Expedition trainer, developer and logistics champion, Niki brings a strong and varied background to her role(s) in the industry with heavy hitter, Quark Expeditions.
We managed to sneak a quick chat with Niki in between her hectic day-to-day coordinating and planning.
Let's start from the beginning...
My name is Niki Trudeau and I grew up in London, Ontario and my home bases are Ushuaia, Argentina and Toronto, Ontario.
What is your current role in the expedition industry?
I am the Director of Expedition Team Engagement & Development at Quark Expeditions. My team oversees the recruitment, scheduling, logistics, training and development of our Expedition Team, now 220 members strong! I also represent Quark on AECO and IAATO committees and working groups as well as contributing to industry community engagement initiatives. Though my role is now more land-bound than the last 7 years, I also work as a Guide, Expedition Coordinator and Expedition Leader.
What is your background?
Much of my childhood was spent outside and I was very fortunate that our parents took my brother and I canoe camping and for walks in the woods on a regular basis. Being outside was a constant. My dad was a biology teacher and he used to quiz my brother and me about the species of trees based on their leaves, bark, needles, etc. My mom took a different approach and would read me stories about magical woodland creatures and fairies. I realize now that my own connection with nature was very clearly born from these influences, on the one hand, a pragmatic approach to understanding the world around me and on the other, an acknowledgement of the magic in wild places, even if they are just in the grove of trees in your backyard. Despite that childhood in the outdoors, guiding wasn’t really on my radar as a career…I studied a degree in Kinesiology at the University of Ottawa, followed by a degree in Education. Studying Education made me realize two things: 1. Experiential learning is powerful and important and not surprisingly, 2. I didn’t want to teach in a classroom!
How did you get your start in the industry?
Weeks after completing my teaching degree, I was fortunate to connect with a non-profit organization called Students on Ice, who lead educational expeditions to the polar regions for high school and university students. I was hired and a week later found myself in Nunavut. This experience and the rest of my four years working as the Participant and Logistics Coordinator, really forms the foundation of my career in the polar regions. There, I worked alongside industry legends like David Fletcher and Scobie Pye, learned to drive boats, learned about the history of Nunavut and its people, expanded my skillset in logistics and coordination, was involved in the International Polar Year conferences from an education and outreach perspective and ultimately began to grow a deep connection and appreciation for these wild places where we work.
Describe a “normal” day for you at work?
At the moment, as I’m sure you can agree, normal is quite far from the previous version of normal. Right now, I work remotely from my third-floor apartment in a turn of the century home, surrounded by houseplants, in downtown Toronto. Though we are working remotely at Quark, we are quite connected and are working on a broad scope of things including the staff scheduling and support of our Expedition Team, the planning for upcoming training and development for our Team, the operationalization of new trips and experiences coming up in future seasons and our new vessel the Ultramarine, and working on ways to stay connected with our team.
I’m based in Ushuaia during the Antarctic season to support our team from land, as well as to coordinate Quark Academy, our internal training program for new staff.
Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself starting out?
Be open to challenges. You’re capable of more than you think and especially within a supportive team, you can find strength in the solidarity of your people to get through some very challenging times.
Also, pay attention to your veteran colleagues. Team members with experience and who show leadership, mentorship and humility are the people to learn from.
What is the thing that surprised you most about guiding?
Over the years, I have learned that I lean more towards being an introvert, and guiding actually requires quite a lot of selfless energy. At first, I didn’t think about this very intentionally, and therefore it caught me off-guard when I was incredibly exhausted at the end of the season. It’s a common mistake we all make when we begin. But what is beautiful about our roles as guides are that we are facilitators of a really significant experience for others and that of course, is quite special and rewarding. So, at least for an introvert, there is a delicate tug of war between the desire to curate and facilitate these experiences for our guests while also maintaining a reserve for ourselves, our colleagues and the next guests!
Are there any tools or strategies you use to maintain a balance between delivering these guest experiences and maintaining one’s approach to guiding sustainably over a season/contract?
I really think this is an area in which I could improve greatly and am still learning how to better manage energy and not overdo it, more so in the office work as opposed to in the field! There are definitely strategies in the field that I’ve employed or tried, to manage energy levels throughout a season. They are very individual, of course – for instance, an extrovert might read this and think: ‘what is she even talking about!?’. But some specific strategies that I’ve employed are these:
1. The old ‘change is as good as a rest’ adage: so, I seek variety and try to change things up! Explore a new role, tasks or even itineraries, ships and locations that might alight a new fire or interest, bringing newfound energy mid-season.
2. Build community: the ‘permanent’ community that surrounds us on a ship or at a camp is of course a very significant part of our working experience. By building a community with fellow guides and crew members, I can also contribute to building a supportive network of people who really have rapport and care about each other. In that way, the team can almost work together as many symbiotic organisms that provide or receive support throughout challenges
3. Make your living space yours and establish self-care routines: What do I need in my living space or my routines to relax, recharge my battery and stay healthy? For me, (along with exercise, music and a lot of chocolate), no matter how busy of a day or how exhausted I may be, I carve out just a few moments, usually before bed, to get outside by myself and just breathe. This is arguably what we do (but with other people) for most of the day of course, but the intentional moment that is just for me is a simple way that centres and grounds me in my role and reason for being there and relaxes and recharges me simultaneously.
4. Actually take a rest – our seasons are becoming longer and in many ways are becoming more complex as we manage different and new activities, languages and itineraries. Our team at Quark is generally scheduled with a mid-season break with the intention of resting and recharging to come back to the rest of the season with a renewed energy reserve. Essentially it’s critical that at the end of the season we are still approaching work with the same attentiveness to detail, patience, situational awareness and risk analysis as we do at the start of the season and that late-season complacency doesn’t set in.
5. While this last one is less of a strategy, I’ve learned its incredibly important to recognize that you need reserves. It’s definitely hard to know what surprises could be around the corner, but they are almost always there! Calling on some deep energy reserves is both a daunting and incredibly rewarding situation to be in. Flights are delayed during a fly-in changeover day, medical emergencies occur requiring middle of the night or multi-day intervention, weather calls for increased vigilance and/or pushes the limits of our experience and countless other scenarios requiring you and your colleagues to rise to the challenge. Though there is no way to foresee these hurdles, it is really critical to either keep just a little bit of energy in the tank or trust that you can find it deep within you, because ultimately, your resilience and tireless commitment is especially needed in those most critical moments.
What has guiding and working in the polar regions taught you about yourself?
See above. Haha no, just kidding. Alright, this is going to sound a little cliché, but I’ve learned you really are never done learning. Sometimes we have a tendency to get comfortable with things, think we’ve got it dialled in and to settle into routines and maybe even bad habits. But working in the polar regions never really lets you do that. The ocean, mountains and tundra are incredibly humbling places. Conditions change constantly, the places that we visit change rapidly throughout the seasons, our team dynamics change and most recently, we’ve all kind of been blindsided by the pandemic. I’ve learned that I must acknowledge, with humility, that regardless of the experience I might have, there is always room for more learning.
What skills/ knowledge/ experience do you rate the most important for professional guides?
Humility, empathy, patience, the ability to work within a team, open and clear communication skills, situational awareness and risk management. That’s a lot of qualities. Being a guide is dynamic!
For those looking to join the industry, what advice would you give?
Seeking or building relevant experience and qualifications is pretty key. Training opportunities like the EGA, exist for you, of course as well! There are a lot of quite transferable skills from other tourism and outdoor industry professions that you can bring to the table should you be able to gather those experiences intentionally. Understanding the industry via other guides, workshops, webinars is very important, as is doing your research about the company you’d like to work with. Soft skills, guest services and interpersonal skills cannot be underestimated. Also, guiding in the polar regions isn’t really a ‘summer job’. Companies and employers want people who are committed and professional. And be yourself!
For those looking to continue advancing their current expedition career, what advice would you give?
Seek feedback, receive it gracefully, find opportunities for development and/or to diversify your role or abilities, speak to your Expedition Leaders and Managers to understand where and how places exist for you to grow and be sure to communicate that you are looking to grow.
What is the biggest learning moment from your time in the industry?
There are many. Constantly. On perhaps, my second day learning to drive a zodiac, I was returning to the ship at Akpatok Island and my partner was goofing around. He was a very skilled driver and he was driving near me and splashing us playfully. On the third approach, he clipped the bow of my boat and just the nudge at that speed and swell, jostled us. And at that moment, the sailor who was sitting on the bow just fell right into the water. The guide who was training me, jumped upturned the boat around and we pulled the sailor back in immediately. He was fine and incredibly calm (I suppose he’s fallen in the ocean a few times). It was quite the humbling experience to have at the beginning of my career and gave me a very healthy appreciation for how quickly things can change and how ready for that you’ve got to be, always. Also, just don’t goof around like that. It’s dangerous.
What future trends do you think guides need to consider?
Training and professional qualifications are becoming more formalized in the polar tourism industry and also, the industry will need to adapt and change to respond to the growth that is occurring. It will be important for guides to educate themselves and engage with their companies to learn about how they can contribute and provide a positive influence throughout those changes.
What’s your favourite expedition destination?
This is such a difficult question to answer, but Nunavut has a place in my heart, it is where my career began and it is part of my country.
If you could bring anyone on an expedition to Antarctica with you, who would it be and why?
I think it would have been pretty special to bring one of my grandparents, perhaps Poppy, who was a watercolour painter.
If you could have been on any expedition ever?
Knud Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition was pretty epic and superficially, I’m drawn to the more anthropological objectives of that expedition (as opposed to the glorious milestones of other expeditions), as well as the location(s) of course. The dog-sledding and gear seemed pretty rad too. But more seriously, I think the main reasons I would want to join any expedition – past, present or future – would be the location, the leader and the values or the vision of that leader. In these, I feel aligned with Rasmussen. Stephen R. Bown writes, in White Eskimo: ‘Without doubt, [Rasmussen’s] explorations are legendary, and his collections and translations of Inuit philosophy, legends and poetry a groundbreaking literary and cultural feat, but perhaps Knud Rasmussen’s underlying greatness lay in his warmth – his genuine passion for life and his deep respect for all those whose world he shared’.
Thanks Niki for taking the time and effort to really dive into thriving as an expedition guide. You've been able to offer some super valuable insights for guides new and old. All the best with your 'off season' preparation and we hope to see you in a port sometime soon.
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