Charles “Sonny” Somelofski of Catskill Outdoor Adventures in Margaretville (catskilloutdooradventures.com), remembers when the licensing process to become an outdoor guide in New York state was a simple paper questionnaire with a $2 fee that asked whether he could swim, handle a boat, and read a map and compass.
“That was it, back then,” Somelofski says. “Bang! I was able to take people out and do it all.”
Today, being a state-licensed outdoor guide requires a bit more: taxable income disclosure forms, a physician’s statement, and certifications in first aid, CPR, and water safety. Those are the just the basics. Guides can be licensed in a number of different categories, ranging from camping and fishing to whitewater rafting and ice climbing, each with different licensing requirements.
The heart of guiding, however, has remained the same: proving to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that you can reliably take paying customers out into the great outdoors and bring them back again in one piece.
Somelofski has been a guide for 40 years, and has served as the president of the New York State Outdoor Guides Association (nysoga.org). He is certified in fishing, hunting, hiking and camping.
Somelofski says he likes to stick close to his home turf in the Catskills, docking his boat at the Pepacton Reservoir.
“A good guide knows the area he’s taking people to like his own backyard,” he says. “You stick with one pond and get to know it.”
Somelofski says the principal responsibility of a guide is to make outings safe and educational. On every trip, he teaches clients about native plants, local wildlife and the quirks of the rich ecosystem surrounding the Pepacton.
“If someone came to me and said ‘I wanna learn everything you know in one day,’ I would laugh,” Somelofski says. “It took me 40 years to learn everything I know. If you were to come out with me every day for six months, you still couldn’t learn everything.”
Having a real live expert along for the hike is better than going out alone after “watching the video,” says Michael Clarke, a fishing, camping and hiking guide based in Boiceville.
“Guides dramatically decrease your learning curve,” he says.
Clarke’s specialty is a passion for fishing, a hobby he’s had for 54 years. “I catch fish in even the most difficult fishing conditions,” he says. His goal is to help his clients to do so as well.
Guides also keep you safe. All guides are required to have CPR and first aid training, and some, like Clarke, have medical expertise as well. Clarke is a registered nurse with emergency and trauma training who has also served in the Hospital Corps of the US Navy.
“If it happens on my watch, I’ll be ready,” he says.
Will Soter, co-founder of the Hudson Valley-based Upstate Adventure Guides (upstateadventureguides.com), says that one of a guide’s chief responsibilities is to ensure that his clients maintain the integrity of the land they visit.
“Teaching them that we don’t do certain things in certain areas is important,” Soter says. “Everyone loves a big old camp fire, but sometimes it’s not the right place and it’s not safe.”
Soter has been hiking since he was a kid. Back then, Soter says, his idea of woods was the one-acre patch of sugar maple trees outside his home in Fairfield, Connecticut — nothing like the Catskill trails he now frequents as a guide.
“Going on my first real hikes made me realize this isn’t the woods anymore,” Soter says. “It became the forest.”
Soter worked as a guide for two years before starting Upstate Adventure Guides with longtime friend Alex Marra in September 2013. Together, Soter and Marra cover a range of topics on their trips, from survival basics to backcountry etiquette to meteorology; Marra is also the founder of a popular local weather service, Hudson Valley Weather (hudsonvalleyweather.com). This year, Soter and Marra are partnering with the Spillian resort in Fleischmanns to offer Catskills tours (spillian.com).
Soter has hiked the Pacific Northwest, Thailand, Mexico and all over the Northeast. But the Catskills are special, he says.
“There’s something about them that’s overlooked,” Soter says. “There are places so beautiful here that are kind of forgotten. You feel surrounded by nature and nothing else.”
HOW TO FIND A LICENSED GUIDE:
Search through the NYSOGA online database (nysoga.org) or the DEC’s licensed guide records (www.dec.ny.gov/cfmx/ extapps/DECLicensedGuide). Both sort guides by category, region, season and various other criteria.
This article originally appeared in the print version of the 2014 Catskills Outdoor Guide, our annual publication covering recreation in the Catskills great outdoors. The Catskills Outdoor Guide is distributed across the Catskills region and at select locations in the NYC metropolitan area. Find a copy near you here.