The best guide knows how to let go

  • Rod Nash

    Ray Ford

Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, in a special issue about outdoor education: Spreading the gospel

Roderick Nash, author of the still-selling book, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967), likes to tell people he grew up in a New York apartment staring at a brick wall. A trip to the Grand Canyon at age 8 changed everything; from then on he was fascinated by the West. Eventually, he became an activist, scholar and professional river guide, and in 1957 he was among the first to run a commercial river trip. The river recreation industry has come a long way since then, says Nash, but he worries that some commercial trips have turned into pampered vacations. In a recent interview in the Boatman's Quarterly Review, a publication of the nonprofit Grand Canyon River Guides, Nash describes an antidote to the catered approach that he calls "unguiding": It's the art of letting the river teach its own lessons.

Roderick Nash:

"As a professor, I've always tried to get people into self-discovery. I don't teach by telling people something. Rather, get the bulb to go off, let them discover. Sure, some people will go in there and they'll make mistakes. I think those mistakes are precious. I don't like the "safari syndrome" very much, even though I've been a part of it.

"I don't like the kind of menus we're serving the people down there now. I don't like the food service regulations. I don't like the fact that 9-year-old girls are dumping cans on the tarp for me to smash and walking away to read their comic book.

"Of course, people get value out of (commercial trips) and of course they have had some changes in their attitude toward the natural world from that kind of experience. But I think they would have even more, if they had a more self-reliant attitude toward it.

"Let me tell you a story that illustrates this. I call it "unguiding." For a long while I took people up into Silver Grotto on trips, and we rigged the ropes, and we told them where to put their feet. You know the drill. "Now put your foot right here, Alice. That's great, swing your leg up. Reach up, you got it. Now just one more step. There you go, nice going." Alice gets up, she goes into Silver Grotto; she thinks it's beautiful. Okay, back to camp.

"One year, I guess I was busy, or I was tired, or something, and I just told a group of people, "There's a canyon up here that's kind of interesting. Why don't you guys see if you can figure out how to get into it, and see what's up there." They took off. They were gone about two hours. I said, "Oh shit, they may be hurt, I shouldn't have done this. Liability! Insurance! Problems!"

"But they came back right about dark, and there was fire in their eyes, and they said, "We just saw The Temple of God!" And they told me about it. It was something they'd never forget.

"I say it's worth it to expose people a little bit. I don't think real gains or discoveries are made without a certain amount of risk. Be an unguide. Of course, this involves a certain amount of ego suppression in the whole guiding profession.

"You ever teach a kid how to ride a bike? It's wonderful. You start out by running behind them and holding them up. They're wobbly, and they're a little scared, they're making some mistakes, they're going back and forth, but then they get a little more momentum. And you run and run, faster and faster, holding onto the seat, and finally they're getting those pedals going, and they're getting some momentum, and then the magic happens, they take off - and they're on their own! And the smile, the feeling of satisfaction.

"We're holding onto people's seats too long in our wilderness areas; guides are being training wheels, not motivators for independence. Let 'em off, let 'em go."

* from Boatman's Quarterly Review

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