Surviving Your Rookie Season as a Female Raft Guide

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“Are you sure you want to do this?” my parents said to me as we pulled into the staff accommodations at River Run Rafting on the Ottawa River. Trailers and dilapidated cabins surrounded a massive fire pit in the center of the ‘guide city.’ Already out of the car, pulling my gear from the trunk and scoping out tent spots, my response was apparent. Guide training would start the next day. Ontario’s frigid May waters hadn’t even crossed my mind. Equipped with the very basics of whitewater knowledge, I was fiercely set on becoming a kayaker and raft guide—living, playing and working on the river.

I know each rookie experience will be vastly different, especially depending on your gender. When discussing whitewater sports, I prefer not to isolate men and women. It’s my opinion that if us ladies want to be treated as equals—on and off the water—we need to end the ‘us and them’ attitude. But the reality is that there are some pretty huge differences between how a male and female body operates, from biology to psychology. For girls, the learning curve is steep and very different. Fortunately, I entered the world of whitewater with a pretty high level of self-confidence from a childhood of competitive sports. But still, I was tested often.

I survived that first year with minimal beer fines, and mostly good experiences, leading me to continue as a raft guide for six seasons. Throughout my time as a guide, I learned a lot about myself, my limits and working with others. I flipped 12-man rafts. I swam big, gnarly water. I got a lot of shit for sloppy lines and poor cleanups. But I developed a deep respect for, and broad knowledge of, whitewater. And to date, it’s still my favorite job. Based on my experience and the warnings I wish I had been given, here are a few tips that might help rookie raft guides—of any gender—but specifically girl guides, learn the ways of the raft guiding industry.

Stand up tall.
You may be the only female guide on the trip and clients may compare you to the 6’2”, 240 pound guy walking to the next raft over. Clients may base their opinion on your ability to get them down the river safely on body weight and muscle definition. And you will have to spend some of the day gaining their trust and respect. Walk up to your raft standing tall, speaking calmly, confidently and clearly. Make eye contact with clients throughout your safety briefing. Body language can speak loudly and showing clients you feel capable, will help them believe that. They may need something to prompt their trust, so develop a few small tricks or strategies. Pick something you are confident at—for me this was hauling people back into the raft—then demo your skill. Showing clients I could indeed ‘rescue’ this full-grown man, shifted their perspective of me and their trust began to grow.

And, then once you’re on the water, fully embrace the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ mindset. Sitting on the back of a raft, you’re in the driver’s seat. That can be a bit terrifying, especially in your first year when different water levels feel like a new river. Confidence is contagious, and if your crew sees you cool as a cucumber, hiding your ‘holy-shit-I-don’t-know-the-line’ look behind a pair of sunnies, they will go into the next rapid with calm(ish) strokes, attentive to your commands. Sit up tall and fake that you are 100% confident you will nail your line. Once you style a run or two—and likely eat it once or twice—the confidence won’t be fake. It will be as real and as strong as your grip on the guide stick.

Observe and ask questions.
Keep your eyes open. Watch everything that goes on around you. From what knot a senior guide uses to tie up their raft, to paddle placement and boat angle, being observant will help you become a competent raft guide faster than those who spend their time daydreaming (or hitting on clients). If there are other female guides on the water, watch how they use the water and their bodies. If there are only guys on the trip, pick out the guides who read water well, are smaller in stature and who paddle with more finesse than muscle. Skip the pre-drink one night a week and watch old trip videos.

Become a student of the sport. Observe the good lines and the bad and ask questions. Questions are not a sign of weakness. Intelligent inquiry shows you’re paying attention, serious about improving and that you deserve to be out there. And when you critique your paddling, having those uncomfortable ‘what did I do wrong’ chats after roofing a boat can mean you won’t make the same mistake twice. Find a strong, female mentor to pose your questions to. And if there isn’t one available, a male co-worker with the right attitude can be just as helpful and a great mentor too.

Don’t take crap from anyone.
At most rafting companies you will be working in a male-dominated workplace. The testosterone-saturated atmosphere of a rafting base can be difficult to navigate. Two tips: 1. Develop a thick skin. Some guys are going to say rude and mean things to you. They may criticize your hair and your lines on the river. But if you can learn not to take things personally, it will profit you in life on and off the river. 2. Stand up for yourself. This can mean correcting someone when they make a sexist or disrespectful comment or it can mean taking control of your raft. I’ve had to take the paddle away from an overbearing father on a family trip when he tried to steer the raft for me. I asked him to sit up front and hold onto the kids while mom and I powered the boat down the river.

Buy gear for your body type.
There is more women-specific paddling gear out there than ever before. By strategically selecting gear based on your build and physiological characteristics (i.e. bust size, tendency to get cold etc.) you can make your on-river world much more enjoyable and comfortable. Buy a sleek PFD, with minimal buckles and bulk on the front, which will make climbing back into the raft much easier. Purchase a throw bag that’s more compact with a thinner rope if you know your throwing arm is ‘”less developed” and your small hands have always struggled repacking standard bags. Invest in quality thermals. It’s science, women have slower metabolic rates and regulate heat differently than men, which both mean we get cold easier.

Learn how to pee quickly and (somewhat) discretely
Fact: Raft guides pee while sitting on the back of the raft. Fact: Lady guides do too. Don’t be afraid to jump in the water and show your clients how to get in and out of the raft. This can double as a chance to relieve yourself or rinse off your ankles after an in-boat emergency pee as well as lightening your daily work-load by demonstrating to clients how to self-rescue.

As for dry land bathroom breaks, a little forethought goes a long way. Kayakers can hide behind a spray deck. But when you’re guiding in only a life jacket and boardshorts (or a drysuit), take a moment to scope out your surroundings for a rock, tree trunk or thick brush to hide behind. She-wees or similar hose-like tools are an option but the hassle of washing and carrying around a urine-saturated piece of plastic has never appealed to me. Also, consider your choice of thermals wisely. Farmer Janes may be warm, but make for a long and distressful pit stop when nature calls. Wear two-piece thermal layers and find a drysuit that’s made for ladies.

Pro Tip: Pack your tampons in a waterproof and non-transparent vessel (think small, opaque, waterproof Tupperware-like container in your PFD pocket. Makes it easy to pack them in and out without littering.)

Use the water. Respect the river.
Whitewater is magic. What I love about the dynamic, almost living characteristics of moving water is that, o be a good paddler, you need to read the water and use it to your advantage. Rapids don’t care how big your biceps are or what’s between your legs. A good line is a good line. Whitewater trashes everyone the same and rewards those who respect it, learn from mistakes and make good decisions. You can have arms like a linebacker, but if you fight the water, that twig arms is going to be a better guide than you. Take into account that it may be more difficult for you to correct the boat if you lose your line or angle. Think ahead and anticipate instead of relying on corrective strokes. Learning how to read water will help you to use your body in a safe and efficient way without risking injury or overuse problems. And get comfortable being in the water. If you fall out of your raft, having the skill to get back there quick can make all the difference.

Know your limits.
This applies to physical fitness and on-river ability too. Knowing your limits on the river means strategically selecting lines you can nail. It also means not throwing out your back trying to load a raft with one other person (done that) or blowing your knee out trying to hold a pry (done that too). Or missing the swimmer because you overestimated your throw-bag arm. Use your crew. A well-briefed crew can react to your instructions mid-rapid and help you pull the boat around in situations where other guides would muscle it. Knowing your limits also applies to partying; knowing (and listening to) your tolerance can save you from rough post-party days on the river.

Take it easy, eh?
The more seriously you take yourself, the harder you’re going to make things. Take your time acclimatizing to life as a raft guide. Leave your ego onshore and always try your best. You will inevitably have days with bad lines, and slow cleanups. But as long as there is the same number of heads in the raft at end of the day as at the start (bonus if some of those heads are smiling), then you have done your job. And the very best days on the river are days when the guide is smiling too.