by Steve Van Auken

Our wilderness guide did not look much like Jeremiah Johnson. She introduced herself as Sara (“no ‘h'”) and all of us older men and women assumed she must be the human resources coordinator. We all expected a version of Grizzly Adams. Instead we were being issued our gear by someone who appeared to me to have recently stepped off her high school soccer field.

This was not a matter of gender equity theory. This was Alaska. They have grizzly bears in the woods. We were going into those woods. I do not think I was the only one wondering if there was still time to transfer to the tour of Skagway’s chocolate shops.

You might expect the outfitter would have made up for what the young guide lacked in size by providing her with a large firearm. You would be wrong. The only weapon she carried was self-confidence.

Sensing our skepticism, Sara listed her credentials. She had faced appalling hardship and survived. She had just finished shepherding a group of 15-year-olds through a week in the wilderness. She had wrangled them through bugs, rain, and extremely limited personal grooming opportunities. She had faced down this desperate band, standing between them and their cell phones.

I have met some tough male guides. I doubt that any of them could have survived this without nightmares.

Until I met Sara, I never realized I held gender stereotypes about nature. I just assumed that Seal Team Six would be entirely female-led before women became wilderness guides. But Sara had not felt the need to seek my approval before she bought her one-way ticket from Charlottesville to Anchorage.

Someone had forgotten to tell Sara how guides are supposed to act. Most adhere to the time-honored male principle of doling out words as though they were the last bullets at Custer’s Last Stand. My camping buddy, Doug Boyer, once had this conversation with a guide in the Minnesota Boundary Waters:

Doug: How are things this year?

Guide: Problems.

Doug: What kind of problems?

Guide: Late spring.

Doug: Why is that bad?

Guide: Few berries.

Doug: Why is that bad?

Guide: Bears are hungry.

Doug: Yes?

Guide: Looking for other food.

Doug: Yes?

Guide: People have food. Are food.

Doug: Oh.

During the time this guide took to dole-out his trail knowledge, Sara could have shared all the bear-human interactions in the past six months and which berries she likes in pie. What I mean is, she could talk. She was probably violating a key rule of the Wilderness Guides Union, or at least of Doug’s guide. She didn’t seem to care.

Aside from a sheath knife and a bunch of dubious fish stories, the most important thing for a guide to carry is authority. A traditional guide shows authority by squinting. The squint speaks of years spent hunkered beside smoky campfires, swatting gnats.

Sara had no squint. But she carried her authority like an Alaskan eats a salmon: heartily. She showed it soon after we entered the woods.

“Now you see these red berries here. These are watermelon berries. The berries are the color of the inside of a watermelon. The leaves are the color of the outside. And they’re good. Here, try some.” She offered the berries in the palm of her hand. They were tart and tasty.

As we munched she continued her lecture. “Now these others here, this is baneberry. It looks real different. If you eat it, first you get paralyzed. In a few minutes, you’re gone. There’s nothing anybody can do for you.”

As we wiped the berry juice off our mouths and digested this bit of information, a certain stillness fell over the group. But not over Sara, who continued her spirited discourse on the native plants of Alaska. We stared at the watermelon berry plant and saw little red berries on bushes growing low to the ground with roundish green leaves. Beside these, their stems actually intertwined, were the baneberry plants. They distinguished themselves by having little red berries on bushes growing low to the ground with roundish leaves that were — maybe — a slightly darker shade of green.

“More berries?” offered Sara, the palm of her hand stained red.

Everyone was full, thanks.

Sara demonstrated that in spite of her youth and lack of a beard big enough to harbor mice, she could fulfill the core duty of a trail guide: Don’t bring anybody home dead.

Sara guided us through a terrific day trip. More importantly, she showed us old folks that there is more than one way to be a guide. If you want someone who is tough and skilled and capable of conversation that will inform and brighten your spirits, consider Sara.

But you might want to get your berries at the grocery store.

Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be.

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