Guide Talk: Will’s Winter Tradition

Meet raft guide and outdoor enthusiast William Sparks. After first falling in love with Western Canada back in 2000 while attending Simon Fraser University, Will then spent some time traveling and gaining outdoor guiding experience in British Columbia, and Central and South America.

Will first started raft guiding in Boston Bar, British Columbia, on the Nahatlatch River in 2011, and later became a part of the Canadian Outback Rafting team guiding on the Elaho, Squamish and Cheakamus Rivers in Squamish, British Columbia.

Hey everybody, thanks for reading!

People often ask me how I got into the world of rafting and guiding. They also want to know what I do in the winter when rafting wraps up for the year. I guess the answers begin with the story of my childhood playing sports and exploring outside…

Firstly, I was a rambunctious and loud little kid. I loved to run and scream and climb trees and catch insects and reptiles and swim all day long in our family pool.

At some point my parents figured out that I got in less trouble and was easier to put to bed if they kept me busy playing sports, and I played every sport available. But back in Ontario that meant lots of hockey and ski trips in the winter, and baseball and golf in the summer. It wasn’t until I moved to BC for university that I developed a deeper connection with the mountains and a passion for adventure.

Fast forward a few years to 2007 to a wild and exciting three-month backpacking trip to South America that altered the course of my life forever.

My then girlfriend and I had just been rafting on a sparkling class IV river near Bariloche, Argentina, and then climbed up Volcan Villarica, an iconic and active snowcapped volcano in Pucon, Chile.

We were so thrilled with our trip up to the smoking crater that we wanted to climb another volcano nearby, called Llanin, which is significantly higher and more treacherous. Unfortunately, we learned at the local tourist information center that we would need reservations in the refuge to sleep on the mountain, crampons and ice axes, and advanced glacier navigation skills to tackle the climbing route – all of this we knew nothing about… Or we could pay for an expensive guided tour to the summit, which we couldn’t afford.

Reluctantly, we let go of our plans to climb this next volcano, but the light bulb went off in my head; I wanted to come back to South America, I wanted more rivers, more mountains, and more adventures… I wanted to become a guide!

Fast forward another few years to 2018, and I’m proud to say that I am living that dream. This is my 8th season working as a guide, and my relationship with South America runs deeper than I ever expected.

And now onto the second most common question I get asked, what did I do this “off-season” (a.k.a. winter)?

You guessed it! I (of course) traveled to South America like I’ve now been doing for 7 years running!  And this time I had company.

To start the trip, one of my best friends from home joined me for three action packed weeks exploring Colombia. I’ve been to Colombia once before, so I already had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to show my buddy.

Highlights included trekking through tropical jungle along the Caribbean coast, knocking down fresh coconuts, and accidentally swimming in a caiman infested lagoon. In Medellin, we scavenged the city for Halloween costumes and partied with locals till dawn in a club where a dude in a Jason mask fired up a real chainsaw and waved it above the crowd. We later traveled to the coffee region to hike in the Cocora valley amongst the world’s tallest palm trees and attempted to capture THE perfect photo of exotic hummingbirds.

And of course, we nailed an epic class V rafting trip on the Rio Suarez in San Gil. Things got really buckwild when we went upside down in the final class V rapid! Big thanks to my homeboy Tristan who jumped into all of our adventures with a smile and some world class Spanglish!

But the adventure didn’t end there!

I flew to Peru to meet up with my brother, Pat. Finally, a chance to show somebody from my family what the heck I’ve been doing in South America for all these years! All I could think about was getting the perfect photo with him at Machu Picchu to show off to my family, but it almost didn’t happen… In a stroke of ironic cruelty, when I arrived in Cusco full of excitement to meet up with him, I ended up horribly ill. Nausea, fever, body aches, joint pain… It was so bad I went to the hospital to get tested for Dengue, since I’d just come from the jungle in Colombia. And let me tell you, a public hospital in Peru late at night is a thing to behold…!

Long story short, I ended up receiving several painful injections that night and getting tested for Dengue. (*Side note, there’s a story to tell here, ask me about it when I see you on (or off) the river this summer!)

Silver lining is that I did NOT end up positive for Dengue, but I was still very sick with body aches and intense pain in my joints. Very troubling considering my plans to hike around Machu Picchu with my brother. So, what did I do you ask?! I went back to the hospital for antibiotics and another round of big a*$ needles to alleviate my stiff and aching joints. To hell with the pain and needles, as you can see (on the left) we made it! Sharing that day with my brother was extra sweet knowing that it almost fell apart at the last minute.

From that emotional high point, we carried on with consecutive wins…

First, a breathtaking hike up to Rainbow Mountain. From the viewpoint at 5,000m we ripped back down the mountain on mountain bikes, waving and shouting hola to friendly villagers dressed in traditional clothing, and scattering flocks of alpacas with fluffy, woolly bums. It was awesome!

A few days later we crossed into Bolivia for a 4WD safari across the largest salt desert in the world, the Salar de Uyuni. For three days, we were surrounded by signs of explosive volcanoes and deserts of blinding white salt as far as the eye can see. In all my years traveling between Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, I’ve never had a partner to visit with. Getting the chance to visit Uyuni with my brother was a great bonding opportunity as we discovered a landscape that is about as different from Canada as I can imagine.

I will forever cherish these memories, so beautiful and important to me because they bridge the gap between the two hemispheres of my life. My life is so intertwined with South America, the Andes, and Latin American culture, that it will be a part of me forever. And so, I continue to live a dual (and seasonal) existence, and this year I got to share this other world of mine with two dear souls from home.

So, what now?

I love South America and I draw immense inspiration from the Andes range. But as the sun returns to the BC coast and the Chief begins to dry out, the allure of another climbing and rafting season in Squamish grows stronger and stronger.

Winter snows have piled deep (and/or high?!) and glisten on all the mountain peaks. The rivers will swiftly flow. Spring blossoms bursting open herald the heat of Summer, and before I can blink I’ll be working two trips a day and surviving on Clif Bars to feed my adventure! Season lucky number 7 with Canadian Outback Rafting!

Carpe Diem my friends. I hope you can join me for a ride this summer!