strength diplomacy.
Like Unhold, many guides specialize in a certain skill: They may be crazy-gifted fly-fishermen, interpretive geologists, or big-game trackers. Others focus on places, like Utah’s Red Rock country or Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. And then there are those who make a living by serving certain types of clients–families, for example, or those from different countries.
Dollars and Sense: What It Takes To Be A Guide
Training and licensing requirements vary widely by state and activity, but experts say that successful guides share three common traits: They’re good teachers, they’re tough enough for the physical punishment such jobs hand out, and they love people. Even difficult people.
“Most people think this is just about a hook or a bullet or riding tall in a saddle,” says Mac Minard, executive director of Montana Outfitters and Guides Association. “But it is very much a hospitality business.”
Typically, guides work for outfitters, companies that can handle the heavy-lifting on permits, licenses, and marketing, explains David Brown, executive director of the American Outdoors Association. (A great place to find a state-by-state listing of outfitters.) Some disciplines, such as rafting, guiding with horses and hunting, may require additional training for licensing requirements. And even after that, you may need to work as an unpaid guide for a period in order to gain the experience needed to actually make a living.
And truly, it’s not for everybody: There’s even a reality-show called Outfitter Bootcamp on the Outdoor Channel, where six contestants complete rugged challenges in order to win a single job. Pat Tabor, 53, an outfitter who runs Swan Mountain Wilderness Guide School near Glacier National Park, says that for the 100 or so students who go through each of his four-week classes (tuition runs $4,200) and decide to seek work as a guide, some 70 percent or so will give up after a year. “Most people come in with the idea of fall hunting, but then…what will you do with the rest of your time? If someone wants to be successful, they need a year-round agenda.”
In their respective fields, established guides can expect to make between $15,000 and $25,000 per season, and most scramble to make money on the off months, Brown says. (With tips, a big wild card, Tabor says he has seen guides make $20,000 in just 75 days.)
Unhold, for example, spends the winter months working ski patrol at a mountain near her Salt Lake City home; others guide different activities, go to the southern hemisphere to find flip-season guide work, or simply find day jobs. And because it is so strenuous, guides live with constant concern that an injury, even a relatively minor one, could put them out of work. “People come into the field with a high level of naiveté about how hard it is. It can be physically demanding, especially working with horses,” Tabor says.
Unhold and her fellow guides often fret about injury. “I recently bought a duplex to rent out in Salt Lake City, where I spend most of my down time,” she says. “I think of it as my back-up disability plan.”
A Joy Even Cranky Clients Can’t Erode
But for those who are sturdy enough, it’s deeply satisfying. “People in their second career are often more mature and sought after,” says Tabor, 53, who left his corporate job to buy his ranch and outfitter business at 47. “They can be better at putting their ego aside and working with challenging people.”
That includes clients who hate bugs, think tents should have hot running water, and that guides can magically conjure up award-winning trout. “I know some guides who love to be in the mountains, but they don’t really like people,” observes Lyle Grisedale, 70, a guide who leads hiking trips for Canadian Mountain Holidays. “They’re impatient. I’ve always been kind of a people person. I can be enthusiastic, even when it’s pouring rain.”
In fact, Grisedale, who left his career in marketing at age 57 to become a guide, says it’s the people as much as the mountains that make his job so special. “I have to pinch myself every day and say, `I just got paid for doing this incredible walk through the mountains!’ I have taken people who are 40 and never walked on anything but a cement sidewalk. It’s very rewarding.”