By: Andrew Rutland
In a strange year where many of us have been glued to some sort of screen for most hours of the day, and chained to the nearest internet connection, one past Environment student is living life a little differently.
Travis Layton is currently living in a cabin on Oxtongue Lake in northern Ontario without internet or cable. “Luxurious” may not be a word many would use to describe this living situation, but Layton – used to roughing it on long treks or living in cabins without even plumbing – wouldn’t have it any other way.
I first met Layton in 2014 when we both started our undergraduate degrees here at UW and were living on the same floor at St. Paul’s University College. As a tight-knit group of friends formed from that floor, it was with some shock and disappointment then when word reached me that Layton had left his program at UW.
Today, Layton is a successful multi-day outdoor expedition guide and skilled amateur wildlife photographer. In the warmer months, Layton is based in British Columbia, leading hiking trips along the West Coast, Juan de Fuca, North Coast, and Nootka trails, as well as sea kayaking expeditions to and around islands near Cowichan Bay. In the cooler months, he focuses on dog sledding, mainly based out of Algonquin Provincial Park, but has worked as far north as the Yukon Territory as well.
Wanting to catch up and learn more about his new career, I reached out to Layton for an interview. After some brief technical issues on account of some spotty cell coverage, Layton joined me from his cabin – all while gazing out at the frozen lake covered in snowmobilers – for a quick chat about his time in the Faculty of Environment, how he got into guiding and photography, and tips and advice for anyone looking to change course:
Andrew Rutland: So what did you study while you were at UW and what drew you initially to that program?
Travis Layton: I was in the Environment and Resource Studies (now SERS) program. Just being a young person leaving high school, I kind of fell into that trap of ‘oh, I’ve left high school and now I need to go to university, and I have to go because everybody else was going’. I’ve always loved the outdoors and I had a friend who was taking the same type of program at Trent University, and I had gone to see Waterloo and they offered the same type of program, so that’s what got me into it.
AR: Is there anything that stuck with you from your time in ERS to what you’re doing now?
TL: School-wise, I have to say no. Social-wise, yes. I think it’s difficult to learn about what I wanted to learn about – I wanted to be more out there out in the environment, learning about the outdoors in the outdoors, and I had a hard time learning about that enclosed by four walls. So that wasn’t for me. I don’t regret it because it was personal growth; I found those two years helped me know who I’m not.
AR: What school and program did you switch into and why did you ultimately choose to switch?
TL: When I left university I took a year off and I worked a ton of different jobs: I did retail, I worked at an apple orchard, I worked in a stoneyard, I worked in a factory, I worked a ton of different stuff. During that year off, I had a job opportunity to work as a fishing guide. I did the interview and I didn’t get the job, but that’s what made me go: ‘oh, that’s a thing? That’s an option? Guiding, what is this?’ and so I looked more into that.
I ultimately decided on a program at Fanshawe called the ‘Adventure, Expedition and Interpretive Leadership’ program, and it was one of the best decisions I made. It was great, very hands-on and you get all the certifications that you need to start guiding and be in that world, and you meet tons of people in the industry.
I loved being in a class with 15 people and actually having a discussion with my professor. The teacher who’s teaching me, I want them to be teaching me. When I was in university, I was just a number. One of the last straws was in my second year, second term, and I was having difficulty in a class and I emailed the professor saying you know, ‘I’m struggling’, and their email back was: ‘oh, well, you should be attending my classes. If you attended my classes you wouldn’t be struggling with this’. Meanwhile, he had no idea that I have never missed a class in my life, and I thought: ‘this guy doesn’t even know who I am, and I’ve had him twice’. So that was when I was like ‘you know what, this isn’t for me’.
AR: So what were some of those qualifications that you got through the program at Fanshawe?
TL: The main one was my Wilderness First Responder. It’s an 80 hour, two week course that you have to do. We also got some Paddle Canada Certifications and ORCKA [Ontario Recreational Canoeing and Kayaking Association] certifications as well.
AR: If a student was interested in getting into guiding, what advice would you give them?
TL: You don’t have to go to school to be a guide. If you went to a school, that’s great, but sometimes that can give you a big head and can kind of make you think you’re better. If you have your Wilderness First Responder and you’re a decent human being, companies will take you. Anybody can be taught how to kayak, how to rock climb, how to hike, but having good social skills [is the main thing]. When I’m leading a trip, I’m with clients 24/7 for 9 days straight. Hiking and kayaking – I can teach you how to do that – but how are you going to entertain people? You got to know how to talk to people.
AR: When did you start doing wildlife photography?
TL: I took a trip to the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C. and they have a whole National Geographic section in there. I just remember looking at the pictures thinking ‘I want to be in here. I love these’. I just loved it. So then, when I went to college… there was an ethics of wildlife photography course that was part of it. So then that’s what kind of really spiked my interest.
AR: What about tips for readers who might want to get into wildlife photography?
TL: Be social on social media. People are pretty nice, like if you go on social media and you find a photographer that you really like, don’t be afraid to send them a message like ‘hey, how did you get started? What do you like?’, or if there’s a magazine you read all the time, like Canadian Geographic or something, shoot them an email: ‘hey, what kind of things are you looking for? What kind of animals are you looking for? What kind of articles are you looking for?’. I do pictures for a clothing company because I took a picture of myself wearing their clothes and I tagged them in it and then [they] called me. That’s all it takes.
Don’t get worried by the numbers and just practice every day. No matter what you’re doing. If you want to do wildlife photography, go out and shoot. If there’s no wildlife near you, go get a bird feeder.
AR: What about students at UW now – in SERS or any other program – who don’t feel like this is the best fit for them? What would you suggest they think about?
TL: Don’t be afraid to change. If you’re like: “Oh, I don’t like this program, but this one sounds good” don’t be afraid to switch. Don’t be afraid of what other people will think about you or anything. You’re probably between the ages of 19 and 22. You’re young. Even if you don’t go back to university until you’re 30, you do a course until you’re 34, then you do a job for the next 20 years, you’re still only 54. You’re still young, don’t be afraid to change. Tons of people do it, and chances are, you’ll be way happier.
AR: Here’s an end-of-interview softball question. What’s your most memorable experience from leading a guiding trip?
TL: I was doing a trip on the Nootka trail and we were walking along the shores of Nootka Island and suddenly, this big grey whale came up right on the shore. Like, I could have walked out and touched it, like it was on the beach, we all thought it was dying. Then we kept walking and there were two more grey whales up on the shore, eyes closed – that’s how close they were, like you could see their eye – and they were just gliding their faces up along the shore. It was just amazing. At first it was scary, because we were like “Oh my gosh, there are three whales that are gonna die”. We didn’t know anything. But there’s a lighthouse on the island and we talked to the couple that run it, and they told us that grey whales get barnacles on their faces, so they’ll go up on the rocky shore and start rubbing their faces up against all the rocks to get it off. That’s all they were doing. They were shutting their eyes because they were like: “Oh, this is great”.
Be sure to follow Travis’ adventures and future wildlife photography projects on his Instagram page here.
For our photographically inclined readers, Travis told me he uses a Nikon D 7500 for his camera body and a Nikon 200 to 500 millimetre lens.
~This interview was edited slightly for clarity and length~