Want to bag a record elk in Montana? Hunt 21 species of duck in Alaska's "Banana Belt"? Or go fly-fishing in the "nearly virgin Jungle waters of Colombia," or the "secret pools" of Patagonia, or "the heart of Tasmanian Devil country"? All those things and many more are possible according to ads in the outdoor magazines I leaf through from time to time.
What these ads are really offering are the services of a guide, with some amenities thrown in. And it isn't necessarily all that terrific to be one of those guides. I know, because for two summers I worked as one at a fishing lodge, taking guests out on a difficult, even dangerous, steelhead river. I found that the customers blamed me for all their failures as fishermen, no matter how inept or heedless of my advice they were, while their successes were pretty much taken for granted. In the end I was convinced that although fishing is almost always fun, taking people fishing almost never is.
In the ensuing years I wondered what it would be like to be on the other side of the fence, to pay a guide for his knowledge and assistance, thereby relinquishing my own responsibility for failure or success. So this spring my son and I took a guided two-day fishing trip on Oregon's Deschutes River, one of the best-known trout streams in the state.
We had an excellent guide and hooked more rainbows than I could count. Everything went smoothly, but I realized from the very beginning that I wasn't enjoying the trip as much as I thought I would. It became clearer than ever that, ideally, outdoor sports are meant to be individual pursuits. With our guide telling us where to wade and showing us the best places to cast flies, our sense of accomplishment was severely diminished. The fishing was fun all right, but it certainly wasn't as much fun as it could have been.
So it's probably fortunate that I didn't go to Tasmania or Patagonia. The reliance of the client on his guide and the pressure on the guide to produce results would inevitably be magnified on an expensive trip to some exotic place. In any such situation, if the guide fails, the client is likely to feel badly cheated; if the guide succeeds, the client will almost surely accept success as his due. In this process, genuine satisfaction on either side would be very difficult to come by.
Of course, I realize that there are many instances in which guides are necessary or, at least, highly desirable. Skillful hunters and fishermen, no matter how wealthy they may be, are rarely blessed with sufficient free time to learn unfamiliar areas on their own, and local knowledge is almost always a prerequisite to hunting or fishing success. Thus, even the seemingly exorbitant prices charged by many guides are in fact quite reasonable when one bears in mind that the client is buying a lifetime of experience. An out-doorsman in a foreign land—or in an unfamiliar part of his own country—will probably see and experience more in a day or a week with a guide than he would in a month or a year without one.
Yet, whenever one person pays another to assist in catching a fish or tracking down an animal, the customer makes total satisfaction from that experience an impossibility. Having seen it from both sides, I now have a heightened appreciation of being on my own and feel very fortunate that my personal circumstances make it possible for me to hunt and fish that way.