Humans often have a deeply entrenched idea that we must control nature. We alter landscapes to build infrastructure, we farm down to bare mineral soil, we alter riparian zones for our gardens, and we erect retaining walls to hold back deluges of debris in order to construct a house just where we want it. I find this mentality to be refreshingly absent in the river community.
River people tend to work with nature rather than against her, standing up against dams and grand-scale alterations to the earth, camping in low-impact areas, and religiously upholding the sacred principles of LNT. River people worship nature and value the river’s natural power. They are emboldened by her energy.
From an ecofeminist lens, nowhere is this more apparent than with lady boaters.
“A river goddess emulates the beauty of the river itself. Life thrives within and around her. She’s peaceful and quiet, and thundering loud. She’s graceful, courageous, and strong.
A lady boater has no entitlement. You show up to guide and no one expects you to be good at it. Instead, you must be even better than your male counterparts to gain respect. You are expected to be a liability until proven otherwise. You must be wise to overcome a lack of brute muscle power to force yourself out of tricky situations. You are calm and confident when things go haywire.
Your customers ask, “Are you our guide?” And you just smile and nod, knowing they are better off on your boat than with a male coworker. You ignite a new passion for each person who is lucky enough to have their first experience on the river with you.” – Jess F.
Women on the river embody what author Clarissa Pinkola Estés of Women Who Run With the Wolves labeled the ‘Wild Woman Archetype:’ she who is borne of nature.
There are so many existing narratives about the discrimination women face on the river, especially in the world of commercial guiding. And while my intent is not to distract from those narratives, I do think narratives of celebration and positivity are needed to counterbalance the negativity. Through my thoughts and those of other women boaters, I hope to celebrate the absolute power that women find and embody while outside, especially on the water.
“The power of controlling your own vessel, of navigating beautiful and wild areas that can only be reached by boat, and just being in CHARGE is pretty badass.” Keren M.
As a young guide in Colorado, one of my mentors was a powerful and wise woman who was quick to point out the benefit of being a lady on the river. “Watch how the men guide,” Karlee would say. “See how they just try to muscle their way through everything?” I’m sure many of us have heard variations of this before. This technique may work for them, but she helped me focus on the more finessed ways of using the river and her power to my advantage, an approach I now recognize in many of my fellow river women.
On multiday trips, it is easy to tune into how women follow the current a bit better, how they can read the water and ‘bubble lines’ more efficiently, and how their boat angles are so precise and intentional that they have no need for the big, grandiose power moves that their male counterparts often rely on. It is a graceful, beautiful dance.
In short, women work with the river rather than against it.
This collaboration is where the aforementioned archetype is born. The Wild Woman is powerful. She is outspoken in opinion and loud in laughter. She is unafraid to challenge existing views and is equally impervious to getting dirty and putting in hard work. This archetype blossoms in wild spaces and not many spaces are as wild as the dynamic river.
“I think the true goddess is the river herself and I try to imitate her when I’m in her presence. There are few things in this world that are more profound to me than the power of a river and the same goes for the power I feel when I’m on one.
The best lesson the river has ever taught me was that you can study, scout, fret, and set up for a rapid but once you drop in, all you can do is hold on and enjoy the ride. That lesson has been invaluable in my life outside of boating.
It is an honor to be a part of the large sisterhood of women boaters. It will be something that defines me for the rest of my life.” Karlee C.
The river embodies femininity and power, hence why many address her as ‘she.’ Often, those things society deems feminine—the river or the moon or a grandiose ship—are labeled as such because they are impressive, big, beautiful, powerful, energetic, and stunning. Clarissa Pinkola Estés posits that a wild woman is wary of social conditioning, lives boldly with a pure sense of belonging in natural spaces, and loves her body unconditionally.
“If you have ever been called defiant, incorrigible, forward, cunning, insurgent, unruly, rebellious, you’re on the right track. Wild Woman is close by.” – Clarissa E.
I rarely see this as truthfully as in the women I spend time with on the river. We sing and dance. We are loud and take up space. We get dirty and live the best life we can in some of the most beautiful physical spaces on earth. Mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually we are home on the river.
“When you first get into the boat, every worldly problem disappears. You thrive on the big hits, the messy curls, and Chaco tans. Everyone you meet is instantly a new friend, someone you can share your love of the experience with. Your smiles and laughs are pure. Interacting with such a powerful force of nature all day empowers and humbles you every time you get to go.” Cassidy C.
The wild woman archetype is all about embracing our inner feminine energy and expounding on our zeal for life in the natural world. There is a lot of prejudice to be overcome in outdoor guiding spaces. We can begin by embracing this potent energy that so many women feel while on the river.
“Women are wild outside. We don’t have to fit in or say the right things and we definitely can be who we were meant to be. I feel strong and confident in a boat, and it’s more than just muscling the oars through big waves. I feel confident in goofy dances and bad singing: in my element while dancing with nature.” Charlie F.
It took me a long while to place a finger on exactly what it was that was so powerful and magnetic about women in the outdoors and on the river in particular. We lead similar lives on land, do we not? The strength that you see so purely on the river, the confidence imbued in us by her rushing waters, is what molds us wild women and true river goddesses.
“May we know them, may we be them, may we uplift them, and may we cherish the interaction between the mighty powerful river and the mighty powerful women in our lives.” – Caleigh S.