When disaster strikes, guides’ livelihoods are often among the most immediately impacted. Think hurricanes, wildfires and, of course, the shutdowns of a global pandemic. When the public spaces and waterways we enjoy are inaccessible, guides are left without work. Combine this with the already limited benefits that accompany the fact most guides are contractors or seasonal employees, and you have a recipe for hardship.

Guests and guides on an outfitted river trip.
Photo: Courtesy Guide Relief Program

The relief program rescuing guides in times of hardship

These reasons are largely what has motivated Mollie Simpkins to found the nonprofit organization the Guide Relief Program, which is now running a specific fundraising campaign called Guide Across America.

“We all choose our professions,” shares Simpkins. “Because we’ve chosen to be guides that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have access to benefits.”

Simpkins, who also serves as the executive director of the program, works in various management roles at Sweetwater Flyshop, in Montana’s Yellowstone country. When the world went into lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Simpkins’ boss wanted to put together a fundraiser to help Montana’s guides through the trying time. Utilizing a background in the nonprofit sphere, Simpkins stepped up to lead the fundraising effort, and took it beyond a singular event by founding the relief organization.

The Guide Relief Program offers grants to guides facing hardship through a straightforward application process. The relief program also assists guides with access to needs including mental health and well-being services. To date, Simpkins shares that the fund has awarded $36,000 in grants. An example of the program jumping into action was following the June 2022 Yellowstone floods, when guides lost work due to the destruction.

The Guides Across America campaign

Now, in an effort to take the work of the Guide Relief Program mainstream throughout the U.S., the nonprofit has partnered with Sawyer Paddles and Oars and the Fly Fishing Film Tour in a fundraising sweepstakes, Guides Across America.

“Everybody in the paddle industry and everybody in the outdoor guiding industry are really good at responding after catastrophic events devastate these communities that really rely on a tourism economy,” believes Sawyer CEO Zac Kauffman.

“When an event happens, everybody kind of rallies around to get food, water, power, infrastructure, and then tourism isn’t even a thought. And it’s really like that’s the last thing to come about,” Kauffman adds in reference to the precarious state of local guiding communities hit by disaster.

Kauffman, whose company is based in Oregon, was involved with support for guiding communities in southwest Florida following Hurricane Ian, when he got to thinking—if his small business on the other side of the country can help out, maybe a larger campaign of guides helping guides throughout the U.S. could be formed.

Kauffman conjured the Guides Across America sweepstakes, then found Simpkins and her existing organization bent on supporting the guiding community. The pair, along with the Fly Fishing Film Tour, have now combined their efforts to strengthen the funding the Guide Relief Program has accessible for those affected by catastrophe.

Guides across America need relief through times of hardship.
Feature photo: Courtesy Guide Relief Program

A good cause and a chance to win a hefty prize

The sweepstakes includes a long list of sponsors, and by donating, entrants stand a chance to win a prize package worth $17,000 and includes a set of Sawyer Oars, an Outcast Sporting Gear raft, a Downriver Equipment frame, and a guided stay at the Royal Big Horn Lodge in Montana. Best of all, entering the sweepstakes supports the guiding community many paddlers have worked in, and continue to work, in as part of the lifestyle we all hold dear.

“A lot of our team, myself included, come from the guiding industry. I was a guide for 30 years and that’s basically how I ended up with Sawyer,” Kauffman adds of the significance of supporting the community both personally and as a business. “No matter where you are, we have a common element, we are all water guides.”

The Guides Across America Sweepstakes runs until May 31, 2024. Learn more and enter by visiting, https://guidereliefprogram.org/gaa.

Feature photo: Polly Greist / Courtesy Guide Relief Program




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