The life of a backcountry guide in Utah’s remote Escalante Canyons

Utah’s remote Escalante Canyons, part of the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, can be an unforgiving place, but in the company of an expert guide, it’s an enriching landscape that may leave you with more than you bargained for. We caught up with Jeff; a local guide, bushcraft expert, and friend of All Roads North, to learn about life living and guiding on the frontier.

As he tells it, settlers have been working together to survive in Utah’s canyons since the Mormons first laid roots in his backyard, a hundred and fifty years ago. Seeking freedom from persecution in Utah’s unforgiving landscapes, it took community and togetherness to eke out a life on the frontier’s edge. That sense of community persisted, and now it imbues the culture of the 21st century pioneers who have chosen to face the same challenges, Jeff amongst them.

“Nowadays we don’t have the same opportunity to work together as a family. When the Mormons came out here it was a constant struggle… Being out in nature with the challenges it puts in front of us, it creates a need to solve problems and help each-other.”

For Jeff, it’s a willing seclusion in nature. There’s no thirty-minute Amazon delivery where he lives, the closest hospital is a two hour drive away, and he’s dependent on his garden for much of his food. But that’s exactly how he likes it.

Map and compass work

Map and compass work

“Like the city, there are great challenges and benefits to living out here. That’s the way with anything in life. We each find the place that offers the best mix for who we are… But it’s not easy to live in the wilderness, it’s a lifestyle that not everyone can sink their teeth into and be happy with.”

Time with Jeff is not a cookie-cutter tour of photo opportunities. Hiking through these desert canyons provides an intimate encounter with nature and leaves a small piece of the Utah wilderness stamped indelibly on your soul. Time with him is spent learning to work with nature, not against it. It’s spent building true survival skills, a mental toolkit and adaptability that can serve us equally well in everyday life.

Jeff demonstrating how to start a fire with a bow drill

Jeff demonstrating how to start a fire with a bow drill

“I can pick up some sticks and turn that into a fire. That’s a big eye opener for some people. All Roads North clients come out and together we make fires, we make shelters, we sharpen and use knives. Nature can provide everything that we need… to be comfortable, as long as we take the time to understand and respect it.”

His greatest joy in guiding comes from breaking down the barriers that separate him from his clients. Offering a genuine encounter that connects them with life here, where they are as much a part of the Utah pioneer community as the locals.

“My family comes up and we all sit at the table together. We cook together, eat together, play together. We have a together experience, not an “Us and Them,” “Guide vs. Client” experience… It’s local. I want them to feel like they’re a part of this environment, without the buffer of a guide between them… It’s about making them a part of my family and group of friends.”

It’s this sense of community and family bonding built on a foray into these rugged canyons that can most directly translate to life back home.

“Creating that bond is a valuable part of bringing a family out and letting them experience this together. And if we’ve worked together in [survival] situations, family conflict is nothing. We say, “We can deal with this, we can get through this.” We go through it step by step, deal with the problem and move on.”



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