Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” That would be the life of a professional outdoor guide — fishing day after day, or being paid to stay in top physical shape by clambering up and down friendly vertical rocks. “That can be wonderful,” one would think.
Most guides sense their calling early in life. In her first year of college at Idaho State, Tiffanie Simpson took a kayaking course and had an epiphany. “As soon as I started kayaking, I sold all my climbing equipment,” she said with a laugh. “Kayaking took over my life.”
David Ellerstein, a Wyoming fishing guide, felt the call for rivers early on. “As a kid I went to a summer camp in Canada,” Ellerstein recalled. “I found solace on the river.” Ellerstein was guiding by the time he was 17.
Around 1975, Alf Carter learned to climb with the budding world-class mountaineer Jeff Lowe. Carter took his skills back home to Arkansas primarily to spread the word about safe climbing techniques. “We have so many young kids coming up, and they make a lot of mistakes,” Carter said. “In rock climbing, you don’t get to make a lot of mistakes.” Carter is now 63.
Alf Carter’s career has spanned the outdoor industry boom. Tracing his 30 years of experience is to create a checklist of the business side of guiding — permits, certification, medical training, liability insurance, livery insurance, inventory, tax ID, accounting, advertising. It also highlights a couple of non-standard routes which Carter took.
“I live close to the Buffalo National River” in Arkansas, Carter said. “When I first started guiding, the National Park Service put so many requirements on me that it wasn’t worth it.”
His guiding business, Ozark Wilderness Works, was set up as an LLC (limited liability company) with a complementary business Carter runs with his wife, Azalea Falls Lodge in Kingston, Ark. The lodge is on 140 wooded acres.
“Here’s where I lucked out,” Carter went on. “Two miles from where I live is a great climbing rock on a friend’s property. As long as I keep my liability insurance up, he’s happy.”
Kayaker Tiffanie Simpson was tempted to wing it at first. “The amount of insurance you have to have to legally guide, it’s quite an expense”, she said. “A lot of people guide and instruct under the radar. I didn’t want to expose myself, so I’ve always worked for outfitters. I don’t have the resources to outfit everyone.”
The outdoors life is essentially the weaving of one’s body through nature’s countless marvelous obstacles. To convert an avocation into a vocation requires a single magic ingredient: a client. Both David Ellerstein, the Wyoming fishing guide, and Marty Molitoris, a global adventure guide out of New York, have this in common: They decided to start their own business when the Internet was new.
“In 2001, most of the guide services did not have Web sites,” Ellerstein recalled. “I made a decision to build one. With brochures, you get them once they’re in town. With the Internet, we figured we’d get them before they got to town. That proved to be a prudent strategy.”
When Marty Molitoris started guiding in 1991, he was a one-man shop. Ambitious to expand, Molitoris began courses with the American Mountain Guides Association. Oversight organizations like AMGA are relatively new to America; they are a tradition in Europe. Ten years ago, the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association recognized AMGA. Molitoris’ accreditation enables his company, Alpine Endeavors, to take clients to far-flung spots like New Guinea and the Andes.
How wonderful is guiding now that it’s a job? Marty Molitoris: “I guide full-time and I also run the business, so I guide four days a week. I’m in the office six days a week. I do the brochure, the Website … it’s a lot of hats to wear. I love it.”
Tiffanie Simpson: “Even though I love teaching and guiding, my own personal paddling suffered. It turned into a job instead of something that was mine. The last couple of years, I’ve scaled way back.”
David Ellerstein: “When we are guiding, we are coaching them to perform at their best. While coaching our guests is fun and rewarding, we are still just coaching, not playing. When we are out there fishing and skiing on our own we get to push ourselves to our highest level, a level we don’t often get to while guiding. I’m sure Phil Jackson still loves to get out on the court and hoop.”
Alf Carter: “The hardest part is keeping it fresh. They’re beginners, so I’m doing the beginning routes. Over and over. I try to mix it up.