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In praise of guides

Guide a : one that leads or directs another's way b : a person who exhibits and explains points of interest  ... e : a person who directs another's conduct or course of life. M-W.COM

Guide Kopavi in Ribbon Falls, Grand Canyon, Sept 09

The old chestnut "Better a guide on the side than the sage on the stage" has been so often repeated that it's become meaningless. What exactly is a guide and how does this role differ from that of coach, teacher, mentor or even sage?

This past week my experience with two excellent guides, Kopavi and Chris from Angel's Gate Tours, gave me some ideas about what constitutes good guiding. I have always tried to avoid "guided tours," priding myself in being able to read a damn guidebook and figure out transit most places. But I am very glad we used a guiding service for the Rim to Rim four day backpacking jaunt. (Oh, in case you didn't notice, I did come out alive.)

Our Grand Canyon hike started on the North Rim and followed the North Kaibab Trail for two days, descending some 5,000 feet over the course of 14 miles to the Colorado River. We then spent another two days ascending the Bright Angel Trail about 4,000 feet in 10 miles to the South Rim. We spend three nights camping and we tourists each had packs of between 30-40 pounds. (The guides carried about 80 pounds each starting out.) Three of the four of our group are in our 50s and not, ahem, premier athletes.

And we arrived on the other rim not only alive, but feeling exhilarated and proud - a little sore, but not damaged. We traveled without serious pain or injury and felt safe the entire trip. We were challenged, informed, and just plain had fun. And I thank the guides for a large part of the success of our adventure.

Guides Kopavi and Chris:

1. Pushed us to do things we might not have done on our own. After a day of hiking, the last thing one wants to hear is a suggestion that we hike another mile and a half to a site for supper. (A mile and a half hiking is like about three miles walking down a city street in terms of effort.) But we did it and were treated to a beautiful sunset on Plateau Point and a very cool nightime walk back to the Indian Gardens campground.

Sunset at Plateau Point, September 09


2. Modeled things that encouraged us to do things we might not have done. I don't remember the last time I slept under the stars, but following the guides' example (they did not bring a tent for themselves), I threw my sleeping bag and pad on a tarp outside the provided tent. Each time I awoke during the night, it was to a star-filled sky. Yes, thoughts of scorpions, rattlesnakes (we met one living 10 feet from one of our campsites), mice and other critters did occur, but did not deter, thanks to example. The guides led plunges into the Colorado River, explorations under waterfalls, and stream crossings we would probably not have tried ourselves.

Part of what made Kopavi and Chris great models was that they themselves are avid hikers. Although our hike seemed an adventure, the well-maintained, well-traveled paths we uses must seem like Main Street to our guides. These guys talked about unsupported hikes of up to two weeks to the wilds of the canyon. But you could feel their love of both the place and the sport.

Chris models experiencing a hidden waterfall in Garden Creek, Sept 09

3. Showed us things we might not have found. Anasazi ruins, hidden waterfalls, petroglyphs, and the details of the environment would have all gone unseen had we not had guides. We were told how to tell difference between a yucca and an agave plant, to understand the geographical layering of the canyon, and to spot ancient cliff-bound creations of canyon inhabitants. Something guide books could just not do as well.

 Clair in Anazasi ruins, Grand Canyon, Sept 09

4. Demonstrated technical proficiency/best practices. I'd not used hiking poles before, preferring to not have anything in my hands while I hiked. But I got talked into trying them and was given instruction in how to use them to best advantage - for balance going downhill and across streams and for propulsion going uphill. I learned that small steps going uphill are best. I learned how to adjust my pack to change the weight load from shoulders to hips throughout the day. And I learned about "microtrash" - those tiny bits of wrappers or other very small piece of human made materials too often left by visitors.

Oh, over the entire 24 miles, I think I saw but one piece of paper, two cigarette butts and one plastic bottle - what a joy to be in a place with no trash or trash cans. One must pack everything out, including used toilet paper.

 Jodie crossing the Bright Angle Creek, Sept 09

5. Smoothed the way. I have to admit that I liked not having to arrange for camping permits, set up tents, cook meals, wash dishes or even carry my tent or pad. No worries about shopping for food or getting the right backpack. Having a guide service was expensive, I thought, but it turned the trip into an actual vacation.

 Our happy group at the end of the hike - Kopavi, Barb, Jodie, Clair, me, Chris - Sept 09

Why does learning in school have to be so disagreeable to so many students and teachers when we all know learning itself can be about the most fun one can have under the right circumstances. Maybe a little more guiding and a little less "teaching" might make even school a better place.

Oh, that distant horizon you see behind us? That's the North Rim, where we started 4 days earlier.

For the truly bored, one can find about 200 other photos from this adventure here.

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Reader Comments (12)

The Blue Skunk is back and as good as ever! Thanks for an insightful post--looks like it was a blast. I've been to the Canyon, but never like that. Now I want to go back...

September 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterteacherninja

Nice job on writing up the trip. Good thoughts and good shots.

September 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterClair L. Brustkern

I think The Blue Skunk has identified an avocation for retirement, whenever that happens (not too soon, I hope)--travel writing!

September 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMary Johnson

Great post! I am getting ready for my hike on the AT but no backpacking this time. I am camping and being shuttled. I am very impressed that you all carried 30-40 pounds! I might have to try to hiking poles. Thanks for sharing ;-)

September 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTerri Kirk

I like your conceptualization of great teachers as guides; they push/model/show/demonstrate/smooth...

Long gone are the days of teachers as sign posts.

September 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul C

Sounds amazing! You just pushed the Grand Canyon higher up on the list of places I need to go, and planted the idea of sleeping under the stars while there...although I'm not sure I could overcome my imagination's conjuring of snakes everywhere...

September 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLibby

Do you think this post could apply to, oh, I don't know, like the role of a school's tech coach?

Nicely done!

September 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterken

Hi Ninja,

Thanks for the kind words. This fall has been exceptionally busy for me. Hopefully, I'll get a little more posted over the next couple weeks before the next round of conferences and travel comes up. I appreciate the consistency with you keep posting!

All the best,


HI Mary,

I've thought about this but worried that it might make work out fun!


HI Terri,

Good luck with your AT trip. I thought you swore off on this adventure!

I was surprised by how much I like the hiking poles since I resisted them. I called on Lec and the other Victor (Hiking Poles, get it?)

Nice article in NEA magazine too!


Thanks, Paul. Hiking the canyon was certainly a different experience that watching a movie or hearing lecture about it. I think we have fewer listeners and more hikers in our schools than ever these days.


Hi Libby,

The Canyon is an awesome place - in the literal sense of awe - some!

The snakes are really shy. Our guides said you have to tease them for them to bite. We didn't test the theory.


HI Ken,

And I thought I was being subtle!


October 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Guided tours are not that bad at all. Sometimes I am on the mood of doing things by myself and I decide to visit places on my own. Last month, however, I went to the States and I decided to go with a group of people who had planned to visit the same places I wanted to visit. The tour was phantastic. I enjoyed seeing the breathtaking landscapes and pristine mountains. I wish I could live there for sometime. We ate a lot and paid low prices :) I would not have done it on my own, cos I do not know quite at all how things run in the USA.


October 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlejandro Damenschuhe

Hola, Alejadro

Very glad you had a good time in our country. It's such a big place, I always wonder how people from other countries decide which parts to visit. (Nobody comes to Minnesota!)

Your email address suggests you are from Madrid. I was lucky enough to visit your city a few years ago. A beautiful, fascinating place as well.

All the best,


October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug! I just google "Kopavi glamour shots" and this article popped up! Your writing brought a wave of great memories, thanks for writing this great blog and your kind words :) hope you are well and thriving!

October 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKopavi

Wow, Kopavi, what a nice surprise to hear from you. I actually tied to find you last spring to see if you would guide a hike my grandsons and I did in the Grand Canyon. If you see this, send me your email address! The boys and I had a really good time, but you were the better guide by far! Hope all is well with you and Chris.

October 4, 2016 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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