When was the last time you did something for the first time? Those of us living in Alberta are fortunate to have a plethora of outdoor recreation options at our fingertips. No matter the season or the geography, there’s an adventure just waiting to be had. With tour companies all vying for your hard-earned dollars, how will you decide which experience gets your business?
With Calgary sitting in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, the natural inclination for most of us is to go up. Hiking, climbing, scrambling, and mountaineering all head upwards, searching for the top. But what if we were to reframe our mindset and focus our efforts on the descent? What if going down could be even more fun than the ascent? What would that even look like? This is where Bow Valley Canyon Tours comes in. They’re looking to get you down while having as much fun as possible, which includes slides, rappels, and pool jumps.
Marc Niehaus is the founder, director, and guide with Bow Valley Canyon Tours. He was born and raised in the Canadian Rockies near Jasper. He has accumulated over 20 years of guiding experience in various forms, including canoeing, hiking, and trekking and he’s also a rock climbing and survival instructor. In addition to his passion for the outdoors, he is also a high school math and science teacher and worked for several years in the education world in both Edmonton and Canmore. It’s obvious the man wears many hats.
From here, I’ll let him tell you all about the fun-filled adventure that is canyoning, what his job entails, and how he’s trying to carve out a niche in a crowded adventure tourism sector.
Calgary Guardian: “How did Bow Valley Canyon Tours come to be? What drove you to start your own company?”
Marc Niehaus: “Bow Valley Canyon Tours and the desire to start my own company was born out of a passion for the outdoors and a desire to share unparalleled, once in a lifetime canyoning and outdoor experiences. I grew up in the guiding industry and my father was the original owner of the Canadian Wilderness School & Expeditions (CWSX), a company we still run today. Through the CWSX we were already, at the time, doing many guided adventure tours, trips, and outdoor programs, but we were looking for something new that just wasn’t being done here in the Rockies yet. Bow Valley Canyon Tours was first established around 2016 with the intent of bringing canyoning experiences to the Canadian Rockies. We originally cut our teeth in the Jasper area because we knew some canyon locations that would potentially work for guided trips up there. In 2017 we spent one summer looking for locations closer to our current home in Canmore and by 2018 the outline was laid for the current canyoning trips we run today. We were one of the first professional canyoneering guiding companies in western Canada, pioneering most of the canyons in the central Rockies, and we have hand-picked some of the best canyoning experiences anywhere.”
CG: “For those of us who don’t know, what exactly are canyon tours?”
MN: “Canyoning, or canyoneering as it is often referred to in North America, is the activity/sport of descending canyons of all types and forms by scrambling, sliding, hiking, jumping, and often rappelling. These can be dry or wet canyons but often includes waterfalls and pools and the use of wetsuits and technical canyoneering equipment.”
CG: “What type of education/certification/training do you need to be a canyoning guide?”
MN: “There are numerous certification bodies worldwide with the epicentre for this type of activity located in Europe including France, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and many others. Certification bodies there include, the CIC (Commission Internationale de Canyon) and the ICOpro (International Canyoning Organization for Professionals). In North America the premiere certification body is the ACA (American Canyoneering Association).”
CG: “What type of skills do your guests need to come on your tours?”
MN: “Zero previous skills are needed. We teach everything that is necessary to descend our canyons. We recommend people have a medium level of fitness, and all they need to show up with is a desire to experience a ton of fun and adventure!”
CG: “What is the best thing about your job?”
MN: “Being outside all summer and interacting with people. The fact that people walk away from our trips saying they never knew something like this existed here in the Rockies and that this was the best thing they had all summer, or that it was the best part of their trip to Rockies is incredibly satisfying. We have consciously developed our trips to be intimate, sustainable, small group focused, authentic, adventurous, and something incredibly unique to share with participants and I think everyone feels that as soon as they come out on one of our canyoning experiences.”
CG: “What is one of the most challenging aspects of your career?”
MN: “Getting started as a small business with this type of new experience was a lot harder than I think anyone would think it is. There were innumerable hurdles that we had not anticipated including such things as developing an awareness for this activity with locals. Prior to the pandemic most people that booked our trips came from the US and Europe because they knew of this activity back home, while many locals were like, ‘canyoning? What?’ We have also had many many difficult years of dealing with both provincial and national parks. As a local guide we wholeheartedly support both provincial and national park mandates for sustainability and protection of the land. Unfortunately, once you really look at their policies they are often implemented very inequitably and ineffectively. I personally believe both could use an evolution in their approach to management, which is often still very archaic. Rather than seeing local guides as stakeholders with a vested interest in the sustainability of provincial and national parks, they make it near impossible for small local guiding companies to operate, while allowing for large scale attraction development by big outside companies.”
CG: “Canyon tours sound like they are inherently dangerous activities, how do you mitigate these risks for your clients?”
MN: “Often when it comes to activities such a canyoning the general perceived notion of danger or risk that many people associate with this sport does not actually reflect its actual inherent risk; especially if you go out with a certified, experienced, and knowledgeable guide. Canyoneering is far less dangerous than many other popular outdoor activities such as mountain biking or scrambling. Statistically, doing these activities on your own is far, far more dangerous and you are far more likely to get hurt. Safety is always our number one concern, and we pride ourselves on our impeccable safety record. We know our canyons in and out and we have fine-tuned our experiences, equipment, guides, training, and safety protocol to ensure that no one will get hurt.”
CG: “Let’s take a virtual look at your equipment. What type of gear is required for these tours?”
MN: “Equipment can very a bit from canyon trip to canyon trip and from area to area but the following is a good general list of equipment we use, an approved canyoning helmet, canyoning harness, canyon-specific rappel device, rappel ropes, either 5mm or 7mm wetsuit long john bottom, either 3.5 mm or 5mm wetsuit top, neoprene booties/socks, and waterproof bags to carry personal items.”
CG: “I’m not asking you to give away any of your top secret locations, but do you have a favourite canyon to explore? What makes it so special?”
MN: “Our full day Ghost Canyon trip is a pretty spectacular experience. Not only due to the playful nature of the canyon itself, but also the remote location of where we run this trip. It is completely off the beaten path and it is an adventure just to get out to the canyon, which requires some 4×4 access, where we transport participants in. Most people who do this trip are blown away by the beauty and backcountry feel for this area. Add on top of this a totally playful and fun canyon and it just makes for an incredible day out! We are pretty lucky though that due to changing conditions over the summer we also tend to progress with our trips throughout the summer season. We run our beginner half day trip all season, but our full day intermediate and advanced trips are limited. We run our full day intermediate trip from June until the end of August and our advanced canyon from the end of August to the end of September. This way as a guide you are not always doing the same thing again and again. You appreciate and feel pretty fortunate for the time you get for each canyon during a season.”
CG: “If canyoning is mainly a summer activity, what keeps you busy in the off-season?”
MN: “We run our Summer Canyoning trips right up until the end of September. In the winter, starting about mid-December, we offer winter canyon experiences as well. These trips encompass rappelling down frozen waterfalls. Participants stay dry on these trips but everyone still gets a helmet, harness, rappel device, and ice crampons. We hike up to the top of the ice canyon and then, with the guidance of our instructor, we guide participants to rappel down these frozen ice canyons.”
So why not try something new this spring and book a canyoning trip. To reserve your spot, please visit the Bow Valley Canyon Tours website or connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
About this column:
Wild Jobs is a running series that focuses on people in outdoor-related professions. It provides a brief snapshot of their career and the duties that it entails. Please see my previous post, Wild Jobs: Snowboard Designer to learn more.