PI - Welcome Michael, glad you could sit down with us. You run SKILS. Tell me about it.
Michael - Well, SKILS (Sea Kayak Instruction Leadership Systems Inc.) came out of a long conversation with a couple of friends. We were all looking for something new to do related to paddling. We agreed whatever we did should meet at least 3 objectives:
- Focus on more advanced instruction and leadership instruction
- Provide at least some travel opportunities
We also wanted to contribute to the growth of the paddlesports industry in North America, and not just compete for existing business.
The long and the short of it is, the result is SKILS. Our mission is simple: Fun, unique, and rewarding paddlesports instruction.
Fun - a lot of paddling instruction, especially in sea kayaking, is very serious, emphasizing what can go wrong without a balancing dose of the potential rewards. Somewhere along the way we have forgotten the joy that comes from simply messing around in small boats.
Unique - we don't want to do what others are doing. Instead we try to find the niches that help others succeed on the water and in business. Practically, this means we try to work collaboratively with instructors and businesses across NA instead of competing with them.
Rewarding - Through challenge comes reward. We try to push folks to strive for their personal best and to find their own rewards in paddling. I believe this helps motivate people to stay with paddling and to become life long learners.
This same view informs and inspires us as instructors and leaders. SKILS encourages its leaders to strive for their personal best by offering fun, unique, and rewarding leadership opportunities that are difficult to find elsewhere.
Technically, I am one of 3 owners of SKILS. Practically, SKILS is a partnership, not just between the 3 principles but all our team. This means I am one of 7 leaders working at SKILS striving to be the best so others can meet and exceed their best. SKILS has been in operation since 2003.
PI - It's high risk starting up your own business in the outdoor industry. How have you been able to make it successful?
Michael - If SKILS has been successful, its because of 3 things. First, a timely and engaging business model that works collaboratively instead of competitively. Second, a refreshing approach to instruction that focuses on the underlying values of our mission - fun, unique, and rewarding. Finally, and most important, a strong and committed group of instructors who share our values.
PI - Do you have any advice to a young person looking start their own outdoor business?
Michael - Well, paddlesports is a tough business. There's lots of competition and margins are tight. That said, there are opportunities. There is a steady trickle of existing businesses for sale. There are also new opportunities. My personal view is that a young entrepreneur can make a go of it if they do their legal and financial due diligence, start small, build from strength, and remain committed to their business model. It also helps to think outside the traditional paddlesports box. Paddlesports is part of a wider community of marine based tourism, education, and adventure. Seen from that perspective, there are other opportunities. Personally, I have stayed in paddlesports by balancing several jobs. In the early years, by working retail through the winter, and on the water in the spring and summer; in later years by focussing on instruction through the spring and fall, and other work through the summer and winter.
Basically, I have made the decision to keep instruction and paddling in my life. I do what I have to do to make that work.
In the future, I am sure I will work less professionally on the water focus on mentoring and other industry wide projects, which draw on the skills I have developed over the last years, but apply them in new ways. I will always paddle.
PI - To do what you do, you need to be highly certified. What certification cards are you carrying around in your wallet these days?
Michael - I am a Level 3 Instructor Trainer with Paddle Canada, and an Examiner and Guide Trainer with the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of BC. I also have my 80 hour Wilderness First Aid, which I have to renew in spring 2009.
PI - What's your view regarding certification?
Michael - Well, that's a long answer.
Certification is both a strength and a curse. At its worst it enforces the lowest common denominator between paddlers, stifles creativity, and becomes a crutch for industry and regulators alike. Personally, I believe certification is only effective in concert with other tools, namely accreditation, ongoing professional development, and regular peer review.
Practically, certification for me is a form of ritual. Ritual in the sense that it expresses, fixes and reinforces the shared values, beliefs, behaviours, and knowledge of the paddling community. Seen from this perspective, certification is simply a codification of the values, beliefs, behaviours, and knowledge of the paddling community. In this way, it is not immutable, but changes through time as the needs of the paddling community changes.
In this view, codification is the domain of the community elders (in the case of Paddle Canada, the Program Development Committees).
The trick, it seems to me, is not to take it too seriously, and, ensure as wide a range of input as possible. A certain amount of flexibility needs to be built into the system to allow for regional variation, individual input, and ultimately, change.
PI - How long have you been teaching paddling?
Michael - I have been leading trips and teaching paddlesports since I was 15 years old. I got my start at camp working as a canoe leader and maintained my interest through my high school outing club where I started to work on getting certified. I made the transition to kayaking when I moved to the west coast in 1994. The irony is, I made the move west in part to get out of the paddlesports industry, but clearly that didn't work.
PI - Tell me about yourself. What do you do when you are not out paddling/teaching?
Michael - Well, I have a wife and son. We enjoy spending time together on and off the water. I try to spend a little time each day near the ocean. Usually, that means walking our dog down to the beach, which is nearby. I enjoy watching movies, especially BBC dramas and mysteries. Current favourites include Hustle and Foyles War. I also enjoy reading. Currently, I am reading 3 books: The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Vol 1); Off the Map: Tales of Endurance and Exploration; and, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets.
I do paddle for pleasure. Its been hard over the years to find the time. This winter, I am getting out at least once a week with friends for fun.
I also have another job. I am the Executive Director of the Trade Association of Paddlesports, a north American wide association of paddlesports businesses.
PI - You are a busy man! Along with TAPS, you are also involved with Paddle Canada. What role do you do with each?
Michael - I wear many hats with Paddle Canada. I am an Instructor and Instructor Trainer with Paddle Canada. I also sit on the Sea Kayak Programme Development Committee, which oversees the program. Since its a relatively new programme, there is a fair amount of house keeping on the part of the committee, which is comprised of folks from across the country.
At TAPS, I am the Executive Director, which in this case practically means I am chef, waiter, and dishwasher. TAPS is a small trade association that provides basic business services, consumer outreach, and advocacy efforts on behalf of the paddlesports industry. Perhaps its best known effort is the West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium. I have been ED at TAPS since October 2006.
PI - What are some of the challenges being in that roll you have found so far?
Michael - Padders, are by definition, an independent bunch. Getting them to act collectively is always frustrating. At the micro level, this really isn't a problem. At the macro level, its a big deal. Paddlesports is facing a number of challenges including limited growth (sales and participation), increased regulations which restricts access, and degradation of our paddling environment. These problems require collective action. No one is really working in an organized way on these issues on behalf of Canadian paddlers. The situation in the US is better, but because of a complicated regulatory framework, the solutions also demand greater coordination.
PI - What are some success stories in either your life or work so far?
Michael - Success is hard to measure. I guess the best measures for success are as follows.
- I am still gainfully employed in paddlesports.
- I still have many friends and professional relationships across paddlesports.
- I don't get a lot of hate mail.
- I still get out paddling at least several times a month.
- I have been happily married for over 14 years.
- My son likes to paddle.
PI - You were involved with getting the Paddle Canada sea kayaking program established in BC. Briefly, how did that come about? Who did you work with to make it as successful as it is today?
Michael - That's true... there was a healthy dose of chance and some effort. As Paddle Canada launched its sea kayaking program, it had to jump start things by identifying leaders in the paddling community and running orientation programs for those leaders.
The proposed BC orientation to the new sea kayaking program fell through due to some organizational politics, and in its place 2 BC sea kayakers were invited to one of the orientation sessions in Ontario. I was one, and Doug Alderson was the other. We had never actually met, although we knew of each other since we both lived, and paddled, on Southern Vancouver Island. We actually met on the airplane heading out to Ontario!
Our conversation during the flight naturally turned to paddling and we realized we shared many views both on and off the water. One outcome of that flight is the book Doug and I wrote together - Sea Kayak Safety and Rescue.
Our time together in Ontario cemented our professional relationship. We also came away from the orientation as Instructor Trainers for Paddle Canada, which gave us license to run the Paddle Canada Program.
On the flight home, Doug and I made 3 decisions. First, to try to run the entire PC program over the next year. Our task was made easier by the fact we lived close to each other and that we had ready access to a willing group of guinea pigs. Doug was a leader at the Victoria Canoe and Kayak Club, and I was running the paddling school at Ocean River Sports. Second, we agreed the program needed to be shared widely throughout the recreational and commercial sea kayaking community in BC. To that end, we made a point of inviting other paddling leaders from across BC from the commercial and recreational communities. Finally, we also understood that the program would not be credible in BC if Doug and I weren't up to the standards laid out for Instructor Trainers by PC. That first year, we invited recognized leaders to participate with us on the intermediate, advanced, and leadership courses. We brought folks in from across BC, Canada, and internationally.
Our timing was good. Folks were ready for a certification based program, especially commercial and club-based leaders. Our early flexibility in accepting other experience and certification in meeting prerequisites and enforcement of reasonable, but challenging standards set the benchmark for the program across BC.
The PC sea kayak program continues to enjoy wide support across BC. We have moved to a more mature stage of development in that most folks moving through the PC stream have come up through the ranks. I am confident we have the base of support in BC to keep this program healthy. The best sign of this is that the program is no longer dependent on Doug or me as there are a number of other Instructor Trainers working in BC.
PI - What got you interested in teaching paddling in the first place?
Michael - Not sure... At the time, its just what you did once you reached a certain skill level. Its how you kept on learning, challenging yourself.
That said, at some point about 15 years ago, I realized that I liked to teach. I enjoy working with people, sharing my enthusiasms, and being challenged by other paddlers. In fact, I really consider myself an educator first and a paddler second. One consequence of this is that in the last 6 years or so, I have focussed my energies on developing my leadership and educational skills, have focussed on courses with a leadership component, and worked with many instructors and instructor candidates.
PI - What is the best thing about teaching/guiding?
Michael - In no particular order: travel, people, being outside, a sense of adventure, physical work, getting on the water, being on the water, getting off the water....
PI - Any close calls over the years?
Michael - Sure... there always are. Probably the most challenging moment for me was on a hiking trip on Baffin Island in the mid 1990s. Through a series of errors, some of which were clearly mine, we ended up with a client who was ill prepared physically and mentally for the rigours of the trip. Due to poor ice conditions, we also ended up adding 60+ kilometres of rough hiking and scrambling to the 120 kilometre trip. The upshot of all this was a lot of mental stress, anxiety and fear, and physical exhaustion.
The defining moment for me was sitting on a small bank scooping handfuls of parmesan cheese and brown sugar into my mouth. The scary thing was, I was not really thinking clearly, and it wasn't until my blood sugar levels came up that my conscious mind kicked in and I realized what I was doing and what trouble we were really in. Understand that this moment took over 8 days to develop.
I lost over 20 lbs on that 18 day trip. I also almost gave up guiding. It was the hardest leadership lesson I ever learned. What it came down to was ego. My ego got in the way of making a decision in the best interest of the group and this particular client. It became about me instead of them.
It all ended okay. We finished the trip, but not before evacuating this person and putting everyone on the trip through a very challenging physical and emotional experience.
PI - You have taught a lot of instructor courses over the years. What is the most important piece of advice all new instructors should take in?
Michael - Wow, one piece of advice.... well, here goes: remember, no one is at their best if they are cold, wet, scared, tired or hungry. Use these conditions sparingly, and rarely in combination. That way, your students will want to come back. A good rule of thumb would be to add one condition for each level achieved. New paddlers can handle one, intermediate two, etc...
PI - What's playing on old Ipod these days?
Michael - As I write this, I have been listening to Rebuild the Wall by Luther Wright and the Wrongs, a blue grass version of Pink Floyds The Wall. I also have Joel Plaskett and The Bills keyed up on my play list.
PI - Finally, If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? Why?
Michael - Michael - For paddling southern Chile. Its been on my list a long time. I also did a course with several Chilean guides this summer, and they were lots of fun!
For non paddling travel, I would go to Spain or Thailand (although I am sure we could squeeze some paddling in).
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.