We had the chance to sit down with Master Senior Field Guide, Mike Kangley. A veteran guide at Open Sky, Mike has worked across several departments and worn many hats as a leader in the field and mentor in our community. In this interview, we extract lessons from Mike’s experience as we discuss what led Mike to a career in wilderness therapy, how he has made this work sustainable, and his approach to mentoring other guides.
A: I have been working with youth in the outdoors for twenty-two years. I have been working specifically in wilderness therapy for ten consecutive years, eight of which have been as a field guide with Open Sky. As of this fall, I will log 1,500 field days at Open Sky and about 2,400 field days total. I am one of the company veterans and am the longest-tenured guides at Open Sky.
A: I started working as a summer camp counselor twenty-two years ago in Minnesota and absolutely fell in love with it. I mostly worked with kids who had behavioral challenges. One instance that struck me early on was seeing the transformation in a child who had Tourette syndrome. This boy was always getting into trouble in his classes and other camps. At the time, I was working as a canoe instructor and got to take him out in the canoe, where he was totally enamored by the way we moved through the water and by the beauty of the water lilies and loons. This boy was completely transformed by the end of that summer. This is my earliest memory of recognizing the healing power of nature firsthand. As that first summer ended, I remember envisioning and planning how I could do this type of work for the rest of my life.
Over the years I have also had the opportunity to work in residential treatment and found it to be a chaotic contrast to wilderness. It wasn’t a good fit for me. I found it difficult to promote healing within the confines of four walls. I found every excuse I could to get the kids I worked with outside on adventures.
In my late twenties I returned to the wilderness and worked with court ordered adolescents for twenty-two days at a time. I was working mostly with adjudicated youth, gang members, and kids coming from juvenile detention centers. I took these kids, who had never been exposed to the outdoors, on expeditions into Canada canoeing, winter camping, and backpacking. This experience reaffirmed the power of wilderness. I was reminded that I really thrive working with young people in this environment.
After working in a variety of settings, I see the power of growth and change that occurs in nature, which ultimately keeps me doing this type of work all these years later. More specifically, I believe in what we do at Open Sky. I believe everyone has the capacity to change and when people are out of their comfort zone is when change most readily occurs. This is what wilderness does—pushes people out of their comfort zone and facilitates change.
A lot of the students I have worked with as a field guide have reached out to me years later to share what their lives have become. I have seen students go to college, become nurses, get married, and have kids. I have gotten to see these young people grow up, find happiness, and build careers. The common thread when I talk to them is their expression of gratitude for the transformation that took place in the wilderness. This still fuels and inspires me.
A: I’m able to make field guiding sustainable because it is my passion. Working with young people, being outdoors, fostering change—these are things I have always wanted. And these are the things I get to do as a guide. Self-care, fun, and gratitude also fuel me and have allowed this work to become a career.
Self-care is vital, and for me, this work supports my self-care. I can be fully invested in guiding for two weeks and find my rhythm, then have two weeks off, which creates the space to leave work at work. I usually travel and refuel during my time off. When working doubles, I have learned to set a pace that will last 15 consecutive days. While in the field, self-care looks like fully immersing myself in the team. I thrive off my co-guides and the people that work at Open Sky. I look forward to coming back to work after two weeks off because I get to reconnect with so many inspiring people—guides and students.
Sustainability is also about having fun and appreciating the work we do. Most days I think to myself, oh my gosh, I can’t believe I am getting paid to do this! An old mentor told me, “hopefully 70-80% of the days you’re out there thinking, wow I can’t believe I am getting paid to do this, and the other 20-30% you think, wow I don’t get paid enough to do this.” I must say 70-80% of the time I am blown away that this is what I get to do for a living. A large piece of this is the appreciation I have for Open Sky and its founders. I believe in the work we do and value the people I work with, which allows me to be here long-term. Over the years, through different jobs and life experiences, I have been able to realize just how special the work we do at Open Sky truly is— gratitude is a big piece of sustainability.
A: My approach to mentoring field guides is to share my own experience, adapt my style, and remind them to have fun. My aim is to support them, promote their growth and help build confidence. When I became a Senior Guide I struggled with my own confidence, doubt, and anxiety— this is something I really try to help new seniors with. I focus on building confidence and building trust. I remind them this work can be hard and to extend grace to themselves. It can also be fun, and we can let ourselves have fun. It’s easy to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves.
Giving each guide the space to experiment and grow is key to their development as a guide. This past spring, I mentored a young guide becoming a senior. The more I mentor, the more I continue to adapt my style because every guide is unique and has different needs. With this new senior I really had to give him space to make decisions, then support him and offer feedback. I gave him room to grow and develop his style— I was just there overseeing the impact of his decisions and he was empowered to figure out what worked for him. I am focusing on doing more and more of this in my mentorship— giving guides the space to develop their own unique style, which is often very different than mine. Seeing this guide develop his style and thrive was extremely rewarding as a mentor.
A: I would tell new guides to embrace the feedback culture. The feedback culture at Open Sky is so unique and powerful— use this to your advantage! I never experienced a culture of offering feedback to co-workers until working at Open Sky. I would tell new guides to really embrace the positive and constructive feedback they receive and build on it. It holds us accountable and helps us grow. I credit the feedback culture for the exponential growth I was able to experience my first year at Open Sky, and still to this day.
I would also tell new guides to have fun with the job and to pay close attention when their self-critic comes up. Self-love and self-care are crucial in this job. Have an open mind. Be open to new and different ideas because what we do is so unique and there is always space for creativity. I remember when I came to Open Sky with 900 field days of experience under my belt, I was so focused on becoming a senior guide. I worked closely with Norman (one of the founders and the first Open Sky field guide) and the feedback he offered me was to have fun, lighten up, and relax. Taking that advice to heart has allowed me to really enjoy the work we do.