A Week in the Life of a Female River Guide
A note from Emerald: When I first read this piece by Tess, a river guide I’ve long looked up to, I laughed, groaned, cringed and felt, well, seen. I’m glad she was open to sharing her words here as well, and am excited to welcome her as the first Emerald Lens guest contributor of many in the upcoming year! If you’re interested in contributing in a future month, please download contributor guidelines here.
By Tess Howell
I am a female river guide. I have been guiding in Idaho, Oregon, and Utah since 2013. I work with women who are strong, inspire each other, and lead amazing trips. I work with men who support, encourage, and empower women. I work for a company who continually discusses gender equality and harassment. But, I also work in a traditionally male-dominated environment where sexual harassment is very real and women are not always seen as equals.
This is a compilation of actual quotes that were said to female river guides. The intention of this essay is to provide some insight to everyone the extent of the degrading, disrespectful and outright bizarre things people say to female guides daily.
Running errands with male guide on day off
“What’s wrong with this picture?” - female cashier
“What do you mean?” - both female and male guide
“He should be carrying that” - female cashier, point to heavy item female guide is carrying
Driving to food buy
“You let her drive that thing?” - male, pointing at rig truck, directed to male guide
At pre-trip meeting
“Oh, YOU are our lead guide?!” - river guest
At the boat ramp
“Let me help you carry that” - male private boater, when female guide is carrying something that usually isn’t very heavy (ex: buckets, water jugs, dry bags)
Day 1: At camp, first night
“Do the women always cook the meals?” - river guest (referencing the coincidentally all female cook crew)
Day 4: On the river
“I’ve been really impressed how well you handle these big boats, you’re so tiny” - river guest
“You’re like an ant - so small, but really strong” - river guest
“You’re not as strong as ‘male guide’, but you can still handle these big boats” - river guest
“You look so strong out there rowing that big boat by yourself!” - river guest
Day 5: In the paddle boat, after a big rapid
“Wow, you sound quite angry. ‘Male Guide’ sounds much nicer when he’s paddle guiding” - female river guest
Day 6: Evening in camp
“You didn’t have to dress up for us” - male river guest, referencing the dress or skirt
Day 7: Last morning of the trip
“It’s incredible that you are so strong, yet you manage to look so feminine” - male river guest
At the guide house, reading a trip evaluation from the week before:
“We liked ‘Male Guide 1’ and ‘Male Guide 2’” - male river guest (trip had 2 male guides and 6 female guides)
This is just a glimpse into our world. We receive a barrage of comments. Some are just plain weird; some are sexist. Most of these remarks reference our bodies, making us feel judged by the way we look, dress, move and talk. We understand that often they are intended to be compliments, but they usually impact us negatively.
I wish I had the answer about how to deal with this. I wish guests weren’t surprised that a 120 lb female can row the same 18-foot gear boat as the 6’2”-male. I wish guests weren’t surprised by a female guide leading an excellent trip. It should not be a surprise to see a female excel as a river guide, to be physically capable of the job, to manage group dynamics with grace, and to do so much more than cook meals.
These comments build on each other. We are great at brushing them off. In fact, we do it so well most people don’t even know it happened or that it bothered us. Sometimes, after the 10th absurd comment of the week (or DAY) we get pushed over the edge and we have to vent - in the form of anger or tears and lack of confidence. We are not being over-emotional or too sensitive. The next time someone tells us we should “have a thick skin” or “brush it off” or “not take it personally” or that it “was supposed to be a compliment”, remember, we DO have a thick skin. And if we didn’t? We wouldn’t be the independent, strong, intelligent, capable, badass women that we all are.
It is important to remember the positive experiences we encounter as female rafting guides, so here are a few quotes to remind us all the impact the women of guiding have on the world.
“It’s so cool to see so many women on these trips” - river guest
Last night of the trip:
“All the women are such an inspiration, not only to my teenage daughter but to me as well” - river guest
The final morning:
“I’ve really enjoyed the women on this trip, they are such great role models for my daughters. They are the kind of women I want them to be” - river guest
Saying goodbye at the boat ramp:
“You showed my daughter that girls can do anything. So, thank you.” - river guest
“I just love the strong, smart women that your company employs. I get that I can’t always have an all female crew, but I prefer it, you ladies are just so awesome. I’ve also loved the male guides that I’ve met, but I really love the all-women crews” - river guest
“It’s awesome how lady-heavy your crew always is.” - female guides from other companies
I write this for the men - because even the most supportive and empowering men don’t always hear these comments. I write this for the women - because I want all women to know the stresses we feel as female guides are so, so real. I write this for anyone who communicates with either gender (that’s most of us). And I write this for all the people who notice us and remind us of the positive impact we have on our guests.
Disclaimer - -
I am not saying that men don’t receive sexist comments or aren’t judged on their bodies as well. This isn’t about men vs. women. This is simply to open our eyes to life as a female guide. And unfortunately, these experiences don’t stop when the summer is over. We experience this type of harassment year-round.
Tess is a born-and-raised Idaho native. She splits her time between Sandpoint (in the winter) and Salmon (in the summer). After getting two engineering degrees from the University of Idaho, Tess decided to become a river guide. Following her passion for the outdoors (and her lack of passion for working inside a windowless lab room) it just made sense. In the summer she co-manages the Idaho operation for ARTA River Trips. In the winter she works retail part-time and is adventuring into the world of tax preparation.