"It’s okay, everyone! The bear is not going to eat us.”
I was trying to sound reassuring, but to be honest, I had my doubts.
I was leading a nightmare of a trail ride. It was a seven-year-old’s birthday party, meaning that there were five kids and one adult, most of whom had never sat on a horse before in their life. Almost at the end of the ride, the novelty of sitting on a horse had started to wear off and the kids were getting grouchy in the hot sun.
As if that wasn’t enough, we turned the corner to find a black bear, who was now pacing back and forth across the path.
He wasn’t the first bear I’d ever encountered on a ride, and I knew if we made a lot of noise, he’d almost definitely disappear into the bush. Unfortunately, since it was such a hot day and his patch of shade had been a treat to find, he was not so eager to start hustling. Even more unfortunate, I was accompanied by five terrified kids, who were convinced we were about to be eaten, and the horses—who didn’t care one ounce about the bear—were starting to get a little edgy from all the screaming.
So how, exactly, did I get myself into this position?
My first career move: vacation
Near the end of my first year of university, my peers started to stress out about finding jobs for the summer. What job seemed an important question—they were all eager to get something that would give them a leg up with their careers post-grad. When I met with my academic counsellor for a routine meeting, she tried to impress upon that it was never too early to start building my professional resume.
At 18, I thought that internships and relevant work experience was probably a good idea . . . for them. But I felt that spending my summer in a stuffy office would be wasting my youth. I wanted something bigger.
By chance, I met someone who casually mentioned they’d worked in Jasper National Park, guiding horseback tours through the mountains. I’ve rode horses since I was nine, after my mother finally got tired of my endless begging for lessons. I fell in love with horses and the freedom I felt when I rode. I spent all my possible free time at the barn. A summer spent riding horses all day, every day, in the mountains? It was the type of thing I had literally dreamed about as a child.
My job sounded like a vacation to most people, which boggled the minds of some of my friends; we were supposed to be growing up, gaining responsibility.
But when I told my friends and family I was going to Jasper for the summer, a lot of them thought I was crazy. I’d have to fly across the country to work for almost no money. My job sounded like a vacation to most people, which boggled the minds of some of my friends; we were supposed to be growing up, gaining responsibility. How could I just leave to spend my entire summer on holidays?
I had my doubts, too, but I did my best to shove them to the back of my mind. That May, with a pounding heart, I boarded a plane to Edmonton. From there, I’d travel the additional three hours to Jasper.
Jasper National Park is the slightly less-famous cousin of Banff. They’re right next to one another and are both known for epic mountains, ethereally coloured glacier lakes and abundant wildlife.
Mid-May, I arrived and got to see Jasper transform in springtime. The last traces of snow melted, while the aspen trees gained green buds and the baby animals all came out in full force. Summer brought wildflowers, fat black bears lounging around berry patches, and a sun that didn’t set until late evening. In the last days of my job, the snow was beginning to reclaim the peaks and the male elk were all fighting over the ladies.
As beautiful as it was, I had my fair share of moments where I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I’m afraid of heights and was working on trails whose sides dropped steeply for hundreds of feet. I’ve also never been the best at public speaking, and having to lead people on rides (which involved talking loudly to large groups) didn’t come naturally.
I spent the whole first week on the job convinced that I would never make it as a guide. The only thing that kept me from quitting and flying home was the fact that so many people would be waiting to shake their heads and say, “See? We knew it was stupid to try and spend a summer in the mountains.”
Fortunately, after a week on the job, I met the love of my life: Bert, the horse. He was solid and steady, and I felt safe enough with him that I managed to control my fear of heights. I worked hard, learned to raise my voice and tried to gain as much knowledge as I could about the mountains to provide interesting information to my riders.
I learned from every experience I had on the trails, too. That birthday party, with the black bear pacing the trail and a batch of screaming seven-year-olds? I managed to keep everyone calm, including myself. The bear eventually left, and I delivered all my young riders back to the barn in one piece, chatting excitedly about the adventure they’d had.
The decision pays off
I thought I was choosing an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience over gaining solid job skills. But once I returned from Jasper, and eventually started applying for some slightly more grown-up jobs, I realized that my time in the mountains had actually prepared me for the workforce in a way that I never expected.
By the end of the summer, I couldn’t put together a business proposal or conduct lab research. But I did learn that writing “horse guide in the Rockies” made my resume stand out to bored hiring managers. One interviewer told me the only reason she called me was because she figured that if I could handle a job like that, I could do anything.
When a potential employer asks: “Can you tell me about a time you handled a stressful situation at work?” and your answer starts with: “Well, one time there was a mama grizzly bear and cub. . .” you become pretty memorable.
When you’ve faced down charging elk and endured windstorms that almost knocked you off the mountain, you gain confidence. I learned I was capable of doing so much more than I ever imagined. This has pushed me to aim for higher goals and jobs with more responsibility that I ever thought I would. This confidence makes me perform better in interviews, and it inspires confidence in employers.
No single position I’ve had, before or since, has opened as many doors for me as my guiding job in Jasper.
I also inadvertently spent my whole summer networking. I gained so much valuable advice and connections from tourists on my rides. Somebody once offered me a job at their riding stables, should I ever want to go work in New Zealand. Another offered me help getting set up if I ever moved to the Yukon. I found out that one of my guests had worked in the past for the United Nations and the Human Rights Tribunal (I majored in international development) and she let me spend an hour picking her brain. Even my coworkers at the stable offered opportunity; I met and became friends with people from Australia, Ireland and Germany. When I someday visit those countries, I have places to stay and friends to show me around.
My time in Jasper has been instrumental in getting me job offers in my field. It’s helped me land competitive volunteer placements and given me opportunities to travel throughout Canada, Europe and South Africa. No single position I’ve had, before or since, has opened as many doors for me as my guiding job in Jasper.
All this from a summer spent horseback riding.
This article was originally published in Volume 19, Issue 2 of Verge Magazine.Add this article to your reading list