By Jessica Weigum
After finishing up my third season as a Whitewater Raft Guide, I was back home decompressing and looking forward to ski season. About a week in, I went to a little get together hosted by some close friends of mine. The problem was I didn’t know anyone there besides the hosts, so that meant a lot of small talk.
The normal “what do you do for a living” questions lead into more follow up as people were intrigued by rafting. I’ll admit, it was a bit intimidating as I was the only one without a regular 9 to 5 job and wearing dirty Chacos. As I explained my passions someone asked, as a woman, how I manage to work in one of the most misogynistic industries. I was taken aback, and I began to reflect. I had just come back from 3 months of being the only female guide at my company. It was about a 20:1 ratio with the 1 being me, and never once was I treated as less than by my coworkers.
Being the only lady guide for a greater portion of the season was, to say the least, challenging. However, I was never made to feel incapable by my fellow guides, the boys, as they always showed me love and respect. The greatest critic of my size and gender was myself. On my worst days, it was easy to compare myself to the guys - that if somehow I were a man I’d be big and strong, and never have to worry about my abilities. This self-sabotage weighs down on the mind and I was making myself feel weak for being a woman. The greatest relief though was opening up. In this majority male dominated environment, I was given the support I needed and was unashamed of expressing my feelings. They never viewed me as just a woman.
Now, my experience does not perfectly reflect all rafting companies nor does it reflect society as a whole. The reality is these problems of inequality and mistreatment of women, as well as other groups, still exist (I can only speak to my experiences). Stereotypically speaking, rafting and other outdoor recreation industries are one of the biggest complaints. I believe my experiences from working at Raft Masters are different because of the environment we live and work in every day. During the season we are a close knit family, we have each other’s backs no matter who you are or where you came from. This idea is cultivated within us on the very first day of training. If something is not right or makes me feel uncomfortable, I can and will speak up. I feel safe enough to speak up and I know I will be listened to. From the owners and most senior guides to the rookies, we are a family and we support each other.
Allowing “I’m not good enough because of who I am” thoughts get the best of you is an easy trap to fall into. The important things for me to remember is:
1.) The strong woman I am.
2.) The family that stands behind me.
3.) The positive guest interactions that remind me why I love my job in the first place.
I never really understood the impact I had on my guest’s lives until a mother of a family I had in my boat wanted a picture of me and her daughter. She wanted this photo because she was so happy her daughter could relate to a strong female on the trip. It is truly empowering to have your guests, no matter who they are, be stoked on ‘girl power’ just because you’re their guide. The more time I spend on the water, the more inspiring interactions I have.
So, to conclude the question back at the party, "How do you manage to work in such a misogynistic industry?" I responded, "You're right, it can be misogynistic". I wanted them to hear my perspective, I added, "Its changing”. I wanted them to understand how incredible the people I work with are. Conversations like these are important, and everyone involved can learn something by comparing perspectives and experiences. Change cannot happen if no one is willing to listen. Rafting has had a huge impact on my life for the better. It is more than just a job or a hobby, it is a passion of mine that has taught me countless lessons about who I am, how strong I am, and about life in general.
There is always something to be learned from the river and the people who float it. Not to mention the loving family I’ve gained from it, and the support I know I'll always have.