By Dagny Deutchman
I am cross country skiing with my current supervisors outside of Idaho City. The air is cold and crisp. It is the perfect beginning to this holiday break. The trail has not been groomed recently, but my hand-me-down nordic skis from my step-grandmother are pretty solid and I navigate just fine. I love the climb, but heading downhill still makes me look like a five year old on a bunny slope without large motor control. I don’t care. I love pursuing new hobbies. This winter it’s nordic skiing. Most people I’ve talked to don’t really understand the switch from the more socially accepted and “cooler” downhill snowboarding to something with much less sparkle, like nordic skiing. I’m learning not to care what people think of how I live my life. I’m embracing what my friend AJ affectionately calls being a nor-dork.
Amid this December outing comes the question of what my next steps in life are. As someone who has rearranged their life to be a river guide for the past decade, fulfilling winter jobs have not always fallen in my lap. This year has been different. I have been able to wake up every morning excited to go to my job working on conservation in Idaho. In fact, I find that I’m a little obsessed.
Justin, my program director, asks me what my future holds. I talk about all of the balls I have been intentionally juggling for years and laughing about how I didn’t anticipate them all being in the air at the same time. I talk about applying to graduate school. I talk about joining the Board of Directors for a non-profit in my community. Lastly, I talk about how there was an opening to become the Idaho Operations Manager for a successful river company, and I was specifically asked to apply by the owner. I talk about how I am feeling apprehensive to apply for it—let alone take it.
“Why?” he and Lana, my supervisor, both ask. And there it is. My breath gets a little short. The muscles around my sternum tenses. I avoid eye contact, and my smile drops. Enter stage left, my negative self-talk.
Ah, Christ—Don’t go there. Don’t tell them you think you won’t get another job like that because you’re a woman. They’re going to think you’re one of those irrational feminists who blame their failures on their gender. Dagny, seriously, don’t bring it up. It probably isn’t a real thing anyway. It’s probably just in your head. They will probably think that if you were a more competent guide, this would not even be an issue. This could change what they think of you. This thing is probably just a phase of how you view your life right now. It’s a bizarre lens through which you view the world. It makes you less credible to even think this is a reason. An older version of you will look back and laugh at your foolishness. You will see a bigger picture later.
I am getting better at recognizing my fear response. I understand the origins of the tightness in my chest. I take a deep breath. I pause for just a moment to think about how I want to frame it. Then I face my fears. I say out loud what I am experiencing to two people that I very deeply want to like me. I remind myself that this is just another part of who I am.
“Well, for starters,” I say very slowly. “I love the Middle Fork and it’s the only place I want to be. I know people roll their eyes at Middle Fork guides, but I love it out there and can’t imagine wanting to guide full-time anywhere else. This new job would essentially be everywhere in Idaho except the Middle Fork. I feel self-conscious for being so picky about that.”
“Second, I think I could work on the Middle Fork of the Salmon as a guide for another 10 years before I would be offered a management position similar to this.”
Again. My chest tightens further. “Why is that? You’ve been out there a long time.”
Here we go. Uncomfortable perspectives.
“Honestly,” I say. “It’s because I’m a woman. Unless you work for choice companies that intentionally prioritize it, the opportunity to lead-guide or manage on the Middle Fork isn’t always encouraged or available to women. Additionally, I’ve been a freelance guide most of my career. So although I might be identified as competent, those jobs don’t get offered to me because I haven’t pledged my allegiance long enough.”
“So why not work for one of those companies?” they ask.
“Well, the hierarchy that exists in the guiding world becomes another obstacle. Even if I started at one of those companies, it would take almost that same amount of time to work my way up in seniority. Unfortunately—and for reasons that aren’t always very clear—males in the guiding world climb that hierarchy faster, transfer from one company to another more directly, and are offered these positions more quickly and more frequently than female guides.”
I recognize my negative self-talk. I try to turn it around and remind myself that it is okay for this conversation to be hard. I haven’t practiced it enough for it to be easy, yet.
Breathe, Dagny. Breathe. You’re doing great.
Despite changing my internal dialogue, I don’t feel brave for saying any of this. In fact, instead I feel like there’s a lead fetus growing in my IUD-copper-poisoned womb. Even though they meet this conversation as if it’s no big deal, and engage with me in detailed questions around it with curiosity and fascination—I can’t help but wonder if they’ll bring this conversation up later when I’m not around and laugh at me. I fear that it makes me seem young, naive, and less credible in other areas of my life. Part of me is worried they will give me less autonomy at work.
We press on. The conversation ebbs and flows depending on how steep the uphill gradient is. I stop talking entirely when I need to concentrate on the downhill. I only fall twice. We laugh about my best Mexican tattoo story. We chat about the conservation work we do at the office. We swap stories of the best snacks and food venues around Boise. I ask about what it’s like to raise teenagers. We encourage Lana’s dog, Greta, who is getting older and has bad knees, that we’re almost to the end of the trail. We drink hot cider as we dress down. On the way home I fall asleep in the car like a large baby in a car seat. We listen to the best holiday tunes we can think of as we pull into the neighborhood where we all parked our cars.
The day feels like an overall success. As I drive home from the joyful adventure, my brain magnetically pulls back to that isolated conversation. I try to pick apart what makes talking about my experience as a woman in the outdoor industry so hard. I fight to keep the self-talk around it positive. It’s a wildly imperfect metaphor, but here’s what I came up with:
My relationship to feminism is like my relationship to nordic skiing. It is my impression that most people think of nordic skiing as cumbersome, even boring. Sometimes elitist, or crazy. Many people wonder why I would go from something that is so easy and lean towards something that is primarily work. Most of my friends can’t comprehend why I am making the switch and a lot of them have even tried to talk me out of it. I am unskilled at it. I am not finessed, and I fall frequently.
But here’s the thing—I love it. I feel strong and purposeful when I do it, and I am tired of working against my own grain. Each time I go, I feel myself gaining muscle. My movements feel more fluid. I get to take more time appreciating what I love about about being on nordic skis rather than grinding through the things I don’t love so much about downhill snowboarding. I love when I find people who want to go with me, but ultimately I don’t mind spending the time by myself. Some days I am empowered by the perfectly laid tracks on the side of the trail of the people who have been here before, and other days I’m driven by breaking my own trail.
I recognize that I am comfortable trying a new skill with my body. I try to give myself the same permission to be human as I try a new skill with my mind. This winter, I’m anticipating having similar conversations around my lifestyle change to nordic skiing, as well as my newfound confidence in verbalising my feminism.
Not everybody understands a switch to nordic skiing. Not everybody understands my version of a more honest expression of my own feminism. Ultimately, not everybody has to. With both—I’ll still get where I want to go. Shuffle by shuffle. Falls pending.
Dagny Deutchman is constantly in progress. She is a dancer by spirit, an unintentional artist by design, a passionate outdoor recreationalist, and loves her home state of Idaho. If you can't find Dagny working, making, or doing-- she is probably somewhere eating good food.