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A GUIDED EXPERIENCE: Modern-day Ad’k guides still connect visitors to the wilderness

November 9, 2009
HEATHER SACKETT, News Staff Writer
     LAKE PLACID — “When I started guiding 30 years ago people told me it’s an ancient occupation, it’s an occupation of the past and you’ll never make a living doing it,” owner of Middle Earth Expeditions Wayne Failing said. “And they were wrong.”

    Pick up any book on Adirondack history and you’ll likely recognize some of the names: Orson Schofield “Old Mountain” Phleps, Mitchell Sabbatis, John Cheney, Alvah Dunning. As some of the earliest settlers to the region, Adirondack guides led people from the cities on camping, fishing and hunting excursions. They kept their “sports,” as they were called, safe in a wilderness that was much more rugged than it is today, set up camp, paddled the guideboat and cooked meals. These guides of the late 19th and early 20th century are now romanticized as an iconic part of our history inside the Blue Line.

    Nearly 200 years after Native American trapper Lewis Elijah Benedict led venture capitalist David Henderson through Indian Pass in search of iron ore, guiding is still a profession of choice for a new generation of Adirondackers. It is a profession that has evolved over the decades and yet, in some ways, remains exactly the same.

    Joe Hackett, of Ray Brook, has been guiding for 31 years and regularly takes high-profile clients from luxury resorts like The Point and the Lake Placid Lodge on outdoor excursions. Hackett says guides are no longer relied on as much for things like transportation and that traditional guided pursuits such as hunting and fishing are not as popular as they once were. Hackett said guides today act more as educators and are more diversified in their skills. Guides lead nature treks for families, bird-watchers and mushroom hunters, and introduce people to the healing properties of the woods.

    “Today, people still want their feeling of adventure, but don’t want the blood on their hands,” Hackett said. “Back then, a vacation wasn’t complete without bagging a trophy buck. It’s moving away from the traditional bait and bullet recreation to non-consumptive recreation. It’s more about the experience than the harvest.”

    According to state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Dave Winchell, there are 2,091 licensed guides in New York state. Region 5, which encompasses Lake Placid and the High Peaks area, has the most with 518. People can become licensed guides in six different categories (hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, rock/ice climbing and whitewater) by taking a written test. Fishing boasts the most licensed guides with 1,017, followed by hiking with 753. Just 16 people each are licensed as tier II ice climbing and whitewater canoeing guides. Rock climbing and whitewater rafting require an additional test of a guide’s physical skills. But it wasn’t always that way.

    According to Adirondack historian, writer and lifetime member of the New York State Outdoor Guide Association (NYSOGA) Don Williams of Gloversville, before the early 1980s all one had to do to become a guide was send the state $2 and you received a guide button in the mail. NYSOGA reorganized in 1981 and the process became more official and regulations became more stringent.

    “It became more of a guarantee that you were getting a qualified person,” Williams said. “It became a real legitimate occupation. Today it’s more business-like than back in those early days.”  

    Williams, 75, is now retired from guiding. But during his long career he said he often paid homage to the old-timers he admired by borrowing some of their techniques. In his storytelling and writing, Williams still borrows the colloquialism “in my estimation” from the late Wells area guide Charlie Reece.

    “Being a writer I’ve researched most of (the old guides) that I’ve admired so much,” he said. “Charlie made seven tapes for me of his stories. I’ve copied some of his mannerisms.”

    Failing, a 30-year veteran of the profession, said that to be a good guide, one must have a head for business.

    “I always encourage the young guys to take a small business management class,” he said. “To be successful, you have to have business skills, manage a budget and pay your bills.”

    Failing, who is on the board of NYSOGA, is licensed in all six categories of guiding. He runs a whitewater rafting business in the summer, taking boatloads of guests down the remote, 17-mile long Hudson River Gorge. In the fall he guides hunting parties, in the winter skiing. For extra income he also has a cabin rental business and recently converted an old hay barn on his property into a home for himself, renting his larger farm house to vacationers. Failing acknowledges that even with business savvy, making a year-round living as a guide is a challenge.

    “It’s hard to get 12 months of employment being certified in just one of those categories,” he said. “When I started guiding I looked at it as a career. There are four distinct seasons and each has a specific activity that comes to the forefront.”

    But more important than having good business sense or wilderness skills, Failing said a successful guide must be a people person. A bit of an entertainer, Failing carries a recorder on his trips through the Gorge and plays a tune for clients as the boat slowly circles in an eddy, and he always brings his guitar on camping trips and plays songs around the campfire after dinner.  

    “A guide is a glorified wilderness butler,” he said. “You have to have all the equipment, set up camp, catch the fish, fluff the pillow and wash the dishes when they go to bed. But in the process, being an entertainer is part of the job. When you’re in a boat with somebody 10 hours fishing, it would be pretty boring if you didn’t have any stories to tell.”

    Despite what some say are changing trends, Failing doesn’t see himself or what he’s doing as any different than the guides of Adirondack lore. He added that he still books a lot of “traditional” hunting and fishing trips.

    “What I’m doing 200 years later is the same thing,” he said. “I bought an old farmhouse and put up boarders and take them out on recreational pursuits. I wouldn’t say hunting and fishing has passed away as a main activity for guides.”

    Ed Palen, owner of Rock and River Guide Service Inc. in Keene, guides mostly rock and ice climbing trips. He has been guiding for 21 years and has eight guides working for him. Palen said he and his business play the role of instructor more than guide. With most backcountry wilderness climbing areas accessible to anyone with a map and compass and the ability to use them, what clients want is to be taught the skills they need to go out on their own.

    “People don’t really need guides in the traditional sense,” he said. “Now when we take people rock climbing we are teaching them how to do it. They can just buy the book and go, but they have to learn how to do it safely.”

    Overnight climbing trips to remote routes that would require a guide are not that popular anymore, Palen said. It’s a trend that Palen said he had predicted would reverse, but with rock climbing becoming more main stream, the opposite is happening. Climbing outings are very fashionable among school groups and summer camps, he said.

    “Most people that want to climb want to maximize their time on the rock,” Palen said. “They want a nice spot in the woods but not really wilderness. We mostly take people on local spots within 20 or 30 minutes of the road so you can climb a lot.”

    No matter in what direction guiding is evolving, all agreed that the craft won’t disappear. As long as city dwellers and suburbanites continue to be disconnected from the natural world, they will feel the need to escape to the restorative woods and guiding will remain a viable career choice for Adirondackers. Failing related a story of a recent hunting trip where his clients sat for hours in a tree stand and never saw a buck. But they couldn’t have been happier to be outdoors and they returned to go hunting the next year.

    “It’s a bastion of spiritual growth and connection to nature for an over-civilized world,” Failing said. “I see guiding being strong into the foreseeable future. The need is going to be greater than ever.”

Article Photos

Adirondack guide Wayne Failing on a fishing trip. Below, Lake Placid guides from the 1880s.

Photo provided



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