The Guest Dynamic
Not all female guides have felt that pressure. At least, not from their peers.
Jo-Beth Stamm has been a guide since 2006. She trained with North American River Runners (NARR). The vibe there was supportive and encouraging for women, she says, not demeaning. Even now that NARR has since merged with ACE Adventure Resort, guides who worked for NARR are still self-proclaimed NARRtians, a testament to the tribe cohesiveness she felt.
Partly due to NARR being a small company, Stamm was pushed into a leadership role early on. By the fall of her second season, she was already a TL on the Lower Gauley, a position most guides don’t assume until their second or third seasons at the earliest. Despite the backing she felt from her fellow guides, Stamm says by and large, it’s been her guests who have been the most patronizing.
“I feel like I experience more challenges from my guests because I’m a woman,” says Stamm. “If a male TL says to a group, ‘Here are your guides, pick your poison,’ inevitably, you’re the last guide picked and then your crew feels like they got ‘stuck with the girl.’”
One experience that continues to bother Stamm took place in the summer of 2016. Her TL for the day assigned guests to guides, versus that damning “pick your poison” approach. One of her guests was a woman in her late 40s. Stamm immediately sensed her hesitation.
“She walks up to my boat and says, ‘Are you sure you can get us down this river?’ I just start rattling off my experience, that I’ve been doing this over 10 years, trying to make her feel confident but assuring her that it’s okay if she’s nervous.”
Next to Stamm was a third year guide, waiting for the next trip. He was lounging casually in the back of his raft, completely unaware of the conversation that was playing out next to him. Stamm’s guest-in-question took one look at the male guide and abruptly asked, “Well you’re coming too, right?” Stamm was floored.
“I asked her why she wanted him to come and she said, ‘I just need to know there is someone here who can keep me safe.’ I mean she’s looking at a dude who is sleeping in the back of his boat showing zero interest and feeling like she would be safer with him than with me. I literally told her, ‘We need to start over.’”
Plenty of female guides have felt similar frustrations with their guests, but more often than not, those guests are male. Karen, the 10-year guide, is 5’2″, 115 lbs. Early on, her guests were hardly shy about expressing their doubts.
“They would actually voice complaints that women shouldn’t be working on the river. They were openly disappointed,” she says. “It doesn’t happen as much now, but there will still be skepticism. I’ve learned a lot of posturing and I think that helps a lot. I come out of the gate strong and I have this whole persona that I’ve carefully crafted to shut them down. You have to shut them down, but in a way that they still give you money [tips] at the end of the day.”
The Delicate Dance
That persona that Karen’s talking about is considered an essential survival tool among female raft guides, but it’s also one of the most difficult skills to master. Raft guiding in general is largely associated with the party scene. Guests are usually on vacation, after all.
But for female guides especially, walking that line between engaging in the bawdy banter and experiencing outright harassment can be hard to distinguish and harder still to draw a clear line in the sand. Compounding the problem further is the fact that everyone’s boundaries are different.
“It is a kinda vulgar environment,” says former ACE Adventure Resort Chief of Staff Dave Bassage. “There are lots of dirty jokes, lots of flirting, lots of things that would be viewed as sexual harassment in the common workplace but is viewed as acceptable in the rafting world. There are some women who will tell raunchy jokes and be as outrageously flirtatious as the guys and there are others who take offense. Where the line is crossed is when someone expresses discontent and somebody else refuses to change that behavior as a result. That’s where I draw my line.”
“Honestly when I came out here, I kinda liked the raunchiness of things,” says Liz, the 30-year-old, seven-year guide. “It was fun and light-hearted and people had a good time. It was different. But I have been in situations where I’ve actually felt threatened by people that I thought were my friends. Then it’s the question of, was it meant to be a joke or is it actually crossing a line? You have to shut it down with no shades of gray. It’s black or it’s white.”
But to draw that line, women especially run the risk of losing the respect of their fellow guides and crew or, worse, of having their concerns dismissed altogether. And if you think the disparities solely exist between genders, think again: female guides can often be just as harsh, if not more so, as the men.
“In this community, there are women who are misogynists because masculinity is so celebrated,” says Samantha Belcher. “There are definitely older female raft guides that will tear down the younger female raft guides because that’s what they went through and they see it as socially acceptable. I’ve even seen them make comments that are similar to what guys would make about your body or your size or ability.”
Closing The Gap
The problems of sexual harassment and workplace inequality are far from being solved, but the industry has come a long way. When Dave Bassage was training as a guide in 1984, there was no employee handbook, let alone a policy on sexual harassment. Now, companies like ACE Adventure Resort take harassment seriously, showing educational videos to all 400 of their staff, many of whom are not river guides.
“The videos relate more to an office environment, so it’s not a perfect match for the outdoor industry,” says Bassage. “I think the topic of how to properly deal with harassment can and should be emphasized more and I think it should be addressed specifically to our industry, including some role playing and scenarios about what may or may not be acceptable.”
There’s no doubt there are more men than women currently guiding on West Virginia’s rivers, but the new wave of 2017 trainees showed a glimmer of change. Megan Becker, a 24-year-old first-year guide from Shepherdstown, W.Va., was the first to check out in her training class of 32. The next three who checked out were also women.
Becker doesn’t have a background in whitewater. In fact, she says, she had “a serious fear of water,” and decided learning to be a raft guide would be a good remedy for that. Even so, she says she has had nothing but positive experiences as a raft guide thus far.
“There were definitely days where my confidence was down and I didn’t trust my own instincts,” she says. “The other guides will joke with you about it if you mess up, but it’s all in good humor. They’ve never been cruel about it.”
A second-year male guide did make the comment that Becker was receiving good crews because, “you’re a pretty girl,” but beyond that, she says she hasn’t felt undermined or demeaned from her peers. In fact, the company’s river management came to her defense when some of her fellow trainees expressed discontent that she was getting more work than they were.
Collectively, the eight women we interviewed for this article have nearly 70 years of experience on the water, and all but a few continue to guide full-time through the season. Even in the face of uncomfortable scenarios, these women continue to push forward and take charge of the only thing they can control—themselves.
Their hope for the rafting industry’s future is that there will be strength in numbers. Companies like ACE Adventure Resort and Adventures on the Gorge already make efforts to recruit an equal amount of male and female trainees. Their websites feature photographs of female guides, but even still, argues Melanie Seiler, it’s not enough.
“There are a lot more women than there used to be,” says Seiler, “but how many females out there have not gone through with raft guide training because they didn’t want to deal with a male dominating industry? There needs to be a female river manager at every outfitter who can provide that perspective and help balance out the industry.”
All of the women agree that the industry is not entirely to blame for the current state of affairs. Society’s portrayal of gender norms in the media has a lot of influence still to this day, so when commercials feature bearded men as raft guides or movies showcase male characters saving female leads, it’s no wonder those same stereotypes are playing out on the river.
“While those things exist and they’re present and they’re not going away, there is such a larger part of the rafting community that is positive and that’s why I stay,” says Liz. “I have so many allies, not only female but also male, at my company and the community is supported. There is a want and acknowledgement from some people that things need to change and we need to treat women better.”