Thanks for joining us, Kirkland. Tell us, how did you become a hiking fitness guide?
I was a park ranger for 25 years and then joined Mountain Trek as a wilderness skills instructor. I’ve basically been hiking my entire career. Then I became a yoga instructor and hiking guide and soon after I was asked to build a fitness program that incorporated hiking as a fitness regime in the most potent gymnasium in the world – nature. Since then I’ve become a certified fitness instructor on top of my ACMG-certification as a hiking guide.
We understand becoming an ACMG is quite the process? Is that true?
Indeed, becoming a fully certified guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides is an involved process. In my case, I am a hiking guide and my course involved client care, safety, map reading, pacing, ergonomics, etc. Only a third of the people enrolled in the course pass the exam.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It starts with a guide briefing and then we concentrate on foot care amongst the clients – preventative bandaging, dressing, etc. Then we pack up and take a vehicle to any number of secret stash hiking spots in the beautiful Kootenay region of British Columbia. The group breaks into four smaller groups, based on physical fitness, and then we spend the next four hours hiking the beautiful terrain – in the summer we’ll do alpine hikes and in the shoulder seasons we’ll concentrate on more undulating terrain at lower altitudes. After we’ve all worked up a good sweat hiking, we’ll return to the lodge and debrief. That wraps up the hiking portion and then I might teach a class in the late afternoon about curbing sleep deprivation or nutrition or a similar topic.
We’ve been told you guide hiking trips in the mountains barefoot. Is this true?
I hike either fully barefoot or in barefoot shoes like Vibram’s Five Fingers and for me the benefit is about awakening senses. When my foot touches the ground it picks up temperature changes, texture – there are a thousand senses going off in my brain. When I hike with a slower group, I usually go barefoot but we’re not talking gravel paths here – these can be rugged. A personal ethos for me is to help people reclaim their natural wild self and that has to come through opening our senses and being mindful of everything that’s going on around us. What we’re doing isn’t just destination hiking or “doing” hiking – it’s about “being” hiking, being totally connected to the environment like an animal would be. After all, they’re not thinking about getting their taxes done.
What’s the most amazing experience you’ve had on a guided tour?
All our tours are day hikes and one of the greatest highlights for me is to get someone into the alpine early in the season when there’s ice on the alpine lakes and get them to be courageous enough to jump in! We’re trying to reignite that sense of wild in everyone. It’s easy to have a sense of domestic when you’re on a trail with a guide but when you encourage someone to jump into a lake at 6,000 feet, well the exhilaration that comes out of them is awesome. You’re seeing them reclaim a wild part of themselves.
Sounds fun! Is that the best part of your job?
Because the hiking we’re doing is part of a transformative program, the best part of my job is seeing people bring a connection to their mind and body and drop the mental chatter that is such a part of their urban setting. We spend time in the gymnasium of nature and as the week progresses I get to witness guests transform. Not only do they become more grounded, they change physically – their skin tone, the bounce in their step. The best part of my job is witness this transformation for sure.
What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had on a guided tour?
I can’t think of any bizarre experiences per se, but we do have regular encounters with wildlife and it’s always fascinating to see peoples’ reactions. I suppose I’ve had some interesting questions about animals like bears and cougars but, really, hiking in a group is such a safe activity people quickly become comfortable hiking in the wilderness.
As an experienced guide, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?
I see a guide as not much different than a car mechanic or dentist. We’re specially trained to offer a service and with the background we have, we can give people the maximum experience possible; choosing the best terrain, helping people get the most enriched experience they wouldn’t otherwise get on their own.
Tell us something about your area/activity that only a guide would know.
The unique thing about our hiking area around Kootenay Lake near Nelson, BC, is that the trails were built over 100 years ago by miners: deep in all the forests here there’s a fascinating history. On our hikes we find holes gauged through mountain sides and ghost towns including old bordellos that provide a human dimension to the natural beauty. Guides here know the stories about the 1890s that you might not otherwise hear.
In your view, what makes a good tour guide?
Empathy would be number one. Because without empathy there can’t be trust. You could be the most skilled, fit, knowledgable person in the world but without empathy you’re not going to connect and guiding is all about establishing relationships.
And finally, have you got any tips for people who are interested in booking a guide like yourself, but aren’t too sure what to look for?
As a hiking fitness guide I’m hyper-aware of foot care and pack fitting. Most people don’t treat hiking like they’re learning how to golf for the first time, but they’re actually similar. If someone wants to get the most out of a hiking experience, they need to find a pro guide who’s going to deliver the mechanics, equipment, fitting, everything! The average person at a gear store doesn’t get that knowledge. So I would suggest researching and finding someone who not only takes you on great hiking adventures, but can also teach you about how to fit a pack properly for example. Actually, that’s why I like the GuideAdvisor model – it helps people connect with guides who can deliver a deeper experience than they’d ever have walking off into the mountains on their own wearing all new gear. It’s hard to trust somebody you’ve never met before but GuideAdvisor is a great way to get a personal connection with a guide before you even walk out the door.