Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Guide Training

We met upstairs in the new classroom building at Old Quarry Ocean Adventures. There were seven of us: Rich MacDonald, our instructor, and six students. The goal, over six days of instruction, was to prepare us for the exam to become registered Maine sea kayak guides. Every spring, outfitters up and down the coast need to fill positions for kayak guides, and candidates of varying levels of experience take these crash courses to get ready.

The "husky" tow

It’s mostly classroom work, covering a lot of material, but the heart of it is safety, and in partcular, how to safely take groups of inexperienced paddlers out on the ocean. The exam consists of written and oral components. For the oral exam, three examiners from Maine Fish & Wildlife ask the applicant to demonstrate, among other things, proficiency with navigating and chart reading, wildlife identification, and the ability to communicate calmly and logically under pressure.

The crux of the exam seems to be the “lost person scenario” in which the candidate is given a hypothetical crisis. The candidate verbally goes through every step of the process, from taking care of the group and calling the Coast Guard to conducting the search. There aren’t always black and white right answers, but there are a lot of ways to fail. A calm, confident demeanor is key, as well as verbally accounting for every step of the process, including the logic behind every decision. Plenty of candidates fail this part of the exam on the first attempt... which might be a good thing.

Our class got out on the water as well, starting with some rescue practice on the pond, and some towing practice on Webb Cove. Then we paddled out to Hell’s Half Acre and spent the night.

While we paddled and camped, we worked on guide skills. Camping and camp-cooking skills take some effort to be good at it, and everyone comes to it with their way of doing things, which gave us all a chance to learn something new from the others. In particular, I think we were all impressed with the chocolate cake Rich made in his Outback Oven. Take care of your clients’ stomachs and their hearts are bound to follow.

Rich is an ornithologist, which has brought him to some unusual places, including gigs, with his wife Natalie, as naturalists on cruise ship excursions arranged by Garrison Keillor. In 2002, he and Natalie embarked on The Gulf of Maine Expedition, paddling around the Gulf of Maine, from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. This year, Rich and Natalie are opening The Natural History Center, a shop and guiding service in Bar Harbor.

So I’m now much better at recognizing the difference between an eider and a guillemot. We also took a walk around the island, looking into tidepools, turning over rocks, learning about the creatures and plants that we often don’t notice.

So why do I want to guide? I keep learning that the sea kayak is more than just a vehicle to take you out on the ocean from place to place. It can be a practice and a pursuit that gives one direction in a bigger sense. I’ve never known what direction it might be taking me, but I’ve learned to say yes to the opportunities that come up, trusting that it somehow makes for a richer experience.

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