A Little Woman in Big Whitewater

This was also posted in a friend’s online magazine: Earthy Journalist and  a shortened version posted on Success Freaks.

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. 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 heavily dominated by men. This in itself wasn’t the least bit concerning since my desire to guide had nothing at all to do with the male to female ratio. What was concerning, as I soon came to find out, was the blatant sexism displayed by some male guides, trainers, and company owners. But little did they know that 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.

From my training days, New River

 

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, 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 on me. Sleep is overrated, right?

There were, if I remember correctly, myself and one other woman training to guide at that company at that time out of well over two dozen trainees initially. The other gal didn’t have her heart in it., so I find it difficult to count her seriously. 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 again. 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.

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 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) but the facts are the facts. I had to face that fear head on a few times. And one memorable time in particular was when 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 of probably a few seconds. Time passes a little differently when you’re going round and round in a bus-sized washing machine.

I remember being exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically by the time we got to the take-out and I was confronted by our trainer. The guys with me were all chuckling  and pretty much ignoring me. Mr Trainer came up sharing a smirk on his face not unlike the other guys’ 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 absolutely not ready to do it again and was starting 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. He went over to the other 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. And 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. Translation: You don’t have a penis, so you don’t have what it takes. It didn’t matter what I did, that was going to be his answer all along. And I remember being 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. I wished they would have just been honest from the beginning and I wouldn’t have wasted my time.

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. Well, most of them didn’t try to coddle, there were some who did but that’s okay. 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.

Cutting it close at Pillow Rock, Upper Gauley

 

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 encounter much 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.

Once, I had a guy make it very clear he didn’t trust my skills as a guide and sat in the back of the raft with me. While in that position, it’s very easy to turn the boat and that’s exactly what he kept doing. Subtle things at first, like screwing me up while I was j-stroking and trying to keep us in a current in the flat water. Of course, all this did was result in him and his group having to paddle more. But later on in the bigger rapids, he resorted to just outright turning the boat in the middle of rapids because he didn’t think we were turned the right way. Politely I asked him to stop this behavior, and even told his friends that it was his actions that were making us miss some of the better waves on the river and putting us all in danger. He refused to stop. After the next rapid he screwed us up in, I signaled to one of the other guides that I had already talked to about this at lunch. As she paddled closer to the raft, I took his paddle out of his hand and threw it to her and then told everyone else in my raft that they were not to give him their paddles. Mr. Know-it-all was going to sit in the floor and not be allowed to participate any longer. A round of applause was given and that was the end of that.

But one of the best examples was an extreme trip on the Upper Gauley. These were trips done in smaller, easier-to-flip rafts. As soon as my crew of self-declared military guys saw they had a female guide, the shit 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 were so fucking stupid to 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. Absolutely 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. Off down the river we went. 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.  They 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.”

Surprise, New River

 

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.

Years after going to the new company, while at the post office I ran into Mr. Sexist Trainer dude 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 proven myself and won.

Riverboarding at Pillow Rock, 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.

 

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.