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Inside A CSO Guided Trip

Being a participant in a guided trip can greatly reduce the stress and time required to organize and execute a trip of your own. Your guide should arrange the logistics, lodging, route, and deal with safety concerns. Depending on the trip there will likely be assistance with transportation, food preparation, and gear selection. Then once the trip begins you can relax and let your guide make decisions regarding weather, group management and safety. Not a bad way to spend a week or more.

CanoeSport Outfitters offers a variety of guided trips including day tours, weekend outings, week-long instructional based excursions, and adventures to primitive locations. A lot goes into planning and executing these trips. To help you decide if you’d like to take part in a trip with CSO or another guiding service, we thought we’d give you an inside look at what we do and how we do it.

Our Destination

The first priority for any trip is scouting or researching the destination. Before we can guide anyone in a specific area we typically plan a trip there ourselves. This gives us a chance to see what localized risks may exist, what the put-in and take-out options look like, and get an idea of the camping or lodging options. It also gives us a chance to scout local businesses that may be of interest to all or part of the group.

Our trip mix varies from year to year, but what we usually offer are day trips to Lake Red Rock, weekend trips to the Mississippi River, weeklong adventures to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and Everglades National Park, and a weeklong instruction based trip to Tybee Island on the Georgia coast. Periodically we’ll mix in a trip to the Louisiana Coast or Lake Powell in Utah. Each of these destinations provide great scenery and fascinating historical sites. In addition, they provide paddling environments ideally suited for CanoeSport guides and instructors to provide coaching to clients to help them develop their paddling skills and confidence.

Acquiring Commercial Permits and Trip Permits

Many of the places we travel too fall under the management of the National Park Service. Behind the scenes this requires advanced planning and adds more to the cost of the trip in the way of commercial permits. As guides being paid to bring customers into these parks we have to apply and pay for a special permit. In most cases we have to acquire them months in advance. In the Apostle Islands we have to participate in a lottery to get group camp sites. For the most part these commercial permits are inexpensive if you lead dozens of trips to that particular National Park and can spread the cost over multiple trips. Since CSO typically leads only one or two trips each year to these areas and most National Parks have dramatically increased the cost, these commercial permit fees are becoming one of our biggest trip expenses.

Naturally, applying for a commercial permit can entail a lot of paperwork. For instance the application for a commercial permit to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore requires proof of Worker’s Comp Insurance, proof of Automobile Insurance, a list of company vehicles being used in the park, a list of guides along with their certifications, and a list of vessels being used. We also must provide an Operations Plan that details specifically what we will be doing in the park under that commercial permit. This document has to explain the types of watercraft we’ll be using, how often they are inspected, how large our groups are expected to be, what areas of the park we intend to use, what practices we use to reduce the impact on the environment, and how we will handle food preparation and distribution. Finally, we have to include our Safety Plan of Action explaining what training our clients will be required to have, what signaling equipment we’ll be carrying, what we will do if we have a hazardous waste spill, and more. Then at the end of every year, before renewal, we have to submit an annual report providing the number of people we brought to the park, what percentage of time those customers spent in the park on their trip, what our total revenue was for the year, and how much of that came from trips under this specific commercial permit.

This year the Apostles Islands made another change to guide training. In order to be a lead guide in the Apostle Islands you are required to have Wilderness First Aid and the equivalent of a Level 3 ACA Trip Leader certification. This new requirement is largely due to the increasing number of kayaking accidents requiring rescues by the Park Service each year.

Many of our destinations also require a permit specifically for the trip. We have to specify the primitive campsites we plan to visit and what nights we’ll be there. These permits often have to be acquired in person and no more than 24 hours before the trip starts. This means we need to get to the permit stations early the day before or the day of our trip. Doing so will not guarantee the availability of the sites we request. Often those sites are already taken by people who entered the park several days earlier. When this occurs some last minute adjustments to our route will be required. Since we’ve been to these areas many times and have experience with multiple campsites we have a good idea of the alternatives and we can keep the travel distances within certain ranges while still getting the type of camping experience we want.

Communicating The Details

A month prior to each of our trips, CSO sends an email to all participants. It contains a lot of information. We give directions to our destination meeting place, provide a suggested gear list, provide food ideas, and include a trip itinerary. We’ll provide travel options and discuss exchanging emails with other participants. This is also when we will arrange equipment rental or gear drop off at our store. Follow up emails are sent out in answer to specific questions. Our goal is to help you plan for the trip as thoroughly as possible so you show up with everything you need and ready to have a great time.

Transporting People

One of the biggest challenges for everyone involved in a trip is transportation. It can be difficult getting everyone to and from a specific location. Everyone has different schedules and tolerances when it comes to riding in a vehicle. There are some companies who run a bus or a van and everyone goes together to wherever the trip is taking place. This requires owning or renting additional vehicles, a CDL, and increased insurance. CanoeSport Outfitters sets a meeting point and everyone arranges their own transportation to that location. Each person can travel at their own speed and make whatever stops they prefer. We help participants exchange emails so car-pooling can be arranged. If a customer wants to fly to a specific area we will arrange to transport their gear.

Transporting Gear

Paddling is always more fun and safer when you get to paddle a canoe or kayak you are familiar with. Ideally this means the one you own. CSO guides always drive to the destinations and haul their own gear. If you need to rent something or want to have us transport items for you, we can make that arrangement. We’ll schedule a time for you to drop your gear off at the store and we’ll load it, transport it, and have it waiting for you at the start of the trip. And yes, we’ll bring it home too.

Arranging Lodging

If the trip includes primitive camping at sites we are paddling too, lodging is resolved with the specific trip permit. Our weekend excursions to the Mississippi requires us to book campsites up to six months in advance. And as we’ve learned over the last several years, when arranging camping and put-ins along a river, flooding can alter those plans dramatically.

Our Georgia and Louisiana trips do not involve primitive camping. We rent cabins and houses so our customers can come back to warm beds and hot showers every night. This makes everyone more comfortable with the instructional aspects of these trips. Students and instructors alike can get together at the end of the day to discuss what happened, what everyone saw, and provide specific feedback so everyone gets to learn as much as possible.

Booking the housing and cabins takes place at least six months ahead of the trip. They require deposits and payment in full before the trip occurs. And then there’s the issue with hurricanes. Georgia and Louisiana trips typically occur near the end of hurricane season. We’ve had a couple of close calls in the past. Not close to getting caught in them, but close to having our trip cancelled due to them. Several times hurricanes have passed through the areas we are going too just ahead of our scheduled arrival. A few years ago Tybee Island was hit a week ahead of our trip. There was a lot of flooding, extensive damage across the area, and a mandatory evacuation. Fortunately, the house we rented wasn’t damaged which was a good thing because there’s no refund on the house rentals unless you buy hurricane insurance. A trip to Louisiana had to be canceled several months in advance when a hurricane damaged the cabins. The following year we were still unable to schedule this trip since the cabins were still without running water.

Considerations For Weather and Conditions

Weather is a factor on any trip we take. Staff starts watching forecasts a week or so before the trip starts. We check temperatures, look at predicted wind speeds and direction, and anything else that might increase the risk to our group.

Sometimes a start has to be pushed back by a day or two, a planned paddle for a specific day has to be cancelled or changed, a sudden storm may drive the group off the water before reaching the planned destination. A lot of things can happen so our guides try to be fluid and deal with situations as they come up. Our Apostle Islands trips usually present the greatest challenge in this regard.


When going on our coastal trip we have to check the tides ahead of time. What time the tide is coming in or going out makes a big difference regarding travel time. In Georgia it’s a big safety consideration since we typically want to be practicing skills when the tide is coming in. It’s never good to be practicing a rescue and realize you’re getting swept out to sea while doing it. The Everglades also requires a close watch of the tides. They affect paddling in and out from our launch point and how long we may have to wait in camp for the water to rise high enough to launch in the morning.

Assessing Our Group

How far we travel each day and what conditions we feel comfortable putting people into always varies. We’re fortunate that most of our trip participants have also been instruction students. Our guides have a level of familiarity with everyone. Even so, we almost always start each trip with shorter distances the first day or two and if possible we’ll find areas where conditions will be calmer so we can assess the group.

Our Georgia trip is really conducive to making adjustments to the group according to skill. The tides, shoals and other features in the area provides multiple condition levels all within a very small area. We can take a group out and have a few people practicing flatwater skills while a hundred yards away others can be working in level 3 waves.

Getting Started, The first day

The first day of a CSO trip will often be the easiest or most laid back. Guides will help you pack your gear if it’s an adventure trip with primitive camping. We’ll go over safety and group management plans. If you have an interest in navigation we’ll fill you in on the route and what we’re looking at as we lead the group. Our goal is to let you get totally immersed in the trip if you want or you can opt to kick back and just enjoy the ride.

Travel distances are kept low on the first day if possible. This is especially the case with our winter trips. Due to the cold weather in Iowa, many participants may not have paddled for a month or more. We want to get everyone on the water again and get comfortable before we throw anything too challenging at them.

Adjustments and On Water Decisions

When bad weather happens or there is some other issue within the group CSO guides will try to involve customers in the decision making process. It’s not that we’re necessarily going to give you a vote in what we do, we just want you to know what is going on and why we’re making the decisions we’re making. Customers don’t always agree with a trip alteration or an adjustment to our plans, but safety is our first priority. When in doubt we’ll error on the side of caution.

Teachable Moments & Reviewing the day

Throughout the day, CSO guides will look for opportunities to provide individuals with coaching. Could a stroke be improved by changing blade angle, would blade placement increase stroke efficiency, can stability be increased by a forward or backward lean? These and more would be possible topics for feedback while on the water.

Even on primitive camping adventures CSO guides will attempt to gather everyone together at the end of each day for a debrief. This will likely include a review of any decisions that were made, a discussion about group management and safety issues everyone observed, a quick look at navigation, and maybe even a brief on shore lesson. Again most of the time this is entirely optional. If you’d prefer to be roasting marshmallows and heading to bed before the sun goes down, it’s totally up to you.

Wrapping It All Up

At the end of the trip, after gear is packed and everyone is ready to head home, we usually find a place to eat together. It provides one final time to review what happened during the week or weekend. On the Georgia trip we head to a sea food restaurant and make a major dent in the shrimp, lobster, crawdad, and shell fish population. Following our Mississippi River trip we’ll typically make a stop at a local restaurant.

Our goal at CanoeSport Outfitters is to always be educating and providing everyone with an opportunity to improve their skills and increase their confidence. We hope you’ll consider joining us for a day trip or a week long adventure.

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