Local Kenai resident Tiffany Brand has decided to start a new guided hiking service on the peninsula, but traversing the local trails is nothing new to her. Brand is starting her company, A Way in the Woods, after years of offering informal advice and leading excursions with her friends, family and associates on the best hikes in the area. Brand’s first tours will start June 1 and will run year-round.
Clarion Reporter Brian Mazurek met with Brand and her son on Saturday for an interview and hike on the Vista Trail near the Upper Skilak Lake Campground.
During the hike, Brand stopped periodically to point out moose tracks and berries (both edible and poisonous) along the trail.
Clarion: So what gave you the idea to start this guided hike service?
Brand: Well, I was encouraged by friends, mostly. I was surprised when they mentioned it. I hadn’t really thought of it myself. I always thought that someone should. I guess I just needed encouragement from the people that I’ve spent time doing these sorts of things with to show me that I should be the one to do it. I have a friendly nature and I like talking to people, and it seems that newcomers and visitors end up finding me and asking me these kinds of questions already. So I end up sharing my passions and the information I have about the area. Taking people out became part of it. Friends would ask me to do it and people who just moved here would ask me. So that’s kind of how it came about.
Clarion: Did you look into similar businesses that offer these services for inspiration?
Brand: Basically, I’m just going on my own experience and what I’ve seen. I’ve lived here over 20 years and I’m always active throughout the whole year. So I’m seeing what folks are enjoying and I was seeing a need. I was seeing a real need for someone to take people out and show them a little bit more of the Alaska that they came to see — to share and really have that personal experience with someone that has been a part of it. I looked and noticed that it’s not really offered around here, where people can meet up with someone and go on a day hike. I think a lot of people want to, but they don’t necessarily want to do it by themselves. And it’s not the same experience if you’re doing it on your own, either.
Clarion: How do you personalize the experience for each group?
Brand: First off, I would ask them what kinds of things they enjoy doing. What’s bringing them to Alaska? Were they just brought in-tow? Have they always wanted to see it? Are they already nature lovers? That gives me an idea of where to start. Then I ask how strenuous of a trip they feel that they’re equipped for. Whether they’re looking for a short half-day thing or if they’re wanting to spend the whole day out. That helps narrow down for me where we’ll go. It also depends on the time of year. I don’t just go on the trails when I’m guiding folks, but part of my work to be responsible and ensure that they get the best experience involves staying in touch with people that I know are out and about — the different park rangers and forestry department — with what’s going on with the animals and the roads. And I hit the trails on a regular basis to do my homework. I’m not going to take people on a trail that I haven’t been on in a couple weeks. So all those factors tie in. We can add an educational aspect, if that’s what they’re interested in. Depending on the time of year they might come back with a handful of berries. The big thing is finding out what people are wanting and what they’re physically equipped to do.
Clarion: What about gear? How equipped do you expect your clients to be and how much do you provide?
Brand: I will have a certain amount of packs that can be rented or borrowed, depending on the scenario. If they want it as a part of their service, I get fresh, farmers market protein bars that I can bring along. I will have an emergency water supply in my vehicle in case people forget it. I’ll basically email or text them a list of what I recommend they bring. It’s always going to be a windbreaker or rain jacket of some sort, and then depending on the type of year, bug repellent and sunscreen are a personal choice. I do have homemade versions of those that I make that are nontoxic that I will bring along and people are welcome to use.
Clarion: What about bear spray or other protection, in case you run into wildlife?
Brand: I will be carrying bear protection that I feel is appropriate for what we will be doing. I will not allow anyone else on the crew to be carrying a weapon or bear spray of their own, and that is just for the safety of everyone else.
Clarion: Do you have a limit on the size of the group?
Brand: I would like to keep groups under 10, but it depends on how many additional guides I have available. It’s just more manageable that way. I think everyone gets a more personal experience if you don’t have too large of a group.
Clarion: So if people are looking for a more educational experience from you, what would that entail?
Brand: If there’s children then we customize things for them to do like scavenger hunts depending on their age to really engage and make it fun for them and it even gives them a little something to take home with them. And then beyond the children we do plant identification, harvesting tips, how to harvest responsibly, and also wildlife identification — whether it be tracks that we come along or signs that are left behind. There’s a few geological factors as well, how the glaciers affected the landscape and all that.
Clarion: So do you feel you’re pretty knowledgeable about the local plant and animal life?
Brand: I guess I don’t give myself as much credit as other people give me. I’m learning that I should answer more of a “yes” to that. I always feel that I can learn more, and I continue to do so. I give myself a refresher course every spring because there’s just so much out there. I’ve been studying for several years, and I won’t teach or share anything if I’m not 100% sure.
Brand’s naturalist skills were put to the test on the spot, as a tiny spider began crawling across the picnic table during the interview. Brand immediately identified it as a baby orb spider and explained how they are “good guys” because they capture mosquitoes and other small insects in their large webs that they weave in the fireweed and tall grasses.
Clarion: So what did you do before this?
Brand: Well I’ve raised both my kids here — who are growing up way too fast, by the way — and I would spend a lot of time taking them out. We’d see what kind of contraptions we could get to float out on the lake, we dipnet, we fish, we hunt, we spend a lot of time playing in the water. I home-schooled both of them for the majority of their school years so that gave us a lot of opportunities to go out. I started getting into natural health several years ago when I was having some health issues and my doctors didn’t know what to do. So I spent a lot of time studying nutrition and herbs and home remedies and just, a lot about the body and how it works. Part of it was my struggle with fibromyalgia, and a lot of what I learned both through research and doing things myself was that being outside and moving was the best medicine.