I’m an outdoor guide because traveling and nature experiences can be powerful teachers. Here is one such story about how an encounter with a whale helped others (and myself) to grow.
“Whale!” a woman squealed. Two-dozen people slammed themselves onto the starboard railing of a small whale watching the ship. The vessel listed uncomfortably sideways. Just feet away a baby gray whale, the length of a long kayak, floated in the rough surf. Its large black eye seemed to study each of us. Everyone was absorbed in the experience. They had forgotten their discomfort in the previous hour and a half. Up until then, it had been a bad day to be on the water: we had not seen a whale – not one. Our ship sickeningly rolled side to side in the deep troughs, the smell of diesel permeated our nostrils, cold January weather nipped our skin, the sky was oppressively overcast and the wind-chapped our lips. Worst of all was seasickness, not just a queasy feeling, but real illness. I heard my name being simultaneously cursed as participants barfed over the boat’s edge. Some made multiple trips. As they staggered back with a sick yet relieved look on their faces I received several vexing glances. The words were blazed in their eyes, “Why did you make me come out here?”
It was a hard day. My camera had broken too, then again maybe it was for the best. This was the first whale-watching tour that I had organized for a group and it was going horribly. I secretly wanted this trip to be over, to slink home and erase it from my memory. I wanted the trip participants to forget about it, too.
When the young whale appeared the trip was born anew. A marine biologist shared her commentary: the mother was likely on the seabed feeding and would be returning shortly. The juvenile was not lost, just hanging out at the surface.
Amazingly the whale stayed parallel with our ship for about twenty minutes. Then several hundred feet away from a large mass the size of a city bus rose to the surface. She dramatically announced herself by ejecting a plume of air in a geyser-like spray. This was the mother! The smaller whale joined her and they swam off together.
The people were giddy, but also happy to return to port. Upon disembarking from the ship, the trip participants said little, just drove away. I had organized the outing as a way for overscheduled tech workers to connect with their families in the outdoors, but had I inadvertently turned more people off that helped? This was first of several trips where unexpected situations and hardships caused me to question my outings and slowly I became disillusioned. After several summers, I stopped leading nature adventures.
Fast forward to five years. I was at an outdoor market selling child-sized backpacks I made at the time. A man approached and we talked for a minute, then he said, “Hey, you’re that guy who led the whale watching trip.” He briskly shook my hand said, “Thanks.” I wondered if we were talking about the same excursion. He told me about that day, I listened with interest then in dismay as my well-intentioned nature trip was turned into a tale of deceit. At the time, he and his mother-in-law despised one another and for spite, they created ever-increasing hardships for their rival, often to the detriment of family members. One day he saw my whale watching trip and suggested a pleasant outing for the entire family. But his coyness was masked with a desire that his mother-in-law has a miserable experience. In fact, she hated that trip and wanted nothing to do with him again. To his glee, she stopped visiting altogether! Eventually, her lengthy absence spoke to his better nature and he felt guilty for his childish behavior.
Almost a year later she returned for a holiday visit. The conversation at the dinner table was still; everyone in the room knew the two were enemies. As the serving plates started to move about she looked at him and said, “Remember that whale watching trip?” He suspected a trap but replied, “…yes.”
She looked directly at him and with a heartfelt voice said, “Thank You.” His mind was blown. No one in the family knew what to say, him especially.
She shared her story: At the time she suspected the man wanted her to get sick while whale watching, but she went anyway. It was a most unpleasant time. But when she viewed the whale up close and looked into its eye, she saw there was something there – more to the point, something in her. She returned home to southern California and was anxious to the point where sleep was difficult. She spent more time outside and took long walks. She started to walk to the store. Her walks became hikes and she asked her friends to join her, but they were “too busy”, so she went by herself. Later she joined a local hiking club. On these outings, she saw hills and valleys near her house that she had never seen despite having lived in the area for decades. On one hike in the Mojave Desert, she saw a magnificent vista and it inspired her to make a big decision. She decided to visit a place she had always dreamed of seeing since she was a child: South Korea. Then she announced to the family around the table, “I’m leaving for Seoul in three weeks.”
The man was shocked, something in her words had spoken to him. He felt ashamed. After dinner, the two of them had a heart-to-heart talk. The trickery and malice evaporated and they started to heal their relationship. Several weeks later the mother-in-law traveled to Korea and had a wonderful trip. In the months that followed, she visited the family more often and the two of them started to go on short walks. They both enjoyed being outside, even having deep conversations. A year later they had become friends and even hiking buddies. The entire family was happier and everyone was even talking about an overseas trip.
The man finished telling me his tale. Before disappearing into the crowd he said, “Thanks again for the great trip!”
His story was an elixir for me, it helped to renew and strengthen my own passion – connecting people with the outdoors. I started to organize and lead trips once again. Fifteen years later I’m still going strong.
I guide because travel and being in the outdoors teaches things that we can only learn by experiencing life. Guiding is at that nexus, the point between being in the now, learning, and living; and it is best shared with others who seek it.