Before Seiler had the chance to tell her mother what had happened, the guide beat her to it. Hofstetter stormed out of the office, berating her daughter for treating a Songer employee so rudely. There was no mention of the guide’s action that had cause Seiler to react in the first place. She kept quiet.
It could be argued that Seiler’s situation was different in that her mother was her boss, too. But that uncomfortable encounter with the guide, and the subsequent absence of disciplinary action, is a story that’s all too familiar to female raft guides.
In the Grand Canyon investigative report, a Human Resources officer with the River District attributed the widespread and mostly unreported cases of sexual harassment to the “laissez-faire’ attitude of what happens on the river stays on the river.” The U.S. Department of the Interior found that victims who do file complaints, or refuse sexual advances, face retribution. “Women on river trips [are] forced to ‘walk the line’ between ‘not being hated and not being desired,’” said one Grand Canyon employee.
The guide who smacked Seiler’s butt was eventually fired after he exposed himself to another female Songer employee. But it was only then that Seiler finally felt comfortable enough to tell her mother the truth.
The Way It Is
“Literally the first week I showed up in Fayetteville I was told that to survive in this industry, you have to be okay with sexual harassment.”
That’s 32-year-old Karen (she asked us to not use her real name), a longtime raft guide who has worked the rivers of West Virginia for the past decade. When Karen trained in 2007, she trained under two male guides. One was very encouraging and professional. The other operated a “massage tent” in the evenings. He was not a licensed massage therapist.
“When you’re a trainee, you’re just another conquest,” she says. “It’s so much more difficult for women who are just starting. We have to just brush [harassment] off, because you’re either getting trained by these people, they’re paying you, or they’re your guests.”
Another guide, let’s call her Mary, felt similarly uncomfortable during her 2013 training experience. One of three ladies in a training class of 24, Mary, then 21 years old, appreciated that the outfitter made an effort to have at least one female trainer overseeing the instruction. She might have appreciated it more, though, had she actually had the chance to ride in the woman’s boat.
“It’s easier to learn from a female raft guide, but I was hardly ever in her boat,” she says. “The other guide always made sure I was in his boat. He would always make comments on my body. It was weird. I’m just meeting this person. Then you learn everyone’s like that and they say, ‘just brush it off,’ or, ‘that’s just the way it is.’”
That first season for Mary was challenging. Even after she checked out (being approved to take commercial rafts downriver), she was rarely scheduled on the Lower New. When the next season came around and she was given the sweep kit (which includes items like a radio and first aid kit and signifies a position of leadership), she was ecstatic. Finally, she was being given the chance to prove herself.
Around the same time, a male Trip Leader (TL) started paying extra attention to her. Mary thought the coquetry was benign enough. She started sweeping every other trip on the Lower New. Her confidence soared. But then, the TL’s ulterior motive became apparent. Mary started to feel signaled out. She stopped engaging in the banter, and he took the hint, but not subtly.
“One day he came and took the sweep kit from me and said, ‘I’ll be carrying that this trip,’” Mary remembers. “He said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to need that anymore.’”
Better, Not Equal
What Mary experienced was the quintessential definition of retaliation, but between the lines, there’s another troubling problem: women are not viewed as natural leaders.
“If girls are starting to become TLs before their male counterparts, it’s because they’re girls,” says 30-year-old Liz (who also requested anonymity). Liz has been guiding for seven seasons and trip leading for three of those, but she says that male guides still question her leadership. “The guys think it’s not that [women] are becoming TLs or sweeps because they have skill. It’s because they’re girls and they have boobs. It’s a lose-lose situation. If you get promoted, you’re discredited.”
Samantha Belcher, 30, couldn’t agree more. Belcher is no longer a full-time guide, but for seven seasons, she worked at Adventures on the Gorge and River Expeditions. For three of those seasons, she was a TL, but even with the added title and responsibility, she says she often struggled to feel like an equal.
“I feel like in rafting, in order to gain respect, you have to be better than your male counterparts,” says Belcher. “You literally have to work harder. Even if you run the same lines and you run them cleanly, you’re not as good. You have to be better than them in order to prove you are equal.”
That mindset is deeply engrained in the rafting culture. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Susie Hofstetter was the only woman who owned a rafting outfitter. The other company owners didn’t question if she was business savvy enough to survive. They outright ignored her. And that was just fine by Hofstetter.
“These guys really weren’t going to change,” she says. “They have changed over time, almost 40 years later, but at that time I was just a girl to them. They didn’t think much of my ability or anything like that, which actually worked to my advantage. They didn’t pay much attention to me in a competitive way, so I was able to kinda keep under their radar.”
Eventually, they couldn’t help but notice. In its prime, Songer was taking 17,000 people downriver each season. Her business seemed to be doing better than ever, all amid a slew of family tragedies including the death of her 21-year-old son and an emergency hysterectomy.
“Finally [the other owners] were seeing that I could work hard, that I could get results, but it was tough,” she says. “I was very resentful of having to work harder to earn that respect because I had the personal issues going on and then I still had to kick their butts. I couldn’t do just as good. I had to do better.”