What happens when an outdoor dream job is no longer your dream?
Welcome to 2023 and thank you for joining me on Substack. You can read more about the switch here.
Taking time off from writing and social media was a much needed sabbatical and gave me space to play with a new idea for my newsletter list. Background: in October 2022, after a year of contracting, I took a full-time salaried role with the Recreation Law Group. While I’ve been more office-based than not since before 2020, much of my network I grew up guiding with is making a similar shift. A friend and I laughed last summer as we realized we were the “old guides” on a Middle Fork trip. Then we promptly went to bed at 9:17PM.
Talking about our experiences, I saw a gap in our outdoor stories. There is great work being done by individuals and organizations to reduce gatekeeping and barriers to entering the outdoor industry, including seasonal roles.
But what about the folks that are ready to leave these “dream” outdoor jobs? What happens when you decide it’s no longer most you to be a fly fishing guide, or a ski patroller, or a wildland firefighter, or an outdoor influencer?
Part of how many of us survive the low wages, intense physical conditions, and weird schedules of seasonal work is to wind our identities with our work. Our job becomes what is valuable about us. Leaving, by choice or by necessity, can often be disorienting. The entire support community and sense of self you’ve built shifts (not to mention strangers find you significantly less… well, interesting).
Unseasoned is a series interviewing folks who leave behind outdoor seasonal gigs for 9-5s, entrepreneurship, or other year-round work.
You can count on an interview in your inbox once per month and I welcome you to share with anyone in your life you think might connect with the topic.
Below, I’m starting off with my own answers, as I don’t want to subject anyone else to a question I wouldn’t answer myself. And I’m really excited to open the conversation to additional perspectives beginning in February.
As always, if this is something you’ve moved through I’d love to hear about it. Either reply here or find me on IG: @emeraldlafortune
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Name: Emerald LaFortune
Location: Salmon, Idaho
Current Job Title: Project Manager, Recreation Law Group
EMERALD: Tell me about a great “day in the life” in one of your past seasonal roles, the kind that makes you want to work seasonally forever.
(Also - lol) EMERALD: I worked Fall Middle Fork Salmon fishing trips, where they split guests into an upper section (Boundary to Cougar Bar) and a lower section (Loon to Cache Bar). So there was a deadhead day mid-trip after the first guests had flown out where we were just running empty fishing boats downriver. There were definitely some, “Am I getting paid right now?” moments on those trips. I love boating alone. It was also a signal to me, when I was most excited about days without guests, that maybe I was ready to move on from guiding.
EMERALD: What was the hardest part of seasonal work for you?
AE: The subtle sexism was always hard to navigate. Like, “Am I not getting this opportunity because I don’t look like their idea of a guide, or because I’m truly not ready for it?” The extroverted nature of guiding was tough for me too. I love to be social but I’m also someone who needs time alone to recharge. It’s hard to find those moments on multiday trips. It was also tough to always be working someone else’s vacation, and tough to grapple with the equity elements of who has access to the river corridors and who doesn’t.
EMERALD: What were you most worried about when leaving seasonal work? Did those fears actualize?
AE: This is embarrassing and self-involved, but if I’m honest I was most worried about becoming boring. Guiding builds a culture around itself, sometimes deserved and sometimes not, that you are at the pinnacle of your sport and everyone else is amateur. Which, is true in the sense that you’re getting paid and doing the stretch week after week, but again - there are many ways to recreate in a place. Further, other people were always intrigued and wanted to know more about my guiding work. It was an easy way to display competence in river running and fly fishing and likely led to a lot of my outdoor writing opportunities.
I also was worried about stagnating in my skill set. Guiding does often put you on your growth edge and was responsible for huge leaps in my rowing and fishing abilities.
As for those fears coming true… maybe they have? What has changed is I’ve done the work to care a lot less what other people think. If my only value to you before was a job title, then you’re probably not someone I’m prioritizing now. And jury is still out on if I’ll continue growing my rowing and fishing abilities. But I can say for sure I am still enjoying both those things fully.
EMERALD: How did you end up in your current role? Was your seasonal experience a help or a hindrance in securing your current position?
AE: I met my now-supervisor because we both attended outfitter and guide meetings, her to share legal and risk management education and me as Director of the Redside Foundation. As her team grew, she reached out to see if I was interested in contract project management work, which has now grown into a full time role.
My seasonal experience is critical and foundational to my current role, as I can easily put myself in our client’s (and their guide’s) shoes.
EMERALD: What skills did you bring from your seasonal role into your current role?
AE: It turns out leading and organizing multiday trips is just… project management. It was a huge light bulb moment when I realized a lot of the skill set I’d been building over the last decade had professional development around it outside of the outdoor industry. I think customer service and communication skills are also something guiding helped me develop that serve me now.
EMERALD: I meet many employers of seasonal staff who are struggling to retain employees, particularly highly-skilled senior staff. What changes, if any, to the workplace or outdoor industry would have extended your tenure in a seasonal role?
AE: For me, especially in Idaho these last few years, the unpredictable scheduling is what really burned me out. I had one season where I had five different week-long trips scheduled throughout the summer and each of them canceled due to wildfire or other factors. I appreciate the outfitters that are able to still pass on some trip pay to scheduled guides, but you’re still missing out on a large gratuity and… overall it was emotionally exhausting too to have to always pivot. If cancellations are becoming more regular, I think it’s important for outfitters and guides to work together to acknowledge that, and brainstorm creative ways to take care of everyone involved.
EMERALD: How did your family (defined broadly as any intimate familial, romantic, or platonic connections) interact with your seasonal work? Are your relationships different now that you are in a year-round role? How so?
AE: Part-time guiding was definitely a better fit for me than full-time guiding. When I worked full time, I had a really hard time staying connected with my family and partner. Part-time guiding worked really well with my romantic relationship. We both value independence and autonomy, so a week away was the perfect amount of time to have an adventure, remember my own skillset, but not emotionally distance too far.
EMERALD: How did moving from seasonal work to year-round work change your financial situation (note from EL: can be both positive and negative. Include specifics as you are comfortable).
AE: My financial situation now is simply more consistent. I’m better able to budget and plan because I know almost exactly what is coming in and going out. I miss feeling flush in the late fall, but don’t miss feeling scarcity in the late spring. And there is definitely something to be said for paid time off and holidays.
EMERALD: What does “dream job” mean to you? Has your definition changed?
AE: I think a dream job is work that compensates you well, where you work with people you respect, and either the work-itself or the resources it provides moves you toward your purpose. I used to think a dream job was a job that put me outside as many days a year as possible, where people would look at me and say, “Wow she’s badass.” Now my dream job is one that allows me a life and identity outside of my job title too.
EMERALD: If someone in seasonal work is interested in shifting to a year-round position, what would you suggest they consider? Why?
AE: I would look at the seasonal skill set you’ve built from the lens of what problems you can solve for the employer you are targeting. A business coach can be helpful if you’re feeling stuck in how to frame your seasonal experiences in interviews or a resume.
Two of my major roles (the Redside Foundation and Recreation Law Group) started as part-time contracting roles that then grew into full time. This can be a good way to test out an employment option while still allowing for some flexibility to work seasonally.
EMERALD: Imagine you’re eighty years old, retired, living your best life. In three sentences, describe the scene.
AE: I’m wearing some wild printed, flowing linen, matching pant and shirt set. I’ve just reached the summit of some panoramic view in the mountains and two of my best friends aren’t far behind. I’ve got sour gummy worms in my backpack.
Past Non-Seasonal Roles:
Executive Director - guide support non profit
Community Engagement Assistant - conservation nonprofit (salmon/steelhead focus)
Past Seasonal Roles:
Fly fishing and whitewater guide - Middle Fork Salmon
Lead whitewater guide - Main Salmon, Lower Salmon, Hells Canyon, Owyhee
Wilderness Ranger Intern - Idaho
Daily Guide - Riggins Stretch of the Salmon River
Waitress and Line Cook - pizza restaurant
Education & Certifications (Current or expired):
Bachelor of Arts, Environmental Studies - University of Montana
Wilderness First Responder
Swiftwater Rescue Technician
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