Little Woman in Big Whitewater

Guiding at Pillow Rock, Upper Gauley

If you head to most commercially run whitewater rivers today, you’ll probably see close to a 50/50 split of male/female guides. Maybe 60/40 with a few more males than females.  And you’ll not likely notice any coddling of the women, or disdain for their presence. This wasn’t always the case, though.

When I started training to guide on the New and Gauley Rivers in southern West-by-god-Virginia over 20 years ago, I was one of few women attempting to do so. Women were really just breaking into the scene, and the entire area was dominated by men.  This wasn’t concerning because my desire to guide had nothing to do with the male to female ratio. What was concerning to me was the blatant sexism displayed by some male guides, trainers, and company owners. But, little did they know, their determination to make sure I didn’t make the cut was going to backfire on them. In fact, I daresay that it was my knowledge of their desire to keep me from guiding simply because I had breasts that gave me the will and determination to stick it out despite them. Or maybe TO spite them.  Regardless, there wasn’t a hell they could put me through that would have made me give up.  And boy, did they ever put me through hell.

Now, I’m not going to name names or single people out in this. Hell, after over 2 decades, I don’t remember many of the names of the individuals involved.  And the company in question, well, they’ve since moved on and changed their ways. I’m not here to shake my finger at anyone and make anyone look bad. I’m just here to tell a story.  A story about a woman first, and then a group of women who dove headfirst into a male dominated industry, proved ourselves, hopefully helped pave the way for others, and had a blast doing it.  So, this is not a story about these “bad guys”, this is a story about the life-changing triumph of some great gals.

I was pretty young when I went to the New River to learn to guide. Young and broke. I lived in a tent, like many guides – especially those training, and trained every weekend and most days through the week.  I worked late afternoons/evenings to make enough money to eat on. It was a grueling schedule, but at that young, energetic age it wasn’t that hard. Sleep is overrated, right?

At the time, the common way to train new guide wannabes was to trash them. If you’re not familiar with the term or process, it involves making them swim in the river. A lot. Purposefully running rafts into hydraulics and waves with the intention of making them flip and sending the trainees into the drink. Over and over and over.  There was some amount of logic behind this, in that if a trainee can’t handle that, then they shouldn’t be guides.  I don’t disagree with that necessarily, but I’m more than certain that the trashing I received was in a blatant attempt beat me down and scare me so bad that I would walk away.  A lot of trainees do walk away, after all.  But when I realized that I was being put in the ‘trashing’ boat every single time, I was bound and determined not to let it get to me. No matter what.

And I didn’t let it get to me, though there were some close calls. There’s one time in particular that’s burned into my memory because I

Moose River, New York

was quite certain I was going to die.  Did I mention that I have a major fear of drowning?  Yes, I see the irony in someone with a fear of drowning becoming a river guide (and later a scuba instructor). I had to face that fear head on a few times.  And this one memorable time in particular we ran a hydraulic that you just don’t ever run.  The logic of the guy guiding us into it?  It was so we knew exactly why we were never to run it.  I was recirculated in that hydraulic long enough to fear for my life, which is to say all probably a few seconds.  Time passes a little differently when you’re going round and round in a bus sized washing machine.

I was exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically by the time we got to the take-out, and our trainer confronted me.  The guys were all chuckling and pretty much ignoring me.  Mr Trainer came up with a smirk on his face and asked me, “So, you ready to do that again, sweetie?”  Without missing a beat I replied, “Absolutely. We heading back up for a double run today?”

I was completely bluffing. I was not ready to do it again and started to have doubts about making it as a guide. With the best poker face I could muster, I just held his gaze until he finally laughed and walked off.  A wave of relief washed over me.  But he went over to the guys and they all starting laughing together and everyone looked at me with these smirks of superiority. I may have come off the river with doubts about guiding, but their attitudes completely changed that. I was going to be damned before I let them make me give up.

This was the treatment I received all spring, summer and early fall that year while training with them full-time and working full-time. At the end of it all, Mr Trainer told me I “didn’t have what it took” to be a guide on such big whitewater.  I was so furious at the fact that they put me through that hell for most of a year all the while knowing they were never going to let me guide. It didn’t matter what I did, that was going to be his answer all along.

I left for the winter disheartened, frustrated, and pissed off. But right before I did, I met one of the owners of a different river company at a local bar.  It was obvious he had no issues with women seeing as though he was surrounded by them (in a friendly way).  After telling him my story, he told me to come to his company the next season, and that if he could have his way he would have all female guides.  His feeling was that while most male guides may be physically stronger and able to use brute force to get down the river, female guides who were unable to use brute force actually had to learn the water, currents, rocks, and subtleties of the river and use those things to their advantage.  We would finesse our way down and he felt that was superior.  Plus, we were prettier.

The following year I did go to his company to train, and there were a lot more gals training and a couple who were newer guides. I felt so much more at ease and comfortable because I wasn’t an outcast, and people weren’t actively trying to make me fail. The male guides didn’t exhibit disdain or airs of superiority, and yet they didn’t try to coddle either. Everyone was expected to pull their own weight, but no one was given additional weight to pull just to prove a point.  After all, I’m sure us gals were much more pleasing to look at than the other male guides so if for no other reason, they probably wanted to keep us around for that. The guys as a group were supportive, even proud of us, bragging about us at times. There was much more of a camaraderie atmosphere there. It was stark contrast to my previous experience.

The group of us gals there became the largest group of female guides at any company for a while, though we were still heavily in the minority. Over the years that gradually changed.  I’d like to think our kick-ass skills as guides helped with that.  I was cut loose to be a guide early that first summer with the new company and went on to guide the Upper Gauley my first season guiding (something rarely done by first year guides at the time). Granted, I did actually have two seasons of training.  A seasoned veteran took me under his wing, and I was also running ‘extreme’ trips and low water trips on the Upper Gauley, as well as paddling rivers all over the area for fun.

I didn’t much encounter sexism from the male guides or anyone else at that company, but I did get it from some of my male guests. I handled them on a case by case basis, some by ignoring their attitudes and some by making them swim. A lot. It usually made me feel better.Most often the worst I had to deal with from male guests was a dislike of taking orders from a woman.  But even they generally grit their teeth and just played along, even though their attitude was obvious.

Occasionally though, I got some real humdingers. One of the best ones was an extreme trip on the Upper Gauley.  These were

Surprise on the New River. Gonna be some swimmin’

trips done in smaller, easier-to-flip rafts.  As soon as my crew of self-declared military guys saw they had a female guide, it started. They outright laughed and asked me if I was sure I could handle them in that small boat on such big whitewater. The words “little girl” and “sweetie” were used as well. I was actually dumbfounded that they would say something like that to their guide at the put-in of the Upper G.  I mean really?  You want to challenge and piss off your guide before you ever even get in the water?  And this wasn’t some friendly banter, I do know the difference and I wouldn’t have had an issue with that. They were serious. I happened to be the only female guide on the trip and when the other guides realized what my crew was doing and saying, they all offered to take them in my stead.  Oh no, I told them. No way were they going to take this fun away from me.  I suggested they all set up safety for me below all of the hot-spots, and down the river my crew went. So we swam, and swam, and swam some more.  At Pillow Rock rapid while we were bobbing around in the aptly named ‘Room of Doom’ waiting to flip, one of them turned and asked, “So what the hell do we do now?”  With a big grin I grabbed the boat and said, “Take a deep breath.”  And we flipped again.  I’m not sure where it was exactly that they finally cried uncle and said they didn’t want to swim any more and asked why we were swimming so much.  “I’m just a little girl,” I told them, “who apparently can’t handle this little boat on this big river.  I’m afraid we’re probably going to swim a bit more.”

Okay, so it’s entirely possible they actually thought I really did suck as a guide because I was a woman. Or it’s possible they read the tone in my voice and figured out what was going on.  Either way, I didn’t care. I felt better. The big bad military guys had cried uncle to the little girl. I was okay with that, even if I did inadvertently reinforce their sexist views.  They may have felt vindicated in their sexism if they were oblivious to reading body language and tone of voice, but they did still cry uncle to me.

Raft guiding has changed over the years, and people have come to realize the skill women guides have. Years after going to the new company, while at the post office I ran into Mr. Sexist Trainer from the first company I trained at.  He made a point to stop me and much to my surprise, he apologized. He told me that he’d seen me guiding on the Upper Gauley, and it was obvious he was wrong about me those years ago. I forgave him. After all, it was the hell they put me through that probably made me as good a guide as I was, and I know for sure that their determination to make me fail was the very reason I succeeded. Still, I walked out of the post office with my own smirk on my face this time. It had come full circle and I had truly proved myself and won, as a guide and  as a woman.

River boarding at Pillow Rock in Upper Gauley

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should be given a difficult time because it’ll make them stronger.  Obviously I don’t want that.  But, if you are being given a difficult time, realize that it is making you stronger. Decide what succeeding is worth to you and don’t let anyone stop you. That adversity you’re facing could be used to spur you forward, stronger and more determined.  I made a conscious choice not to let their outdated attitudes stop me from doing what I wanted to do, what I knew I could do, and I came out the better for it. The adversity and the pain they put me through did make me a better guide.   It’s all in how you view things. I could look back and be angry with a chip on my shoulder, or I can look back and wonder would I have made it as a guide if they hadn’t tried so hard to stop me?  And even if I had, would I have been as confident a guide, and as good a guide?  I’m actually not sure of the answer to those questions, so in a way I have to accept that the hurdles they put in front of me actually kept me on a path that led to a decade I will never forget.  Two decades really, since I do still run whitewater, I just do it for fun instead of money now.  They actually helped me, even though that was not their intention at all.  And the irony in that makes me smile.
~ Shelley Collett

Former river guide, current river-boarder and SCUBA instructor

Author’s note: This is told from my point of view looking back 20 years. While I maintain that I have not purposefully exaggerated anything in this, I recognize that others around me at the time could see or remember things differently.  I accept that. But this is what I experienced, these are my memories and feelings as I remember them.

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7 responses to “Little Woman in Big Whitewater

  1. Shelly, thanks for sharing. I agree with so much of what you say and I do truly wish there were more women guiding today. I would like to share a bit of my viewpoint as well. I have similar recollections of my training here in Maine. I felt singled out, that they were trying to make me fail. I made it through, like you. Many years have passed and I have trained many new guides since. I LOVE this part of my job here, except when I am being accused of being sexist in my training. Guide training is HARD. It is meant to be. There is a certain minimum expectation of skill and ability to think under pressure that MUST be present at various points throughout training. We (as a company and as trainers) have a responsibility to our guests to put the best people we can in the back of a boat. I have been told in recent years (by female guides) that I need to go easier on the girls, that the boys just have it easier to begin with. Just because they’re boys. BULL! You either come with the right mindset and attitude or you don’t. You either learn them or you don’t. You learn the skills or you don’t. Some people finish training and go on to be guides. Some don’t. Some people come back to do training all over again. Most don’t. I DO NOT enjoy being one of the people who decides who gets their license. But it is part of my responsibility to pass on as much as I have to offer them as I am able. Some of them get it, some don’t. I DO NOT enjoy being the guy who tells someone they’re not getting it and hearing in response “But I want it soooo bad!” I want to see everyone succeed but, the reality is that some won’t. I don’t like it, it’s just the way it is.
    Hope you’re having a great summer!

    mtrainfeelings when I trained here in Maine.

    • Thank you so much, Mathew, for your thoughts and viewpoint on this issue. Gender and outdoor sports is a hot topic with many sides–all of which can be made to feel excluded from the other sides. It’s good to see that people out there look at the skill of the guide; keep on what you’re doing. Our love of the river unites us, and that’s what matters.

    • I completely understand, Matthew. I don’t think that a trainer of any kind should make it easier for a woman. But I also don’t think they should deliberately make it harder – which is what I experienced. From the sounds of it, you’ve encountered some women who don’t actually think women are capable of performing the same skills as men at all, and those kind of people irk me to no end. For the record, I’m completely opposed to the military gender specific requirements making it easier for women. I find it incredibly insulting. And I don’t think any other trainers – whitewater or otherwise – should do anything remotely similar. Some people certainly cry sexism (and other ‘isms’) when that’s just not the case at all, and it sounds like you’ve had to deal with that. And for that I am sorry. Sounds like you have the right attitude though!

  2. You go girl!!!
    I have stuck it out and grown to be in the top female groups of guides on my home river and was finally given the role of trip leader above males that have been there longer. I worked my tail off and swam my heart out my first year, but have learned so much from those swims that I don’t think I’d be where I am today without those swims.
    I’m glad that things have changed for the better over the years! Thanks for paving the way!
    SYOTR and paddle safe!
    -mr

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  5. Thirty years ago I trained on the new and gauley with a company that had a number of women guides and didn’t believe in trashing their trainees of either gender. Of the seven of us destined to be full time guides two were women. We had exactly one swimmer throughout training. We never intentionally swam our guests. In fact half way through the season I was chastised because I had had over twenty swimmers in my fifty trips and that was considered way too high. We had two female river managers in the decade before you trained and my principal trainer when I trained on the upper Yough was a woman. We offered an all female overnight trip sold just to women with not just women guides but bus and truck drivers as well.
    I recognize that women guides face extra challenges at times but have also known many high quality women guides in my three decades guiding including many who started many years before me. The first park service river rangers were three women who all predated me as guides. Some companies were slower to embrace gender equity than others, no question, but my experience has been that the vast majority of my male guide brethren cherish the women who embrace the guide lifestyle and defend their right to guide every bit as fiercely as women guides do.

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