The searing July sun had evaporated most of the river water from our skin, making a stop at the car to towel off unnecessary. Even so, my friend, Nicole, and I walked over to my Subaru so we could throw tank dresses on over our bikinis. Then we joined our fellow white-water rafters at the on-site outdoor cantina. We ordered margaritas and tacos and relived our day on the Arkansas River.
We’d just sat down when the guides, having stowed all of the rafting gear, began to trickle in. Guests, still adrenalized from having negotiated rapids the size of school buses, doled out cash tips and bought beers for their respective boatmen. The captain of our raft, clad only in swim trunks, found his way to the open seats at our table, IPA in hand. Two more male guides followed. A group of twentysomething female guests stared after them from the bar. Partway through the afternoon, I noted that we were the only ones who’d pulled clothes on over our bathing suits. “We’re also the only ones over 40,” Nicole said with a smile.
More from our June 2017 Issue
The conversation around our picnic table ebbed and flowed from serious to silly to occasionally risqué. It was a good time, and Nicole and I stuck around longer than we’d planned. By dusk, I noticed that Nicole and our guide, who turned out to be closer to our age than we’d thought, had taken a liking to each other. As the night wore on, Nicole and Captain Boatman got just a bit flirty. It wasn’t excessive, but hanging heavily in the 80-degree air was the distinct potential for something that tiptoed beyond the typical guide-customer relationship into a gray area many outfitters simply don’t see fit to regulate.
There’s no real harm in a little coquetry between consenting adults. But the scene is illustrative of a not-so-well-kept secret about the rafting industry: that the freewheeling atmosphere combined with a bunch of bathing-suit-clad twenty- and thirtysomething adults plied with après-paddling drinks can, and often does, turn into something like a riverside version of the university Greek system. On this night, the margarita-fueled dalliances between strangers were innocent enough. That, however, has not always been the case. Seventeen months ago, the entire country became aware that the party culture so ingrained in the white-water rafting industry may have been a petri dish for much graver issues.
In September 2014, 13 women, all of whom were National Park Service employees and participants on Grand Canyon trips conducted by the NPS for the purposes of scientific research, education, and shoreline/trail maintenance, filed a complaint with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. The women alleged that Grand Canyon River District supervisors, boatmen, and other employees were guilty of offenses such as sexual propositioning, unwanted touching, and rape.
Jewell launched an investigation, and the resulting report, released on January 12, 2016, was stunning in its findings. It not only confirmed the allegations but also identified 22 additional people—some of whom were NPS employees; others were from outside volunteer organizations, educational programs, and commercial contractors—who’d experienced or witnessed sexual harassment and/or a hostile work environment in the Grand Canyon River District. Furthermore, the report stated that supervisors had been failing to address complaints, and even retaliating against those filing grievances, for 15 years.
Shortly thereafter, Grand Canyon National Park’s superintendent, David Uberuaga, dissolved the offending district and outsourced river trips to commercial outfitters. It was too little, too late. By June, Uberuaga himself had retired amid accusations that his failure to respond to the complaints was part of a systemic problem of sexual abuse. Meanwhile, female river guides across the United States came forward on social media and in newspaper and magazine articles to say the situation was just as bad for women in the commercial sector.
The report should’ve served as a foghorn for rafting communities across the country—and for Colorado’s in particular. As the most popular white-water rafting destination in the nation, Colorado’s 19 runnable rivers hosted about half a million visitors in 2016. Forty percent chose to run the iconic rapids of the Arkansas River, which is the most rafted waterway in the country. Interacting with those approximately 500,000 rafters were 185 outfitters with about 1,400 employees. If what outspoken female guides have said about their treatment at commercial rafting companies across America is true, then Colorado could be a prime incubator for some, or all, of the illicit behaviors documented in the Grand Canyon River District report. According to Elisha McArthur, a Salida resident and 18-year river guide, that possibility is not a stretch. “Guides put on their game faces for customers,” she says. “It’s absolutely happening here. You’re just not seeing it.”
As a child who frequently roamed the black-rock canyons of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, McArthur couldn’t have imagined she’d one day feel unwelcome on the river. Her parents were recreational boaters, with a fleet of rafts and kayaks, and she and her brother grew up with paddles in hand. Unlike most school-age kids, who aspire to be doctors, teachers, or astronauts, McArthur always wanted to be a river guide. She started training at age 15 and ran her first commercial trip on the Rio Grande in 1999, at the age of 18. She was invited to paddle in Colorado, on the Arkansas, in 2007, after two men based in the Centennial State purchased the company for which she’d been guiding on the Salt River in Arizona. The chance to ply the Ark was a career-boosting opportunity, but by that time, McArthur was under no illusions about how difficult it was to make it as a female river guide.
McArthur had been a senior guide on the Salt—acting as trip leader and getting the plum assignments for the more remote sections of the river—for four seasons, but when Blue Sky Whitewater was purchased, she learned just how deep sexism can run in her industry. One of the new owners, a man in his mid-30s named Wiley Ledwith, didn’t believe she had the strength or the skill to run a raft, she says. He let her know this in a not particularly subtle way each morning: McArthur would arrive at work to find that her name had literally been wiped off the schedule. (Ledwith, who now owns Independent Whitewater in Salida, recalls the situation, but disagrees with McArthur’s interpretation: “It wasn’t that she was a woman. That didn’t have anything to do with it,” he says. “She needed to prove, just like any other guide, that she was worthy.”) Ledwith’s business partner, James Wilkes, had guided with McArthur before and did trust her abilities; he would circumvent his associate and put McArthur’s name back on the board. “It went back and forth like that for a while,” McArthur says. “Eventually, Wiley realized I was a good guide. To his credit, at the end of the season, he apologized and invited me to come work for him on the Ark.”
Having to prove themselves repeatedly—while their male counterparts’ abilities are often taken for granted—is a common refrain among female boat captains. McArthur attributes that environment to the mistaken assumption that a man’s greater total muscle mass is what enables him to run a river safely. In fact, seasoned guides know that negotiating rapids is more about finesse and reading the currents. The only brute-force requirement in river guiding is carrying rafts, which weigh about 200 pounds, and hoisting them onto trailers for transport to and from the river. But those chores are typically done by at least two guides per raft, if not four.
Even the emergency skill of being able to quickly flip a capsized raft in the water is done using the laws of physics—attaching a long rope to one end of the raft for leverage—not sheer strength. “There is nothing in river guiding that can’t be accomplished just as well by a five-foot, 100-pound woman as by a six-foot, 200-pound man,” McArthur says. A savvy veteran today, McArthur says if she’s learned anything over the years, it’s that she must educate her male cohorts about her capabilities—and that it’s more effective to show rather than tell. It’s a tiresome but persuasive method that, in her experience, alleviates misperceptions about a woman’s physical ability to do the job.
The more insidious, and vastly more difficult to fix, problem is what McArthur calls Colorado’s “cowboy culture.” The towns surrounding the Arkansas River, including Salida and Buena Vista, weren’t always the funky little tourism troves they are becoming today. They originally were mining towns located on the railroad lines; more recently, they’ve been agricultural hubs. “The guys who grew up here come from very conservative, good ol’ boy, redneck families,” McArthur says. “And now they own our river guiding companies.”
She argues that misogyny is so deep-seated in certain parts of rural Colorado that people—both men and women—don’t recognize it. “So many people don’t even realize what sexual harassment is,” she says. “I believe there’s a set of men that doesn’t understand that I don’t want to be told ‘you look hot in that dress’ when I’m leaving the river for the day. They don’t know the way they’re interacting with us is actually harassment.”
Another possible contributor to the same problem is the so-called college culture in rafting—a setting where not everyone is (or behaves like) a responsible adult. “Probably 60 percent or more of river guides here are college kids,” says Ben Sack, general manager at Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Cañon City. In other words, the rafting industry is full of naive, potentially randy twentysomethings who, for reasons that may not actually be chauvinistic, sometimes aren’t thinking about how they treat each other or their clients.
But, of course, they should be—and it’s the responsibility of the outfitters’ managements to make sure every supervisor and every guide does. Danielle S. Urban, an attorney at Denver’s FisherPhillips, a firm that focuses on labor and employment law, says education is critical in reducing sexual harassment in the workplace and that businesses must start by clearly defining harassment for all employees. “The best anti-harassment policies will include multiple examples,” Urban says, “and ideally provide some sort of training session where managers can verbally walk employees through it.”
Given the U.S. Department of the Interior’s troubling report about behavior on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, it may come as no surprise that there’s rarely any sexual harassment training—or even a sexual harassment policy in the employee handbook—for river guides in Colorado. And, indeed, the last thing McArthur was thinking about on the river was her civil rights; she was just trying to survive. In between demonstrating to her male comrades that she could, in fact, pilot a raft with two X chromosomes, McArthur employed other tactics to try to fit in. Some stratagems were more successful than others. Trying to be one of the guys came somewhat naturally, having grown up with an older brother. “If they told gross jokes, I would tell grosser ones,” McArthur says. “If we were going to sit around the campfire and drink whiskey, I was going to be the last man standing.”
Although today she understands she was enabling their bad behaviors, she believes her efforts to fit in kept her male colleagues from making her professional life a misery—a reality she witnessed many times when female guides refused to participate in the frat-boy culture or dared to speak out against it. McArthur relates the story of a female guide friend who, while working in Wyoming, got a male colleague fired when she reported that he’d stood over her while she was peeing and asked her if her nipples were pink or brown. “Talking to her boss about it,” McArthur says, “only made the situation worse. The next day the guys covered the inside of the van with inappropriate photos and began referring to her as the ‘dirty feminist.’ Hearing her story put my experiences in perspective. I’ve been through some shit, but nothing like that.”
Another of McArthur’s coping mechanisms was to find a big- brother figure, a protective male friend and confidant on the staff. Sometimes this tactic worked, like when her “big brother” chastised the company’s owner for asking McArthur to load the boats when she was pregnant. Other times it backfired, like the night her protector turned aggressor leaned over to her to say, “Hey, Lish, when are you gonna ditch that red beard of yours [referring to her then husband] and come take a roll in the hay with me?”
As different as those early years were when compared with today’s more regulated rafting industry, one thing has remained constant: It’s a male-dominated business.
Now in her 10th year of guiding in Salida, McArthur has held the post of head boatman for two different outfitters. In 2016, she began working as a river guide instructor for the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in Buena Vista. At age 34, and with her level of experience, McArthur believes she gets more respect these days. But she’s hesitant to attribute that to a positive cultural shift. Instead, she cites an article about Hillary Clinton in the Atlantic that suggested women in positions of power tend to be well respected, and that people generally like women’s leadership styles. But for women still actively seeking to advance in their careers, the opposite is true. They’re despised. “That’s how it was for me,” McArthur says. “Now, people listen to me and seek out my counsel, but it was really fucking hard to get here. I had to work twice as hard for twice as long to get even half the respect.”
It’s a relatively quiet summer Saturday at Nathrop-based Dvorak Expeditions. Most of the company’s 21 guides are out on multiday trips. Dvorak, which was Colorado’s first licensed river outfitter, runs six different Colorado waterways. The handful of guides on-site today are busy prepping the food and gear that needs to go out on Sunday for a three-day trip on the Gunnison.
Jaci Dvorak, 68, and I sit side by side on her living room couch; the hot sun filters through the windows. It’s the height of the Colorado rafting season, and the local rivers are running high. The Dvoraks’ sprawling ranch house, located 12 miles from Salida, doubles as Dvorak Expeditions’ headquarters. Outside the large picture window, I get glimpses of three junior guides, two men and a woman, washing a Chevy Suburban, which just came off duty from transporting guests to and from the Numbers, a Class IV-plus section of the Arkansas.
Over tall glasses of ice water, Dvorak tells me she first started running rivers by canoe and kayak, mostly in New Zealand and Australia, and started white-water rafting in 1979, when she and her husband, Bill, took over Partners River Program (which later became Dvorak Expeditions) in Denver. Back then, as Dvorak tells it, Colorado’s rivers were rowdier and less rule-abiding than they are today. There was no such thing as a river outfitter license until 1984, when Dvorak Expeditions was issued the first one by the state. Clothing, even bathing suits, was optional. Beer was mandatory. “Those were wild and crazy times,” Dvorak says.
As different as those early years were when compared with today’s more regulated rafting industry, one thing has remained constant: It’s a male-dominated business. In fact, the outdoor recreation sector as a whole—hunting, fishing, rock climbing, mountaineering, surfing, backcountry skiing, ultrarunning, and scuba diving—has long experienced a dearth of women. To wit: 89 percent of guides certified by the American Mountain Guides Association are men. American ski patrol staffs are 78 percent male, according to the National Ski Patrol registry. Colorado’s Office of Outdoor Recreation is run by a man, and 22 of the 31 members of his advisory board are men. And despite the recent popularity of marketing women-specific gear, it’s still challenging to find certain items—like fly-fishing waders—in women’s sizes.
All of this can serve as a deterrent to women getting involved in outdoor pursuits, either recreationally or professionally. “The problem with any arena that is heavily male-dominated is that there’s an implicit, and sometimes explicit, understanding that women have to do it the same way men do it,” says Niki Koubourlis, founder and CEO of Denver-based Bold Betties, a 26,000-member social group that promotes outdoor adventure for women, “and if they can’t or don’t want to do it that way, then forget it.” Koubourlis cites an article from the October 2015 issue of Backpacker for which the publication surveyed more than 3,000 women and found that females are four times as likely as men to be introduced to backpacking by a spouse or significant other. That scenario can quickly morph from enjoyable at the trailhead to agonizing partway down the path, when his desire to speed-hike conflicts with her ability to do so comfortably with 25 pounds on her back. Koubourlis has found success with Bold Betties by creating an environment in which women feel safe to “do it their way” in the outdoors, which means recreating less competitively and with less of a focus on fitness or miles logged or fastest known times. It also means more socializing and bonding happens while, say, roping up at the crag. Says Koubourlis: “Women have different objectives in the outdoors.”
Much like everyone else working to make a living off the river in the early 1980s, Dvorak Expeditions didn’t necessarily intend to increase the number of women in the local industry—or even to make the job more female-friendly. But with Jaci Dvorak at the helm, the company tilted that way naturally, and Patti Banks (née Lockwood), a Dvorak employee, became the first female head guide on the Arkansas in 1986. Years later, between 2003 and 2006, the Dvoraks’ only daughter, Anicka, would serve as head guide as well. Even today, it’s not unusual for Dvorak Expeditions to have more women on staff than men. “Women tend to be easier to work with,” Dvorak says. “And the more females you have around, the less total testosterone you have, so the guys tend to mellow out a bit. Of course, a good balance is important.”
In light of 2016’s Grand Canyon revelations, the Dvoraks’ female-to-male-employee ratio could be seen as a wise managerial decision. But the Dvoraks believe they’ve been providing a safe and comfortable working environment for a long time. In the wake of the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas controversy in the early 1990s, the Dvoraks added a page about harassment, sexual and otherwise, to their employee manual in 1995. It was a way to protect not only their employees, but also the business itself in the event of a lawsuit. That was a sage move: According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases in the United States more than doubled between 1991 and 1996, from 6,127 to 15,342. In that same time period, awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million.
The Dvoraks hope the climate they’ve fostered over the years is healthy for women, but they’re not so naive as to think a page in a handbook will prevent lapses in judgment. As Dvorak takes me on a tour of the grounds, I get a good look at the very cozy guide housing, which ranges from tents to small dorm rooms to school buses turned tiny houses to a surprisingly well-constructed tree house. When I ask about the tight accommodations, Dvorak admits there are often seasonal romances, partner-switching midway through the summer, and occasional teary breakups. “As for living quarters,” Dvorak says, “we have found that everyone seems to find space and privacy in spite of the As The Boathouse Turns scenarios that occur.”
On my way out, I meet Nate Pedersen, Dvorak Expeditions’ head guide this season, who has just returned from leading a half-day trip. We briefly discuss what happened in the Grand Canyon. He tells me he’s not been witness to any sexual harassment at Dvorak during his five-year tenure, but he admits there is sexual tension on and off the river. “Everyone’s young,” he says, “and it’s hot out there.”
Sexual tension is one thing; sexual harassment is quite another. And so far, Colorado outfitters, including Dvorak Expeditions, have avoided major scandals. Stew Pappenfort, a senior ranger with the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), the department within Colorado Parks and Wildlife that oversees parts of the Arkansas River, says that, since its inception in 1989, his agency has never dealt with a sexual harassment complaint. He credits that clean-nosedness to the fact that multiday river trips—where a sense of isolation mixed with river-chilled beers can sometimes lead to everything from mild flirtation to microaggressions to outright harassment—are rarer on Colorado’s “urban-style” rivers, particularly the Arkansas, which have put-ins and take-outs in close proximity to towns. David Costlow, the executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, says the CROA, which has been around since the late 1980s, has similarly avoided the serious allegations that were the undoing of the Grand Canyon River District. He says many people locally seem to believe what happened in the Grand Canyon was a “government agency gone awry” and not something that should raise a red flag within the commercial river rafting industry.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment. Denver labor and employment attorney Urban argues that just because there hasn’t been a lawsuit doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue in Colorado. It may simply mean managers haven’t seen or been alerted to it—or that they’ve chosen to look the other way. “It’s just a matter of time before a woman files a formal sexual harassment complaint against a river outfitter, and then another woman comes forward and says, ‘Yep, it happened to me too,’ and suddenly the entire industry wakes up to the fact that this is a serious problem,” Urban says. “Sometimes litigation is the only way to force change.”
In Kat Hagan’s three seasons of river guiding, most recently with Independent Whitewater on the Arkansas River in 2016, she says she’s almost certain she’s never worked for a company with a sexual harassment policy. She has, however, experienced lewd hand gestures, off-color remarks, and the frustration of having her male colleagues get first dibs on the bigger, more exciting stretches of white water. For the most part, she’s learned to not let those things bother her, because she’s found that getting upset about them negatively affects her work and, most frustrating, doesn’t change anything.
Change, however, is on the minds of those at the America Outdoors Association (AOA), a trade organization devoted to best practices in the river guiding industry. On January 9, 2017, the AOA released a first-of-its-kind form entitled “Anti-Harassment Policy and Reporting Requirements.” The form, available for download on the AOA website, was designed to become a part of member outfitters’ employee manuals. Its 600 members (75 in Colorado) were notified about the new three-page document in the organization’s electronic newsletter on February 2.
Although the AOA has held seminars on the topic at its annual conference, including training and tools to combat sexual and other types of harassment in the workplace, this is the first standard form it’s ever issued. The document was created in direct response to the situation in the Grand Canyon River District, says executive director Julie Kahlfeldt, “to ensure our members were provided with the best possible resources.”
The communiqué goes beyond the obvious iterations of sexual harassment, such as physical touching and verbal solicitation, to include leering, making sexual gestures, and creating (or circulating) sexually suggestive emails, texts, and social media posts. It also clearly states that being able to handle sexual jokes is not part of a guide’s job description and that to explicitly or implicitly imply otherwise is also considered sexual harassment. The form does not mention gender discrimination issues common to the industry. Situations such as men getting assigned to the most sought-after sections of river over their female colleagues would, in theory, be covered by the outfitter’s anti-discrimination policy, which should comply with the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act prohibiting bias in the workplace based on race, color, disability, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, religion, creed, and age, among other things.
The form is an encouraging development; for it to have an impact, though, river outfitters in Colorado must actually promote, use, and enforce it. That would be a change from the status quo. The state doesn’t require an outfitter to have a sexual harassment policy to obtain a river permit. Companies that do have one have instituted it of their own volition, and they are in the minority. One Colorado outfitter, who requested anonymity when speaking about why he didn’t have a policy in place, said he’d never really thought about it. Another said that sexual harassment had never been a problem. Yet another reported that the company hadn’t updated its employee manual—but probably needed to.
Not even the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, which oversees the headwaters of the Arkansas River—a significant revenue driver for tourism in the state of Colorado—requires the companies it allows on its white water to have a sexual harassment policy. Pappenfort, AHRA’s senior ranger, confirms this fact but points out that his agency does include its own clause on “professional conduct” on page 13 of the Special Use Agreement, which outfitters must sign. Although it doesn’t mention sexual harassment specifically—the language defines unprofessional conduct as “physical or verbal abuse”—it could be interpreted to imply it. Attorney Urban says that’s probably not good enough to defend an outfitter in court. “We tell all of our employers that you don’t need a bunch of policies,” she says, “but you definitely need an anti-harassment policy, and you need to put it in the first couple of pages, and you need to let everybody know that this is a big deal.”
To Hagan, the fledgling female guide, clauses and forms can’t hurt—but significant positive change will only come from welcoming more women into the industry. And she believes Colorado is a place where that could happen. On her previous rafting team in New Mexico, she was the only woman. With Independent Whitewater in Salida last season, she worked with three senior female guides and a pair of female apprentice guides. The ratio was approximately 2:3, women to men. “The female camaraderie in Colorado is super cool,” Hagan says. “And it definitely helps—females in numbers help keep sexual harassment going down.”
There is safety in numbers, particularly in places like the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC)—an outfitter and paddling school known in the community for being female-friendly—where Elisha McArthur is an instructor. There, half of RMOC’s river guide instructors are female, and of the 11 raft guides RMOC employed last season, five were women. Owner Brandon Slate, a 12-year veteran guide, as well as a kayaking and SUP instructor, took over the company in 2010. He admits he doesn’t have a sexual harassment policy, but as a believer in leadership by example, Slate hires female instructors and guides and says he “does everything” he can to retain them. He also uses an objective pay scale based on a guide’s certification level and number of seasons with the company, which is made clear in the employee manual. Furthermore, he assigns guides to run particular stretches of river using the same criteria: The boatmen and -women with the highest certifications and most years with the company, regardless of chromosomal makeup, get put on the most challenging sections of river.
While any labor and employment attorney would say Slate needs a sexual harassment policy, the fact that he’s providing what women say is a comfortable working environment may be almost as important. Because, as Slate and a host of others have pointed out, misogyny and sexual harassment aren’t restricted to those who own and work for river outfitters. In many instances, guiding services must protect their employees from one of the biggest sources of sexism on the river: the customer.
The story is a common one in river guiding. It’s a sunny summer day on the water. Guests and guides are standing on the beach, squinting at the head boatman as he goes through the safety talk. He cracks a few jokes during his demonstration, and there’s a fair amount of nervous giggling from the crowd. At the end of the orientation, the head boatman assigns guests to guides by calling out names and pointing to rafts. “Hardy, Kline, Rhinehart, you’re all with Tim! Crawfords and Klouses, you’re with Matt! Tucker family, you’re with Jessica!”
But Mr. Tucker doesn’t want to go with Jessica. He doesn’t follow the others to her raft. Instead, he crosses his arms, puffs up his chest, and says something like, How is that little girl going to handle that big raft? This exact storyline was playing out in the 1980s, when Jaci Dvorak started guiding for Dvorak Expeditions, and in the 2000s, when Elisha McArthur began her guiding career. It happened to Kate Wallace, a 20-plus-year guide with A Wanderlust Adventure on the Poudre River, early in her career. And it will happen again (and again) on rivers in Colorado this summer.
Outfitters would be smart to support their guides. In the case of Kate Wallace, her head boatman gave the client an ultimatum: Kate’s a great guide. You can go with her or not go at all. If the staff in this hypothetical scenario, however, moved the Tucker family from Jessica’s boat to a male guide’s raft, the outfitter could have a serious problem, according to Urban, the labor and employment attorney. “If you pander to that family—if you say, ‘OK, we’re going to move you to Joe’s raft’—that’s actionable discrimination,” Urban says.
Of course, river guiding isn’t the only industry accused of mistreating its female employees. Other industries, like the technology sector, have attempted to deal with the harassment/discrimination issue by trying to increase the number of women in their ranks. Organizations like the National Center for Women & Information Technology, founded in Boulder in 2004, and Women Who Startup, which launched in Denver in 2013, specifically work to increase gender diversity within their industries.
Within the outdoor sector, Boulder-based Camber Outdoors, founded in 1996, works with brands like Trek, Burton, K2, Patagonia, and REI to attract, retain, and advance women in the workplace. But there doesn’t appear to be a strong voice advocating for women who want to guide for a living. “Gender diversity doesn’t just happen,” says Lizelle van Vuuren, CEO and founder of Women Who Startup. “It takes an immense amount of energy and work to get women to start showing up, especially in places where historically they may have felt intimidated or disrespected.”
Case in point: In 1986, there was one female head boatman on the Arkansas River. Thirty years later, even with 38 outfitters running the Ark, you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of female head boatmen.
Three decades from now, McArthur hopes the river guiding industry will be different. She wants to see a lower attrition rate among female guides and more women in leadership roles in the industry. She craves a higher level of professionalism in river guiding overall, which, she believes, would elevate the gig from a summer job for the moderately unemployable to a respectable career for avid outdoorsmen and -women. McArthur also envisions every river guide being trained to the level of American Canoeing Association certification, the most demanding in the United States, and for guide training to include soft skills like communication.
But she readily admits she must do more than try to adapt to the current reality by using futile coping mechanisms like telling off-color jokes—she has to be part of the change. Some of McArthur’s drive to force a transformation comes from the fact that her nine-year-old daughter, Charlotte, already has more than 1,500 river miles on her resumé. Charlotte could very well follow her mother’s career path. “I would encourage her 100 percent, but I would do that for whatever field she was passionate about going into,” McArthur says. “If she does decide to run rivers in Colorado, I want to know I did what I could to create an environment where she can be confident in her skills and in her skin.”
With that in mind, McArthur, along with her husband, a kayak instructor, launched Canyon River Instruction (CRI) in March. The company will offer river guiding instruction for small groups and individuals in addition to running outfitters’ preseason guide-training programs. McArthur hopes having expert instructors not employed by the outfitters will help eliminate some of the “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality as well as any outdated practices that can get handed down from one generation to the next. For example, CRI will train male guides to use finesse over muscle from the beginning. And, as McArthur learned while working for Slate at RMOC, having a female trainer exposes wannabe guides to women’s abilities early on.
Beyond that, McArthur has an even more personal agenda with CRI. She plans to offer what she believes will be the first women-only rafting clinics in Colorado, for both professional guides who want to supplement their educations and for local river enthusiasts who want to improve their competencies on the water. McArthur anticipates these group sessions will unfold on the Arkansas. Beyond the eyes of any of their male colleagues, women will gather to practice skills, like climbing back into a raft midriver—a notoriously tricky move for women, who have a lower center of gravity than men. “I spent so long trying to do it their way,” she says of the male-dominated river guiding industry and its reluctance to teach a variety of techniques, some of which might work better for female guides. “I’ve finally realized that my way is not only better for me, but it’s also safer. For everyone.”
The wisdom was hard-earned. There’s a sense that, for McArthur, sharing that wisdom—and encouraging women to do things their own way—is an atonement of sorts. It doesn’t undo all the times she played along with her male co-workers’ sexist shenanigans, but it encourages a new mindset and opens a different path for women in the river guiding industry. And that might be exactly what Colorado needs.