One morning this past July, my co-guide and I watched as a young couple paddled up to our beautiful little coastal campsite.

It was not yet even 10 a.m., but the pair had the sleep-deprived, puffy-eyed saltiness I associate with early morning starts. As our clients got organized for the last day of paddling on our 10-day trip, we raised our highly certified eyebrows and exchanged skeptical looks.

We analyzed the couple’s gear and paddling techniques, noting the way they landed and unpacked their boats. We welcomed them to the beach with the customary questions. How long have you been out? Where did you come from today? Where are you headed?

They told us they had just made the onerous six-mile open water crossing of Hakai Pass. It’s an option not unheard of among knowledgeable and experienced paddlers, but a committing decision, and one we had decided against with our commercial group of clients.

Now on day 51 of 80, the couple told us they started their trip in Telegraph Cove, 300 miles south. Their goal was to make it as far up the coast as they could in the month remaining.

Both were seasoned recreational mountaineers, but this was their first journey of any length on the sea. A winter knee injury resulted in a change of plans. Within a month of their planned departure, their three-month mountain traverse turned into 80 days on the ocean by sea kayak. How much different could it be?

One of their kayaks had been borrowed from the garage of a senior relative, and the other from a retired day paddler’s Craiglist ad. Their knowledge of weather and ocean navigation was gleaned from books, websites and simple observation. Much of their basic kayaking knowledge was acquired along the way by chatting up paddlers with whom they crossed paths. By the time they reached us, they could read a chart, understand the weather forecast and knew how far to pull up their boats each night.

What impressed me most was their seemingly flawless adherence to the most conservative of decision-making metrics. When in doubt for any reason, they waited.

During the rest of the day with our clients there was much discussion and derision about the wisdom of taking on an ocean trip of this length and exposure with so little experience. My co-guide even went so far as to say, “They shouldn’t be out here.”

It’s not an uncommon sentiment in our increasingly certification-focused and rule-based industry. These days, there is an approved training and industry standard meted out for even the most innocuous of recreational adventures, so by this measure, he is certainly not wrong.

I have enough laminated high-level guide and instructor cards to sink a small rowboat

I admit when hearing of the 80 days of food and fuel the pair had packed in and on their boats on day one, in addition to water rations, I shuddered inwardly. I imagined the pair launching wildly overloaded kayaks, two self-proclaimed tight-hipped novices wobbling their way into Johnstone Strait with no tide and current table or weather forecast between them, let alone the knowledge to interpret them.

One might say I have earned the right to look askance at such folk. I have logged thousands of days leading groups on rivers and coastlines and have earned the title of expert in a few outdoor adventure disciplines. I have enough laminated high-level guide and instructor cards to sink a small rowboat. I have also witnessed more than a few adventurers who don’t know what they don’t know about the requirements of the terrain or the judgement and decision-making skills to negotiate it. I’ve seen leaders suffer the consequences of their own unconscious incompetence, and endanger the lives of others at the same time.

I had to remind myself I’ve also had more than a few epics of my own. On my own time, I have been out in conditions above my skill level, and tried my luck on river, ocean and mountain. I’ve made bad and good decisions and learned from both. And I know I’m certainly not the only one. Paddlers have always tested themselves, and usually come away better for it in skill, growth and self-knowledge. 

As I have moved through my career, I have become a devotee of certification. In part out of necessity, but also because I see the undeniable value of standardized training in a growing and diversifying adventure industry. Today, certification is an expectation—not just for professional guides and instructors, but increasingly for the lay person. If you aren’t certified yourself, you damn well better hire someone who is. We have become slaves to certification and expertise in a pastime and passion prized for its sheer simplicity.

As slaves to certification, I feel we’ve created such a level of risk-aversion and elitism, we’re squashing the heart of authentic adventure. You know the type I mean—the adventures demanding self-sufficiency, which can’t be purchased from a travel catalog. Embarking on something new and getting in over our heads is a lost art practised by few. On these types of trips, not everything will go as planned. Sometimes there are tears and conflict. Yet, these difficult situations are often how we grow and how we learn the most about ourselves. Real adventure isn’t always comfortable—and that’s a good thing.

I was impressed by the young couple who joined us on the beach. They had equipped themselves with a healthy dose of conservatism, practiced good principles-based decision-making skills, and had the humility and curiosity to learn from both the people they met along the way and the environmental conditions they faced. Above all, they gave themselves the luxury of time and space. Doing the best they could with the considerable skills and resources available to them, they had done pretty damn well so far. This empowering experience is impossible to laminate and won’t fit in a wallet.

According to American Philosopher Amos Bronson Allott; Our bravest and best lessons are not learned through success, but through misadventure,”

Fiona Hough has worked as a paddlesports guide, instructor and trainer for more than 25 years. Her most ill-advised personal adventure was when she decided to ski 24 kilometers in a whiteout and in the dark carrying only stirfry veggies and Baileys in a day pack. Feature photo: Henry Liu


  1. Im a recreational kayaker that does mostly day paddles with a weeklong wilderness trip in Canada once a year. Iv also paddled about 500 miles in the arctic. One of those trips lasted 25 days and these were the days before SATCOM or beacons. I didn’t do these trips because I felt overly qualified or confident- I did them for the adventure, and without risk, there is no adventure.

  2. I 100% agree with the philosophy of his statements here. But… enough already with your over trained and over certified analogies. We get it. You know your stuff.

    I always look back to mountain bike rides with young riders who find every single jump along a trail. They aren’t thinking safety first, they aren’t thinking “if I case this double I am going to the hospital and not working for 6 weeks”, they just damn well go for it, with huge smiles and big stories at the end of the day for their buddies that didn’t show up at the trailhead.

    The fact that these two non-experienced kayakers jumped into a new environment who are OBVIOUSLY highly proficient in other adventure sports (one does not simply jump into the mountains for 80 days without a LOT of experience) speaks to the necessity to simply be out in the wilds regardless if the number of tickets in their pocket. Flexibility, after all, is one of the inherent traits of a good leader and smart adventurer.

    Everyone needs to understand the weather, everyone needs to know first aid, and everyone needs to know how to read a map. After that…fostering adventure through experiences in nature is all that matters. Do it safely, do some planning and dive in with some suitable exit strategies. If these guys don’t learn all the necessary skills to paddle the ocean in 80 days on the ocean no ticket will help them. Have an amazing summer and fall out there on your watercraft!

  3. I agree with Troy and Snake above.

    In the summer of my 40th birthday, this inexperienced canoeist undertook a solo, canoe trip – it was to be a long one: from upstream of the Lachine Rapids to historic Methye Portage.

    Along the way, I treated myself to just about every mistake one can paddling; some spectacular ones I got to enjoy twice! And,”Yep”, no certified guide, scout master, or park ranger would ever have approved of this rookie’s credentials for such an endeavor, even though I was seasoned in other ways and particularly fond of working myself out of difficult situations. And “Yep”, you’d better not venture off the beaten path without maps and map reading skills, that is, if you plan on getting back to “here” from “there” when you’re done. (If you’ve got a good watch, one set to local time, and a good grasp of the sun’s travels, you might get away sans a compass, but I’d bring one along anyway.) And if you haven’t figured out that more calories than “needed” are, in fact, “needed”, no amount of certifying is going to get you through without serious discomfort.

    “Certification” won’t necessarily prevent mistakes, but, by slaving to, or waiting for, “approvals”, one just might miss out of some truly grand outdoor adventures.


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