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  • Em Palermo

Dispatches from Guiding in Alaska: Making the Outdoors a Welcoming Space

We’re in the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska. It’s been down pouring for five days straight, and our planned campsite had a freshly decomposing moose carcass. After hiking a couple miles to an old riverbed, our students worked on setting up camp and we all crossed our fingers we wouldn’t wake up in a puddle. We sent our students to their tents to change into dry clothes, warm up, take a little nap, play some cards. We set up the bear fence & tossed a tarp over our food, and I was ready to crawl into my tent too but my co-instructor KT had other plans. “I’m going to stay out and make dinner for everyone, I feel like this week has been hard enough without making our kids cook dinner in the pouring rain.”

Photo courtesy of Em Palermo

I stayed out and cooked dinner with her, and an hour later our students emerged from their tents with the kind of commotion we usually hear from a wildlife sighting. I’ve spent a lot of evenings cooking dinner in a deluge, and it honestly surprised me how grateful our students were for something I see as so simple.

For the average weekend sender, outdoor instruction might be as simple as taking a friend out on their first backpacking trip, or their first visit to a crag that’s not in a gym. From me–an outdoor educator, instructor, and guide–to all of you: taking someone outside can be challenging and rewarding and frustrating and enlightening and tiring and full of joy. I’ve had the privilege of working in the outdoor industry full time for the past two years, and I’ve learned a lot from interacting with people of all different ages, backgrounds, attitudes, and skill levels, on all sorts of trips and terrains.

Photo courtesy of Em Palermo

The biggest question I face on every trip, with every group is: what is challenging for this specific student? That’s not something for me to determine. There’s a popular saying in outdoor communities: “challenge by choice.” It means that the person facing the activity gets to determine what is a challenge for them, and whether they are prepared to face the challenge in that exact moment with the current circumstances. That challenge is allowed to change day-to-day for that person; what can be easy one day can be incredibly intimidating the next.

The first step is to believe your students, friends, or whomever you are leading. Sometimes people need encouragement, or a little nudge to push themselves.

Maybe it’s a little late, but this is the first season that compassion has fully clicked into place for me. My students ask for bandaids, not because their invisible cut needs protection from infection; no, it’s about my response. At the baseline, people want to be cared for, and they want to know that you will take care of them. It’s not about the bandaid, it’s about knowing that you’ll take their concerns seriously, that you’ll always be there to support and care for them, that you’re there to keep them safe no matter the issue.

Photo courtesy of Em Palermo

With students who have limited or no experience in the backcountry, taking a first backcountry trip might look different than your average multi-day slog with friends who have been recreating for years. There are many logistics to consider when taking new people far into the woods. In my experience, the most important question is less about planning and more about people: what are your friends’ worries? What made you nervous or scared the first time you recreated outside? Often, they’re pretty similar.

Working in the outdoor industry has done a strange job of hardening and softening me somehow simultaneously: hardened for all the rough edges of living out of a tent, the impermanence of seasonal work, the constant changeover of students, working outside in all sorts of weather, putting aside personal needs to care for the group, and the absolute unpredictability of anything and everything to do with itineraries. I’ve been softened by the needs of these communities, by calls to slow down, by stopping to care of hot spots, by adjusting a pack to make it the tiniest bit more bearable, by taking a packs-off snack break when no one is hungry but morale is low, by carrying face wipes for a fresh start right before bed, by shouldering more group gear so my students can carry enough clothes to change every day, by packing in nail polish and cake so my students can have a birthday party for a stuffed sloth on a beach in the middle of a rainstorm.

By putting bandaids on small scrapes.

Photo courtesy of Em Palermo

Sometimes, for those of us that have been in the backcountry extensively for the past few years, or even our whole lives, it’s easy to forget how to be new, how to be scared, and what discomfort can look like. If you can, look back to your beginnings; remember what it felt like to start a new outdoor activity. If you can’t, ask your friends, ask your community, ask me.

The beauty of the outdoors can be an end in itself for some people; the views after a long trudge up a herd path in the northeast; the endless skies seen on higher talus fields out west; the green tunnels in the rainforest climates in the southeast; desert sunsets in the southwest; massive ocean-side cliffs in the pacific northwest. This isn’t the end of outdoor recreation for everyone–some need a little nudge to find the fun in the inherent sufferings that are backpacking, climbing, paddling, and all others. In knowing this, I do my best to bring little joys in my backpack. A small card game, a sleeve of Oreo cookies or bag of sour patch, array of nail polish, an extra tarp for rain/sun, camp shoes, baby wipes, drom & soap – all of these “extras” can make the trip such a joyful experience for first timers.

This season, I made peace with the imperfection. Leave No Trace ethics are a great guide and goal; they are also not the law. We do our best to camp on durable surfaces; sometimes the group needs to end the day earlier than the first ideal campsite, and we do our best to avoid sensitive plants, and to leave the place looking as it did before we spent the night. Using leaves or rocks is a great TP for experienced folks, and it is really easy to carry some toilet paper and duct tape covered plastic bags for students to dispose of their used TP. Not everyone is on board with drinking gray water from dishes–easy, dig a sump for the group.

Photo courtesy of Em Palermo

In learning to provide for the different needs of my students, I’ve learned to be more gentle with myself. After finishing a really difficult summer season in Alaska and Washington, I set out on a personal backpack with a friend and ended up sitting in the middle of the trail and crying because the three miles we had hiked just felt hard. We camped a mile later at the first campsite we came to, slept in until 11am the next morning and hiked out, instead of staying another night as planned.

Photo courtesy of Em Palermo

Be kind, be compassionate, listen to your people. Taking first timers outside can be challenging and rewarding and frustrating and all of the emotions. Taking experienced people outside can also present many of the same challenges and frustrations and joys. Let them come to you, experience them, allow them to stick with you or roll off your back. And do it all over again.

About the Author

Em Palermo is an outdoor educator and field instructor, trail runner, and playlist enthusiast. She has yet to find a home base and since leaving her hometown in central NY, she's had the privilege of instructing in some of the most beautiful places in the United States, including Glacier National Park, Adirondack Park of Upstate NY, and southeastern Alaska. When she's not scooting up mountains with students and swinging around high ropes courses, you can find her dancing in the kitchen, jumping into alpine lakes in the spring, and chooching around on cross country skis. She also loves cooking without a recipe, making friends in far places, and has recently found a lot of joy working at a bakery in the Blue Ridge Mountains as the fall season slows down!

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