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Wednesday, 11 November 2009 13:37

Back to nature

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Burt Kornegay is a one-match man.

As the owner of Slickrock Expeditions and the longest running independent outdoor guide in the state, he’s started hundreds of campfires in some of the most remote wilderness settings in the country, never using more than a single match, even in a downpour.

There’s little he can’t fix with duct tape. He can carve a cross-piece for a broken canoe from a tree limb, make baskets from bark and fashion a crutch from a branch.

“You have to be able to look at a situation and real quickly see a simple solution and act on it,” Kornegay said.

In a pinch, Kornegay can resurrect the lost skill of friction to get a flame going. Kornegay isn’t perfect, however. There’s always the time he forgot coffee.

“That was serious,” he said of the fateful trip along the Okefenokee River. Luckily, he knew a spot where the river meandered within a mile and a half of a store. On day two of the expedition, he pulled the group over and left them to guard the canoes while he ran through the woods to buy coffee.

The debacle is high on the list of “worst things you’ve forgotten on a trip.” Admittedly, the list is a short one, but not totally devoid of good stories, like when he forgot ropes to string up the kitchen tarp. He was leading a four-day all-women backpacking trip through the remote Slickrock Wilderness in Graham County when a huge storm kicked up their first night out.

Kornegay doesn’t use a camp stove but instead cooks his group’s meals over an open campfire. No tarp to keep the fire dry meant no supper that night.

Kornegay announced an impromptu change in plans: a side excursion to view the wreckage of a downed airplane he happened to know about. He put everyone to work stripping electrical wires out of the fuselage, and voila, he had rope to string up the tarp. They carried the wires for the rest of the trip.

Everyone always begs for the stories of injuries and rescues, but Kornegay doesn’t have many of those either.

“If you had many injuries, I wouldn’t have a business,” Kornegay said.

He sees his share of cut fingers and blisters, but only a few breaks and sprains. The worst occurred last summer while portaging around rapids on a remote river in Idaho. A member of the party dislocated his ankle. With one of his changes unable to walk and stranded on a rocky bluff, Kornegay turned a canoe into a stretcher, strapped the injured man in and lowered it down to the river with ropes. From there, the group floated to a wide rock bar where Kornegay used a satellite phone to call for a helicopter.

Kornegay has a long list of repeat customers, from families who have grown up on his trips through the years to retired couples that go on one or two of Kornegay’s trips every year.

One group of businessmen from Durham that gets their annual wilderness fix with Kornegay, has dubbed themselves The Wild Boys while on his trips. They even fund scouting trips for Kornegay to plan new itineraries for them. After years of outdoor trips with Kornegay, they’ve probably learned enough to pull off a trip on their own, but they still prefer a guide.

“They are not going to get lost. The supper will get cooked. They will sleep dry at night,” Kornegay said.

Meanwhile, they avoid the headache of packing, and the chore of cleaning and repairing gear when they get back home.

“All they have to do is bring their clothing,” Kornegay said.

It’s not easy to have a dozen people emotionally and physically dependent on you for 12 days at a stretch and remain in good spirits from dawn to dusk during the duration, but Kornegay’s demeanor is well-suited to the job. He’s even-keeled and not easily ruffled. He is chatty when it’s called for, but introspective by nature. He can spin a good yarn, and listens equally well.

He’s also a good fence mender, a skill that comes in handy when spouses find themselves trapped in a canoe with each other for days on end. Sometimes, couples turn to him to salvage a previous outdoor experience gone awry.

Such a trip is often prefaced by a husband’s pleading: “She will never hike with me again, but she said she will go on your trip. This is my last chance, Burt, just don’t screw it up.”

Typically, conflict on wilderness trips occurs when things go wrong: the rice doesn’t get fully cooked, the sleeping bags get wet, the map dropped overboard. Having a guide preempts those crises.

“Things don’t tend to go wrong in guided trips. You are with a professional,” Kornegay said. “They don’t get lost, they see the danger spots, they know how to start a fire even if it is pouring rain, their equipment works.”

Guided trips also remove decision points, another potential conflict zone, like where to pitch the tent or whether to take lunch at a mediocre overlook or hold out for the promise of a better one around the bend.

“There are not a lot of chiefs. There is an itinerary you are following, so you tend to have better spirits,” Kornegay said.

In addition to ferreting his clients through the wilderness, Kornegay gives them a sense of the woods. He shares local lore, identifies trees and birds, imparts survival skills and teaches tracking.

 

From the ground up

Kornegay, now 59, was just 20 when he started running trips in the Adirondacks in 1971. A few years later, he moved to Oregon and ran trips there.

He eventually went back to school for a PhD in English, harboring fantasies of being an college professor and running a few trips on the side during the summer.

“I was also convinced I was going to be a great poet,” Kornegay said.

Apparently, there were lots of college English majors on the professor-poet track, far more than the nation’s universities could ever employ.

“We’re a dime a dozen,” Kornegay said.

When his wife got a job in Jackson County as a librarian at Western Carolina University, he gave up the English PhD and resurrected his skills as an outdoor guide.

He started Slickrock Expeditions in 1983, named for the Slickrock Wilderness in Graham County. Kornegay relied on his wife’s salary to support their family for the first three years after launching the guide service. The first order of business was building an arsenal of outdoor gear.

“The money they paid me to run the trip bought the gear for that trip. Everything went back into the business,” Kornegay said. “I had to tailor the trips to the gear I had.”

Even the used Ford station wagon he used to transport gear was acquired in exchange for a spot on a trip for the son of a car salesman.

In the quarter century since starting Slickrock, Kornegay has built a strong reputation as one of the leading outdoor guides in the state.

He and his wife live in the Caney Fork community of Jackson County surrounded by mountains and farms. He spends time between trips holed up on his tranquil 42- acre homestead reading guide books and planning for the next trip, whether here at home or the wilds of Montana and Idaho.

And then it’s off again.

“For my wife it is kind of like being married to a truck driver,” Kornegay said.

 

Changing industry

While the wild places Kornegay frequents seem timeless, the outfitter business has changed in the nearly four decades he’s run trips — some of the changes are nuanced and others more overt.

In the early 1970s, the back-to-the-land movement was all the rage, yet the budding outdoor types of the era hadn’t amassed their own garage full of camping equipment. Guides were more imperative.

“It was kind of a novelty,” Kornegay said. “All I had to do was put a little ad in the paper, and I could fill a trip.”

The demand was big, and the number of guides were few.

Today, Kornegay is competing in a marketplace dominated by large outfitter companies.

The recession has brought its own challenges. His business is off by a third this year as disposable income for wilderness trips has dried up. Meanwhile, overhead has gone up. Liability insurance has risen, as have fees charged by the forest service for commercial trips.

Another change over the years: the weight of Kornegay’s pack. He used to carry 80 pounds easily. Now, he caps his pack at no more than 55.

The dynamics of the larger outdoor scene is also different today than in the early 1970s.

“Back then, it was getting in touch with yourself and getting in touch with nature,” Kornegay said. “Today it is a very completive, high-tech and fast-paced thing. The spirit has definitely changed.”

It’s something that the younger generation increasingly misses by not taking extended trips. It’s what Kornegay calls the “park and play” mentality.

“It’s more about ‘Let’s go to that one rapid and play on it for three hours’ or ‘let’s go climb that one cliff and then go home and have a beer,’” Kornegay said.

Under Kornegay’s wing, however, trips are about the immersing yourself in the outdoors, not about the bragging rights the expeditions can earn you back home.

“There is always that earlier element of getting back to nature,” he said.

 

Getting out

Slickrock Expeditions offers a variety of guided trips, from the mountains of Western North Carolina to a slew of big rivers out West. Some are open trips available to anyone who wants to book a spot, while custom trips can be tailored to the needs of a private group. www.slickrockexpeditions.com.

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