The Happy Camper: Why I Quit Guiding

Kevin Callan shares the story behind what he thought would be his last canoe guiding trip ever.

I couldn’t refuse Ann Wipper’s plea to auction off my guiding services for a three-day canoe trip in Algonquin Park. She’s married to the founder of the Canadian Canoe Museum, and the money would be put towards the educational programs at the museum. Saying no just wouldn’t be cool.

But I wanted to say no. I hadn’t guided since my daughter was born, fifteen years ago. I wanted to spend my time with her, not paddling with complete strangers. Now I was doing it all over again: volunteering to take two young couples out for a couple nights to Algonquin’s Booth Lake. Bruce Mackay won the bid, and gave it to his daughter, Kristine Mackay. Her three friends joined her: Richard Good, Mitto Salem and Sarah Hayes.

I’m not saying leading people on trips was unpleasant. I’ve met some incredible explorers while guiding trips in wilderness areas. Over twenty-five years, I worked for youth camps, outdoor education centres and outfitters. I’ve even been self-employed as a guide. Some of those clients I met along the way I still keep in touch with; some are even close friends. There are others, however, I never want to see again.

There’s something to be said about spending time in the woods with people, most of it in confined spaces like canoes and campsites. It can be a positive experience—but it can also be a disaster in the making. Everyone carries their own quirks, idiosyncrasies, even fetishes while out on trip. It’s true what they say—you are who you are while playing out in the woods. Not being able to fake your true character is one of the biggest reasons I like going on wilderness treks with people in the first place. If you situate a bunch of strangers in an unfamiliar environment, away from their comfort zones, you end up knowing exactly who they really are. Of course, this is usually a good thing. On a rare occasion, you get one of the worst misadventures of your life.

I’ve had a few bad trips due to dysfunctional people and poor group dynamics. I had a very spoiled seventeen-year-old boy refuse to carry any gear on an eight-day canoe trip because his parents were paying me to guide him. I had one of those weekend-warrior types, dressed in full camouflage, eat some poisonous mushrooms after I had warned him not to; he didn’t die, but some of the other clients on the trip wished he had. A wealthy businesses man shot heroin into his veins every day for five days. A bunch of grade-school teachers drank straight from a bottle of rye while blindly running rapids. A group of university professors left me on shore to deal with an aggressive bear while they escaped downriver with all the canoes.

My very last guided trip was a father and two sons. I had guided them on a couple other trips. The sons, who were in their early twenties, were fantastic and I really enjoyed their company. The father, on the other hand, tended to challenge my authority. If I said it was too windy to paddle out on the lake, he would consider my judgment feeble. On one occasion, he snuck away on the portage to run rapids I had suggested we carry around.

Our next trip together had nearly been cancelled. The father had suffered a heart attack the previous winter. Fortunately, it wasn’t severe, and, through medication and a better diet, his doctor gave him permission to go. In retrospect, I should have cancelled the trip anyway. The father’s overbearing character and his poor health should have been enough to raise the red flag for me. But I really enjoyed tripping with his sons—and, shamefully, I needed the money.

Day two of the five-day trip was when it all went bad. Very bad! I returned on the portage for a second load and found the father hunched over, grasping his chest. I asked if he was okay. His reply was, “No—but that’s a good thing, Kevin. My plan is to die out here with my sons.”

Here’s the deal. The father was a workaholic, and after suffering from the heart attack in the winter, he couldn’t do all the things he used to. He truly believed his life was over. So, when he had heart issues prior to the trip, he made the decision not to tell anyone—his family, his doctor, or his guide. In a way, I felt sorry for the guy.

He lived. I used my satellite phone to call in search and rescue, and the day after I helped haul him out of the woods, I hung up my canoe guiding hat, forever.

That’s probably why I was so anxious about the Canadian Canoe Museum volunteer trip. My gut was knotted up terribly prior to it, especially when I had to find another way to gather guiding insurance, since my insurance company refused, stating that “on-water activity is far too dangerous.”

Algonquin Outfitters came to the rescue. They hired me for a $1, allowing me to be covered under their insurance. They even dropped two lightweight rental canoes off at the access point for the two couples who won the bid.

And the clients were amazing people. None had canoe tripped before, but they were hooked on it once the adventure was over. They were even making plans for their next paddling trip in the park while packing up at the access point. It was an amazing experience for all of us.

It felt good to volunteer my time to get more people out on trip and battle my anxiety over taking strangers out in the woods again. It all reminded me what seasoned guide, Hap Wilson, once told me. He emphasized that skills such as lighting a fire in a rainstorm or setting up camp are a very small part of what is required. It’s the ability to read your clients that’s important. “Forget reading rapids or reading the weather,” he said, “If you can’t read each client’s personality traits, then your trip can go wrong real quick.”

I had some amazing character traits on the trip with me in Algonquin. I’m so thankful for that. Check them out in my latest video of our time in Algonquin.

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