“I’m out looking for bats currently, so a little distracted”. This is what Caley Doran shoots back to me when I text him to arrange a sit down. He’s been tracking and carefully tagging the elusive critters in his role as site monitor with Saugeen Ojibway Nation. The day before we meet, he’s busy leading an enviro-hike along the Peninsula section of the Bruce Trail, where he recently became a Trail Captain.
The day after we meet, he’s off to an iconic local lookout for a film shoot. In other words, Caley, an Indigenous Trail and Adventure Guide, is busy. Real busy. And that’s just how he likes it: busy doing what he loves, learning along the way.
When we get together for our sitdown, it’s early fall, and we’re barefoot. Each of us is sitting on a stone dangling our feet in the Sauble River. While we dangle, Caley talks. “I was managing up to a hundred staff at a local restaurant, during COVID. I was a newshound too. Twitter, all of it.”
When he turned 40 he changed his path. He felt a call from his ancestors to “get outside, get on the land. It felt like a magnet on my heart.” Caley saw the wisdom in this. “Now I’m getting my news from the wind and clouds, the soil and water. Just about as basic as you can get.” A grin splits his face. “Look at us,” he says, “sitting barefoot in the river.”
Caley founded Take a Hike Trail Guide in 2021, and, except for the odd barefoot reminiscence, he hasn’t looked back. He’s fully dedicated to his chosen path. “I want to commit the next 40 years of my life to the land, to learning and sustainability.”
Learning is a big part of what Caley does as a guide. And the learning experience flows both ways. Caley weaves teaching moments into his hikes seamlessly, but he too is learning, about himself, the land, and his people. His passion for this style of shared learning experience is most evident when he describes his work with children.
“Every week elders pass on, and knowledge is disappearing, so [I’m trying] to learn these teachings and pass them on to the youth”
In addition to leading hikes for families with kids, Caley works with the Leader in Training program at Nawash. His aim there is to “encourage kids to get off the reserve and to be land stewards. Every week elders pass on, and knowledge is disappearing, so [I’m trying] to learn these teachings and pass them on to the youth. I’m throwing it out there to see if someone will pick it up and carry it.”
As we sit in the river, Caley’s hands are busy brewing a ginger tea, but his eyes are busy too, taking in the sights of the riverbank. “Finding moments” he calls it. He points out the pair of kingfishers hopping about a nearby tree and pauses to hear their call. He takes a quick inventory and mentions that the ferns along the river are less plentiful than in years past.
In describing a stand of maple, he launches into a tale of Nanabush, the Ojibwe trickster spirit. As the tea bubbles away, he offers me a sprig of mint he’d harvested in Neyaashiinigmiing, pointing out that the mint was harvested outside of Canada. I chew some. It’s delicious, this imported mint. The tea, once ready, is also delicious.
Full disclosure time: I’ve hiked a fair bit along the Saugeen Peninsula, around Grey County too. By myself, with my family, with a friend or two after a puff or two. But a hike with Caley is a hike of a different stripe. It is reflective, but not at the cost of fun. There are moments of gratitude, of giving back to the land. There are stories and knowledge sharing. If there are kids in the group, Caley will make a lot of time for them. Making sure they’re safe, engaged, and having a blast. You’ll come away refreshed, inspired, and a little closer to the land. It’s a special experience, one which works well on a sunny riverside in August or through icy crevices in winter.
Caley’s no stranger to winter adventures. He will happily strap on the snowshoes and lead a group along some of the hundreds of kilometres of trail we’re fortunate to have nearby. And while he’s seen a lot of the local trails, he never tires of it; “Hike the same trail six days in a row and every day the trail tells a different story,” he says.
Asked what his favourite route is, Caley takes a second to sip his ginger tea and puts on a genuine smile. “My favourite is the one I’m doing today, or the one I’m doing tomorrow.”
Words and photos by Zak Erb