By travel writer Lisa TE Sonne
Austin Adventures’ weeklong guide training is held in Billings, MT each spring for both returning and new guides alike. The training involves classroom and field trip time in which the guides learn skills as varied as creating a beautiful picnic lunch spread, knowing what a guide should carry in her backpack, and specifics like the Austin Adventures signature “WOW Factor”. This year, the group toured Yellowstone National Park to put their skills and training to the test, and invited travel writer Lisa TE Sonne.
The Austin Guides – veterans and trainees – celebrate a good training week! (Photo by Andy Austin)
While I am feeling carefree, gleefully riding a bike hands-free through a forest, there is a guide up ahead checking the route and ready to answer questions. Another guide (we are blissfully unaware of) is making sure our next activity is set up, the dinner location is prepared for any special diets in our group, and the hotel rooms and keys are all set for our arrival.
Gratitude and kudos to great guides! They can take us to places that aren’t in the guidebook, help us tour the most tourist-popular parks, cities and iconic sites in novel ways, and share memorable non-touristy waterfalls and watering holes.
Hikers round the bend and the advance guide has set up a delicious “Wow” moment and a chance for all to catch their breath and take photos.
As a travel writer, I’ve thanked guides on every continent for sharing their expertise and tips. A tour operator can plan fantastic-sounding itineraries and secure well-vetted accommodations, but it is often the on-the-ground/horse/kayak guides that make or break the experience-memories of guests.
Sonne wouldn’t have been able to cover ash-boarding down a volcano in Nicaragua without the help of a good guide.
That photograph of the Amazon anteater in a tree with his long tongue sticking out? That was thanks to a naturalist guide who asked the boat driver to kill the engine and let us float. My getting to “ash board” down a volcano in Nicaragua and write about it for American Way, the inflight magazine? Wouldn’t have happened if a guide hadn’t carried the heavy board up the steep slope so I could take pictures of the steam rising up through vents in other-worldly looking terrain. And I salivate thinking of all the goodies I have tasted because a guide arranged for a local specialty.
I appreciate good guides even more after spending several days last June with a dynamic group of 27 handpicked guides as they went through “Guide Training” in Montana and Wyoming for Austin Adventures, an award-winning member of USTOA.
Austin Guides make guests feel even more at home “where the buffalo roam” as the song goes and let visitors know that technically there are no buffalo in the United States – they are bison.
Half the guides were Austin veterans with 1 to 20 seasons, quite familiar with both the guiding basics and the signature Austin touches, like a red carpet from the van. The newbies ranged from guides who had been experts with other companies to people with diverse, relevant experience that wanted a career change – including ski instructors, river-raft captains, a medic during the war in Iraq, and people who ran outdoor programs for the handicapped and inner-city youth.
Being good with people and loving the outdoors are obvious qualities needed. But after spending several days with these chosen guides, it became clear that good guides also have to be logistics and time-management experts, good drivers, cooks, accountants, psychologists, cheerleaders, teachers, fixers and finders… as well as naturalists and fun-loving fitness-folk.
VP of Operations Kasey Austin Morrissey teaches the guides in situ as well as interviews all the candidates and makes selections. She was distinguished as the world’s best family guide in 2014 by OUTSIDE Magazine.
Indoor sessions were held ranging from how to speak well and learn everyone’s names and interests, to good accounting and paperwork practices. Outdoor sessions in gorgeous settings included bicycle repair, how to pace a hike for multiple generations, practice creating the Austin “Wow” moments, and how to build “WAM” into the day – Water Appreciation Moments – so no one gets dehydrated.
Part of this phase of Austin Adventures’ guide-training was to let the new guides work with their partner for the upcoming season. This relationship is one of the deepest pairings they will have in their lives – more intense than marriage for some – because they need to keep each other going 24/7 and decide who does what behind the scenes so that guests can have a seamless, pampered vacation.
Working with your partner guide can be a complex dance of well planned choreography and some cool spontaneity (aka prepared plan B,C, D) to make sure the guests only have pleasure, not problems.
Throughout each trip, the Austin guides tag-team — one leads an activity while the other secures advance logistics/supplies, and then returns the multi-functioning van to the end of the trail site so when guests finish their walking, canoeing or horseback riding, they are met with fresh drinks, towelettes, cut-up fresh fruits, and other snacks.
Guides don’t just drive the van. During training, guides learn how to organize, clean, load up and hitch trailers to the multi-functioning van as well as make sure the inside has guidebooks, drinks and fresh flowers.
These days, some people are tempted to organize and guide their own trip via internet clicks, but then you are often looking at a screen instead of savoring the setting and must always be in “responsibility mode” instead of just being able to respond to the beauty and pleasures around you. With a tour operator who has great guides, you can hand off any headaches to someone who specializes in good planning and flexible spontaneity. After my guide training days, two advantages in particular stood out:
*Accommodations: I don’t have to have reservations about reservations. Someone else booked my room with my requests. A guide hands me my key. My luggage is already in the room. And on an Austin Adventures trip, the room may even have a personal note or gift waiting for me. In the case of the National Parks, Austin Adventures connection with Xanterra means they could have blocks of rooms even when the web shows everything is booked.
Usually parents are expected to have all the answers. A good guide can ask and answer questions: Do you know what animal rubbed up against this tree and left it’s fur? (Answer: some people would call it a buffalo, but you know it’s a bison!)
*Questions: Questions are part of all good travel, but it can be more fun to ask and learn than always be expected to have the answers. A good guide’s knowledge ranges from the names of plants and the years and yarns of battles to where the nearest bathroom is (or where the nearest answer is). You don’t have to bury your nose in a book or screen and miss the chick hatching under the penguin. You can listen to the guide tell you why the whales are jumping straight up out of the water… while they are surging up. And instead of being annoyed when you hear, “Are we there yet?” you might be entertained. The clever guide might pipe in “Not yet. It will be about half an hour, but see that tall mountain over there? Have you heard the legend about it?”
Yes, kudos and gratitude to great guides who help us make our own legendary memories.
Lisa TE Sonne is a travel hyphenate (author- writer- photographer- videographer- possibilitator) who has written for an Academy Award-winning documentary and Emmy-winning PBS series. She loves adventure and cultural travels and has enjoyed guided activities on all 7 continents and from many great ocean, river, canal and sea cruises. She received a Gold for “Best Destination” writing from NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association). Her current books include THE HAPPINESS HANDBOOK: Simple Ways to Change your Life for the Better, GREAT OUTDOORS: A Nature Bucket List, and MY ADVENTURES: A Traveler’s Journal. She and her husband run a nonprofit that offers Giving Certificates that can help any charity (and make great gifts for travel lovers). For more information, visit www.LisaSonne.com and www.CharityChecks.us.