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Sexism on the River

I am a river runner. From way back. My father got me started, in canoes first. When I was very small he would put me in the bow of the canoe, tell me to paddle, and surf the canoe in river waves. We used to camp by creeks up on the plateau, and he'd let us take the insulite pads that we slept on and go hiking up the stream to float back down on the thin beige mats. I got my first kayak when I was 11. It was a cut-down Mark 4. I was already too big for it, or at least, it was uncomfortable and I always got fiberglass in my arms and legs when I used it. I only used it a few times, once when I got hypothermic on the Nantahala and had to be plowed to shore by my dad's canoe, and once when I got tangled in vines on the Green and completely panicked. I didn't paddle for several years recovering from these experiences.

In high school I got interested in paddling again, perhaps when my dad got me a kayak that fit me better. It was an 11' Noah Pulsar, the precursor of the 10 foot long Jeti which was the best known first creek boat. I finally learned how to roll a kayak in that boat, and started going to trips with the East Tennessee Whitewater Club. The ETWC was the first whitewater club in the southeast, which is surprising considering how amenable the climate and flows are to boating.

When I went away to college I joined the University of Tennessee Canoe and Hiking Club which became my niche within the giant school. The club had a basement full of outdoor equipment called "the hole" where I got something different to paddle whenever I wanted. There were many exciting club trips, including the fall excursion down to the Chattooga for ETSGTAB and paddling. ETSGTAB stands for End of The Season Get Together And Bash, and involves the traditional Halloween costume party. The water was always low in the fall, but the river is still magical. Later I was to spend many years guiding the Wild and Scenic Chattooga, and knowing her many moods. We called her the Mother River and to me, she still is. There's a pagan religiousity that is born of knowing the power of a river.

My college graduation year was, I believe, also the year of the first Gauley festival, which I went to. I had already been working for a river company, but in the year after I graduated I switched to "river staff" and trained in the early spring high water to guide the Chattooga and teach kayaking and canoeing. My ACA certification classes to teach whitewater boating were taught by Chris Spelius and Dave Moccia, two utter characters and demanding teachers. Unfortunately my kayak certification class was full of fellows who weren't super strong paddlers. And Chris took us on a class IV section of river (Jared's Knee on the Tellico) for our welcome paddle. I loved it, but Spe got in trouble for it. He seemed to enjoy getting in trouble. He allowed the river to sort us out. The river is anything but sexist.

This post was really provoked by this woman's story about facing sexism in her quest to become a guide. Perhaps because of the company I learned to guide with (the NOC), or my prior river skills, I never suffered sexism from my guide trainers or bosses. In fact, many of them were already women, though I know there weren't many women guiding in West Virginia, or on the Colorado, in the 1980's. I remember when one of my guide friends from the NOC went out to train in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. She complained bitterly about the good old boy system by which guide politics operates there. It still does, even now that women are a goodly fraction of the guides there.

The women in the post linked above, Shelley is her name, spent her first season training in WV with a bunch of guys that didn't like having women around (my guess), and did not respect her gumption. She got a lot of rough whitewater experience as they tried to beat the desire to guide out of her. She never tells exactly why she wanted so badly to guide, but I have seen it before. I wasn't like that. I wasn't at all sure I wanted to guide. I got into it because I wanted to teach kayaking, and in the NOC system you had to guide to get in as a K1 instructor.

When I was a guide trainer, I would not release a guide to work until I believed that they had sufficient skills to have generally good lines, and thus avoid injuring or killing their customers or themselves. Simultaneously they had to have adequate communication and people skills to assist the people going rafting. Many times I told a trainee that they weren't there yet, and gave them something new to work on. Quite a few trainees would argue with me, telling me that they were ready. To be a decent guide, you have to be ready internally and externally. Internal readiness comes before external for some.

When I started river guiding on the Chattooga, I fell in love with her, and the people I was with. It took some pressure to get me to go to other rivers. My company's policy was that guides had to get "checked out" on several rivers so as to be flexible for shifts in bookings. Initially I flat out refused to leave the Chattooga, and told them I'd quit and work for another company if they tried to force me. Eventually I went willingly, but I damn near got fired. It was good for us guides to go to a new river sometimes, just to take a break from the river where we were. It was really nice to go from heaving rubber down the Chattooga at low water in the fall to a dam release flow on the Ocoee. By the end of my stint guiding in the south I was a trip leader on every river we did.

This brings me back around to sexism. The trip leader gives the "trip talk" to tell the rafting customers what to expect, and how to protect themselves, and how to perform, on a whitewater river trip. These talks vary a great deal. When I was "just a guide" on a trip, and someone else gave the TL talk, the customers would, in general, choose the male guides if given a choice. My boyfriend at the time had great muscles, a tan and a jawline, and they totally went for him. Out of seven guides, I was often the only female. When the crews chose their guides, I'd be the last guide standing there without a crew, and there'd be a crew of southerners over there scared to go with me. They went with the woman because they had no choice. We'd always style it on the river, and make friends too, by the end of the run.

But when I was the trip leader, and I gave the talk, every single rafting crew wanted to go with me. Then they could know that I was competent just by my ability to speak about rafting and answer safety questions. My understanding of this is that the basis of sexism in wilderness/outdoor pursuits is a fear that women will be incompetent, on top of the obvious difference in size and strength. At least in the south this could be true.

For the most part, even when I had crews of men who were obviously loathe to take orders from a woman, they did simply stuff it and do as they were told. The most disobedient men I have ever taken rafting have been my father and my boyfriend. Which I suppose ought to tell me something.

I did sometimes set up my unruly customers for a little extra whitewater excitement. I used to systematically clear out my raft at Cat's Pajama's, but it did it in a way that avoided injury. It is possible to hurt people badly when wrecking a raft. There are more places on the New and Gauley to "swim your customers" than there are on the Chattooga. For the most part, I worked to keep my customers in the boat and relatively safe, even if they were sexist pigs.

My specialty became taking odd or exceptional crews. I liked to work with people who were very afraid. I also enjoyed taking handicapped crews, and foreign crews with language barriers. I had one morbidly obese man who came back to run section IV with me several years in a row. He was so heavy and strong that it took three of us on the other side of the raft to balance him.

What I learned from all this is that people are people are people. Men are people too. Morbidly obese people are people. Jews are people. People get touchy about being split into groups and labelled. And at the core people have the same needs and desires and fears regardless of all those externals. Being challenged on a wild river brings all people back down to just being people, doing the best they can. Just like the river sees them.

I'm not guiding anymore. Now I kayak for fun with a big pack of guys and sometimes another woman or two. That is because at the harder levels, there just aren't many women, and there aren't likely to be many. I used to run harder stuff than I do now. At some point my mortality became obvious to me, and the damages of injuries started healing slower, and I decided that some conservatism was warranted if I wanted to keep going for a while. So I paddle class IV and walk any rapid that scares me. I have a lot of fun. It took a while for this set of guys to accept me, but now that I have proved my skills and mental fortitude, I am just one of the guys.

I suppose there is some proving to do in any risky group endeavor. One weak link weakens the whole group. We are all going out there hoping that if we screw up, our boating buddies will be there to save us. If they are barely getting by themselves, they won't be able to. Head guides and river managers select for raft guides that are so highly skilled they they have attention and energy to spare for the rest of the trip. I would suggest that all competent river groups select for participants who are well within their comfort zone on the river stretch to be attempted.

The sad thing is that even when everyone in the group is plenty skilled for the challenge, awful things happen. This year two paddlers have died kayaking on rivers local to me. As far as I know, both were strong paddlers, and the accidents were fluky. Even when we do everything in our power to assure a successful river descent, sometimes it doesn't work out. But it will work out better if we work together seamlessly without the baggage of social constructs that denigrate each other.

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