Watch the premiere of “The Guide” and read on for an exclusive interview with Nat Hab Expedition Leader Colby Brokvist!
“What’s the difference between a national forest and a national park?”
“Is this plant edible?”
“What kind of animal made this scat?”
These are only a handful of the questions Colby Brokvist received while sharing trail mix, swapping stories and splitting firewood as he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail over the summer of 2000. Somewhere along the 2,000+ miles of protected land between the A.T.’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and its northern terminus at Katahdin, Maine, a seed was planted…
Why not become a guide?
Colby Brokvist was only in his early twenties, but he had an academic background in environmental science and years of practical and technical experience; rock climbing, backpacking and tracking were second nature to him. Fellow trekkers considered Colby to be their very own cairn—a reliable point of reference to lead them on the best path forward.
His rock-solid advisement got its roots among the oak and maple trees of Massachusetts. Growing up, Colby was encouraged to explore the woods beyond his home with curiosity about the natural world and a fervor to understand how humans are connected with other beings. Colby’s father challenged him to consider the relationships between all living organisms. His father revered Native American knowledge practices and believed every plant and animal species is imbued with a special spirit. “Don’t carve your name into a tree. Think about the tree,” Colby’s father would say. He often asked Colby provoking questions such as, “Why are you chopping the tree? What do you need from this tree?” When hunting together, their family respected the balance of the forest and graciously thanked the animal for its life. In the Brokvist household, nothing went to waste, and everything was appreciated.
This notion of reverence for nature has remained a guiding principle in Colby’s life and a practice he cultivates on every trip he leads. His passion for facilitating transformative experiences in Earth’s most endangered environments is precisely what makes Colby an esteemed Expedition Leader and a charismatic figure within the global outdoor community. And now—having witnessed Colby’s impact on conservation—I am confident that his feature film debut in “The Guide” is the perfect medium to celebrate his accomplishments in the sustainable tourism industry.
Directed by Andrew Ackerman and produced by Natural Habitat Adventures Chief Marketing Officer Ted Martens, “The Guide” lies at the intersection where people, wildlife and wilderness come together: the extraordinary places just beyond one’s daily comforts, where we can discover things about the world around us as well as ourselves. Stunning cinematography is enriched with inspiring narration as we witness Colby foster profound emotional connections that travelers carry with them long after the expedition has ended.
Q&A with Colby Brokvist
Brief: “The Guide” film opens with your beautiful monologue about the wildness of wolves: “In my mind, there’s not another creature on the planet that defines wilderness like wolves.” What is it about wolves that resonates most with you?
Brokvist: There’s a lot we can learn from wolves. There are a lot of stories about wolves, and through these stories, we can better understand how wolves relate to the natural world and how they function in ecology. Some of it relates to understanding the human place in the world and recognizing that we’re not separate from nature and from the wilderness. So how do we show up for nature, and what do we do to protect and conserve these areas that we’re very much a part of? Wolves are a great lens through which to explore all those ideas.
Brief: When you say stories, what do you mean by that?
Brokvist: Well, Margaret Atwood once said that all great stories are about wolves.
Brief: For our readers and viewers who are curious, the quote is from Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin. The excerpt reads:
“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
“All of them?”
“Sure,” he says. “Think about it. There’s escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.”
Brokvist: Wolves are so multifaceted and socially complex. We can learn a lot about ourselves through these stories. I mean, they have alpha pairs, there’s some semblance of a hierarchy, they’re territorial and always fighting tooth and nail for survival, but they’re also extremely tender and loving with their young. They spend a lot of time in these big family groups so they can be so patient and comforting to each other, but at the same time, they can turn in an instant and be ferocious and vicious. It all depends on the circumstance and what’s most important to them in that moment. They live very much moment by moment, and there’s something really fascinating about that.
Brief: I think perhaps there is something to be gleaned from wolf behavior in terms of humans living more “moment by moment.”
Brokvist: Yes. In some regards, animals think about the future a little bit. For example, the pika prepare for winter in the high mountains by making these little haystacks underground that they can live off of for the year. You know, things like this. But for the most part, animals are just living moment by moment. There must be something very freeing about that. We don’t really experience that in our lives these days. Do we?
Brief: I know you have a special place in your heart for wolves, but what would you say has been your most meaningful or impactful wildlife encounter?
Brokvist: I think I would go way back…people probably expect me to say some big charismatic animal, but I actually think I’m going to just choose a white-tailed deer. Growing up in New England, my family was very much into the outdoors. My father was a hunter, and we spent a lot of time running around in the woods. I never really liked going to the places that you’re supposed to go and sitting on the benches that were in the open spaces. I always wondered, what else is out there? Why was the trail put here? Why up on the ridge instead of down here on the valley floor? And so we would follow deer trails and would track them. It was really fun, because it taught me to be in tune with the natural world and the cycles of how animals are moving and what happens at different times of the day out in the forest. And we’re listening for squirrel calls and finding scat and prints and signs of various animals and trying to determine the story of what’s going on. That was a really joyous exercise for me, and it was all connected to following the white-tailed deer around.
Brief: Deer have this quiet grace about them. They seem to hold so much knowledge of the forest, so much ancient wisdom. In a sense, it’s as if the deer were your very first guides.
Brokvist: Yeah, you’re right. They do hold knowledge of the forest. And if you follow them around for long enough, you can gain a lot of that knowledge. You think about what a guide is in the natural world—the sun can be your guide. Everything tells a story. By sitting and just paying attention to one thing for a long time, you get to know the whole story about that creature or that place. That’s what I think adventure travel is. We’re out there, really immersing ourselves in those environments for a week or more in some cases, allowing us to do a deep dive into these areas. When you’re with a skilled guide, they help call attention to important things you might otherwise not see or be aware of. By virtue of spending more time with a guide who knows the place intimately, you then get to know the place more intimately too.
Brief: You recently completed your first book, The Professional Guide’s Handbook. Which nature writers did you draw inspiration from? What are you currently reading?
Brokvist: This is going to sound so cliché, but I happen to be rereading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, which is one of the great conservation works of our time. I reference parts of it a lot, but this is probably my third time reading it cover to cover.
Brief: Another quick aside for our readers who are keen to learn more…
Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester and philosopher. A little more than a year after his death in 1948, Leopold’s collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac, was published—achieving prominence around the first Earth Day in 1970. The Foreword declared: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” “The Land Ethic” essay was an especially strong appeal for moral responsibility to the natural world. It urged all members of a community to treat one another with care and respect. A land ethic, Leopold wrote, “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community” to include not only humans but also soils, waters, plants, and animals—or what Leopold called “the land.”
Brokvist: The other book I’m reading right now is called Mountains Piled upon Mountains, edited by Jessica Cory. It’s a really neat collection of short stories, poems and memoirs about peoples’ relationship with nature across the Appalachia region. It shows this kind of transcendental or romanticized view of the Anthropocene—a time when we are witnessing all this deforestation and pollution. It teaches you to be more cognizant of your presence in a place and to develop situational awareness.
Brief: As many of our travelers know, Nat Hab is based out of Boulder, Colorado. Though you’ve been all over the map, this has been your home base for the past five years. What would you say is your go-to hike out here?
Brokvist: I really like going up into Glacier Gorge and Rocky Mountain National Park. I go up there a fair bit, but I prefer going on weekdays and in the wintertime to enjoy a more secluded wilderness experience without the usual crowds.
Brief: What sort of wildlife can you spot on the trails?
Brokvist: As you come into the park, it’s usually easy to find elk—particularly in the autumn, when they’re all running around and being goofy. I always spend a little time with them. Then I know a good place where the bighorn sheep tend to come down, and I’ll watch the sheep for a little while too.
Brief: How do you inspire empathy and care for the local communities and Indigenous peoples who share habitats with endangered species?
Brokvist: Access to the outdoors is inherently good for people. People may care about the issues they see on the internet or in a documentary, but when they get outside and experience emotional connections with wildlife and with each other first-hand, they become better humans. Better citizens of the world. I do think that a lot of conservation travel is mission-based from the guide perspective and trip operators’ perspective, in that we want our guests to make those connections and develop deeper understandings of the environment. At the same time, it’s important to recognize and honor why someone attends these trips. We aren’t forcing an agenda or change—we are simply opening doors for people and calling attention to things that are of interest, or that might serve as an awakening for them.
Nat Hab is really good at empowering local communities and echoing the voices of Indigenous communities by inviting guest speakers on excursions and showcasing conservation initiatives in action. It develops and strengthens our sense of place. While we might be searching for lions or polar bears, there is a larger story here. Fostering that sense of curiosity within the group, encouraging active listening, asking questions and hearing the stories from people who live in those habitats are all part of the experience. Through these personal interactions and relationships, our travelers better understand the importance of protecting these places, and they want to support the local people and communities who live there too. They go home, but they will always carry with them reverence for those places.
Brief: You were recently a guest on the podcast Rewildology, hosted by conservation biologist Brooke Mitchell-Norman (Ep. 67 Adventure Guiding: Dos, Don’ts, and Bettering the Planet with Colby Brokvist). How do you educate your groups about sustainable travel, minimizing waste and mitigating their footprint?
Brokvist: There’s currently a lot of discourse and debate out there about travel. People think that the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions and reduce impact is to simply not travel. The idea is that if you truly care about protecting those places, then don’t visit them. I think that is actually doing a disservice. What I love about conservation travel is that people develop emotional connections to these places, and they become stewards, advocates and ambassadors for wildlife. If we don’t feel personally connected to those things, then nothing will be resolved. Responsible travel is the way to go. Tourism dollars directly support and empower local communities by generating jobs and income. It offers alternatives to poaching for the illegal wildlife trade and alternatives to deforestation through the logging industry. If you want nature to thrive, you have to immerse yourself in it.
Nat Hab makes it really easy to incorporate sustainability into our trips. Our operations department sets a lot of green initiatives in motion and makes it pretty seamless for us to minimize waste—even out on the Arctic tundra. Things like providing reusable water vessels, keeping our group sizes small to reduce impact, practicing leave-no-trace and partnering with carbon-neutral and carbon-negative accommodations. One of the big values of the guided experience is that we can teach people how to recreate responsibly and respectively. If we are in a really remote area without access to trash or recycling facilities, I will haul it all out and carry it with me until we get to the airport on the final day. We have a responsibility to leave these places better off than how we found them. It’s a big team effort. Sustainability happens at all levels, and everyone has to contribute and recognize that they’re part of something bigger.
Brief: You are a Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Certified Photography Instructor. How would you say that the medium of photography inspires people to want to conserve wildlife?
Brokvist: There are two ways that photography can help inspire conservation. One is in the moment, when you’re not just snapping hundreds of photos, but instead you’re composing a few images in a thoughtful and purposeful way. By doing this, you’re paying attention to what’s happening around you and developing situational awareness. You’re looking at some of the smallest details and thinking deeply about all the relationships in that environment.
The second component is to tell a story with those images. When they go back home to show their friends and family, or when they post it on Instagram, there’s something compelling enough about that image that evokes questions and develops curiosity among the audience. And that’s, of course, the power of art. Communicating an issue through artful storytelling is really important.
Brief: Coming full circle, what would you say is your best tip for capturing wolves on camera?
Brokvist: Put in your time. You would be a very fortunate soul if you just showed up to a place like Yellowstone and were able to get a picture of a wolf that is worthy. It takes getting up every morning, well before dawn, and looking for tracks, listening to howls, understanding their patterns and really situating yourself in the right place at the right time. The reason our photo itineraries are so successful is because our guides have intimate, local knowledge of these animals and their movements. They make you work for it, but that’s what’s so special about it. If you’re going to take pictures of wolves in the wild, you are at the furthest end of the spectrum from going to the zoo and taking a picture of an animal that you could possibly be. They are one of the most difficult animals in the world to get pictures of, but if you can encounter them, it’s really special.
Brief: For those interested in embarking on an adventure with you, which Nat Hab trips do you guide?
- Sailing Antarctica: A Polar Wildlife Expedition
- Churchill Polar Bear Tours
- Yellowstone Wolves & Wildlife: A Photo Pro Expedition
- Yellowstone Wolf Quest Photo Adventure
- East Greenland Arctic Safari
Brief: What’s in your guide bag? What do you recommend travelers pack for their upcoming departure?
Deuter Guide Lite 30+ OR Deuter Guide 34+
Lowepro Whistler 450
Nikon D750 body
Nikkor 20mm f/1.8
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8
Nikkor 50mm f/1.8
Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 Micro (for select departures)
Nikkor 80-400mm f/3.5-5.6
Manfrotto carbon-fiber tripod with horizontal column and ball head
Hoya 77mm Circular Polarizer
Map & orienteering compass (Suunto MC-2 Pro Compass)
First Aid Kit (Appropriate to the activity and to your level of medical training)
Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .9 Kit
Water purification tablets or filter (Katadyn Hiker Filter)
Smart Phone (Programmed with numbers for emergencies and local support w/ useful apps such as weather, wind, tides, maps, field guides, night sky)
Including hand sanitizer and carry-out storage for paper waste or hygiene products
(Metolius Wag Bag Kit)
Knife/multi-tool, lighter, pen/marker
Headlamp w/ new batteries
(Gerber Multi-plier 600)
(Black Diamond Spot 350 Headlamp)
Repair kit (appropriate to the equipment you are utilizing)
Permits, emergency contacts
Rain jacket, possibly pants (Marmot Precip / Norrona Falketind, depending on how severe the conditions are)
Sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, brimmed hat
Meals & snacks
Common Optional Items
GPS for navigation (Garmin Gecko)
Emergency Locator GPS (SPOT Gen4)
Emergency comms: Satellite phone, texting GPS (Iridium Extreme 9575/Garmin inReach)
Small personal notebook for notes and notetaking
Binoculars (Zeiss Terra ED 10X42)
Extra clothing layers
Join Colby Brokvist on his Next Adventure!
While Colby has a special affinity for mountain and polar realms, he has guided trips to destinations as diverse as Churchill, Yosemite, Antarctica, Patagonia, Yellowstone, Namibia and the Everglades. Colby is currently Chair of the Board of Directors for the Polar Tourism Guides Association and is a certified Senior Polar Guide. Follow along with Colby’s adventures through his Instagram @colbyoutdoors and check out some of the destinations he leads @naturalhabitatadventures with our travel partner, @world_wildlife. You can also order his book, The Professional Guide’s Handbook, here!
The Professional Guide’s Handbook covers everything contemporary guides need to know to succeed and thrive in their profession. Colby explores a broad range of topics, including the priority of guest care, leadership, critical decision-making approaches, ethical issues, storytelling, risk management, issues of sustainability and much more—all pieces vital to building the professional guide’s tool kit as they prepare to “exceed expectations” on the job.
Founder & President of Natural Habitat Adventures Ben Bressler praises Colby’s work with the following review:
“The Professional Guide’s Handbook is required reading for all adventure travel guides. Colby Brokvist not only shares the vital and complicated skills required to guide adventure travelers to the most remote corners of the planet, but he also captures the essence of guiding as a profession and the burning passions required to succeed at the highest level. If you want to be a great guide, read this book and pay attention.”
Visit the Natural Habitat Adventures & WWF Travel destinations where “The Guide” was filmed!
Explore Arctic wilderness from a luxury camp in view of the Greenland ice sheet
A rare winter wildlife expedition deep into Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
An intimate, expertly guided encounter with iconic western wildlife