Wednesday, December 5, 2012

return to guiding.

More than anything else, being a competent guide is about knowing a place; knowing it with a certainly that allows you to guide other people through it safely and confidently. It is one of the things I like about guiding – it draws upon a sense of place, builds upon a connection to one specific place in this vast world. This is what we are trained to do, we who come in from far away to work for a season or two in what is surely one of the world's most beautiful landscapes: Piopiotahi, or, more mundanely, Milford Sound, in New Zealand's Fiordlands. After a few weeks we are able to recite facts and figures, understand what the weather will do when a westerly blows in from the Tasman Sea, point out geographic landmarks. But we do not yet truly know this place. Each day, one moment at a time, we are discovering its secrets. That is our job. That is what we are paid to do.

The people we take out sea kayaking are simply passing through, wanting to hear the facts and stories that make this place unique among so many others, wanting to have memorable experiences and take photographs to bring home. The travelers are like gusts of wind, a slurry of faces and names swept away by camper vans and rental cars and tour buses each evening, bodies wrapped in different variations of a theme, the same GoreTex jackets and zip-off pants, the brightly-colored nylon and synthetics of outdoor travelers. They are good people, most of them. They've traveled far to get here, taken a 120-kilometer road through the mountains and come out on the other side into a different land, wanting only the trip of a lifetime, the trip they've been saving for and waiting for and planning for, and we are here to deliver it.

But we too are only passing through. Milford Sound is in a national park, a world heritage site, thousands of acres of public land owned by no one and administered from afar by the government of New Zealand. It is soggy, inhospitable and ridden with sandflies. Even Maori people didn't set up permanent settlements here – they walked in on a 55-kilometer track, loaded their dugout canoes with seafood and greenstone, and carried them back out. No one can claim to be from here; not one person has grown up among these towering cliffs and dripping beech forests, where dolphins leap under snowy cliffs and penguins waddle through green underbrush. No one owns land here.

Does that somehow make it less real, that we cannot claim this place as our own, that we cannot build lasting communities here? Or does it make it more real, knowing that our time is fleeting, that even in the 21st century we are unable to harness such an untamed place? Maori legend says that after the demigod Tu created Piopiotahi with his greenstone adze, the goddess of the underworld cast millions of sandflies upon it to ensure that no one would linger here too long, that man would not become idle in the face of such beauty and destroy it. This is the reason there are no permanent residents of Milford Sound.

Even after just a few weeks, there is a part of me that wants to live in a “real” community, a place with schools and local government, not somewhere that feeds almost solely off of tourism with a little bit of commercial fishing thrown in. But what is the definition of community? If it is a group of people who care deeply for each other and the place they live, then this is as real as it gets. When I take people out on their kayaking adventure of a lifetime, they sometimes ask me if I like living in such a remote, isolated place. I tell them the truth. I tell them I love it. 


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