Wild Women of the West: Closing the Gender Gap Outdoors

15 Min. Read
Wild Women of the West: Closing the Gender Gap Outdoors

When OARS was founded 50 years ago you could only find a handful of women who were challenging the status quo and working on the river, typically as swampers or cooks. Being a “boatman,” as it implied, was considered a man’s job.

Liz Hymans, among the earliest female river guides to work in Grand Canyon, recalls that despite being turned down over and over by other outfitters, it was OARS Founder George Wendt who first gave her an opportunity to row. It’s women like Liz and many others who pushed the boundaries in the guiding community, paving the way for the next generation.

“Now, thanks to the women who came before me, I can hold a paddle or a pair of oars and push off downstream with the same confidence and ability of any of my male counterparts,” says Ashley Brown, a longtime OARS Idaho/Grand Canyon guide. “While there are still a few hold outs from a bygone era where men were boatmen and women were cooks, 99.9% of the men I work with are supportive of the women rowing alongside them.”

Today, OARS is glad that 35 percent of our guides are women. In some of the areas we operate, like Oregon and Idaho, we’re closer to achieving gender parity, while in other areas you can expect to have at least two female guides on most of our trips.

We still have work to do, but it is our hope that in the very near future, more women will find their way to guiding and to OARS, which is critical to maintaining a respectful and inclusive workplace, as well as a memorable experience for our guests.

In the meantime, meet some of the fierce females of OARS and see what they’re saying about the shifting roles of female guides and closing the gender gap outdoors…

Cindell Dale | OARS Grand Canyon Dories guide since 1983

Cindell Dale | OARS Grand Canyon Dories guide since 1983

Home base: Ignacio, CO

Years as a guide: 35

Path to guiding:  “I started with Grand Canyon Dories and Martin Litton in 1983. Other female guides encouraged me after a decade of being “the cook” on dory trips. It was Ote Dale and Jan Kempster who pushed me the most!

On pushing through gender barriers…

“My daddy always told me not to let the fact that ‘you’re little and you’re a girl’ get in the way of pursuing your dreams.  I listened to the men who spoke both positively and negatively about my perceived abilities and told myself and a few of them, ‘Actions speak louder than words. I either have it or I don’t, and time will tell the truth.’ And look where I am today – rowing a dory in Grand Canyon!”

Ashley Brown | OARS Idaho/Grand Canyon guide since 2008

Ashley Brown | OARS Idaho/Grand Canyon guide since 2008

Home base: Crested Butte, CO

Years as a guide: 15

Path to guiding:  “My parents both worked in the industry.  My mom worked for Hatch River Expeditions in the 70’s and she became the first woman to run her own motor rig through the Grand Canyon for that company.  My dad was integral in building the river program for Colorado Outward Bound School starting in the early 70’s, and he and my mom continued to direct that program until the early 90’s.  So I grew up spending lazy summer days floating on the placid Green River as it flowed through the farm country of the Uintah Basin, and occasionally taking multi-day or daily family trips into the canyons and whitewater of Dinosaur National Monument.  I started guiding in Dino the summer of 2003 immediately after graduating from high school.”

On breaking gender stereotypes in the outdoors…

“Both boys and girls see women leading, rowing boats and carrying heavy objects and their perception of gender roles and abilities are altered.  They grow up without the old preconceived notions that women are subservient, or the weaker sex, or that certain jobs belong only to a certain gender.  As time goes on, and more generations are introduced to these ideals, more and more women will find their way into male-dominated fields. It has been a slow process in the guiding world, but women continue to push, continue to shatter the ceiling; a trend that, given the proper encouragement, will persist.”

Jess Wallstrom | American River Manager – with OARS since 2014

Jess Wallstrom | American River Manager – with OARS since 2014

Home base: Placerville, CA

Years as a guide: 17

Path to guiding: “River companies recruited at my high school [in Kernville, CA]. I started when I was 16 and it was my first job. I had the choice between being a helper in a vet clinic, or playing on the water. My dad asked me what I would rather be doing…scooping poop or playing in the river every day. I chose the river.”

On dealing with past prejudice…

“Having to learn how to work with ‘the guys’ was something you learned fast or struggled to keep your head about you. Once, in the Grand Canyon, I overheard two male guides saying how I could not keep up. I then pushed a huge section of the river against the wind while all the men’s boats turned and pulled. When we finally made it to camp there was never another question about if I could keep up with the ‘boys.’”

Addie Hite | OARS Grand Canyon hiking guide since 2008

Addie Hite | OARS Grand Canyon hiking guide since 2008

Home base: Flagstaff, AZ

Years as a guide: 6

Path to guiding: “I started with OARS in 2008 part-time, and took on a more full-time role in 2012. I started by doing hiking exchanges for river trips to fill in as needed. When they needed guides for the new Grand Canyon hiking program, I signed up.”

On what it takes to be a strong female guide…

“The women filling these roles run the spectrum from tomboys to frilly and feminine and everything in between. The one thing they all share is their strength and ability to do such a demanding job.”

Alyssa Warren | OARS Oregon guide since 2010

Alyssa Warren | OARS Oregon guide since 2010

Home base: Grants Pass, OR

Years as a guide: 12

Path to guiding:I was blessed with the opportunity to start guiding as a freshman in high school. My teacher and his wife started their own company and asked me to be a part of it. It changed my life, and my passion for the Rogue and river running was born!”

On how the perception of women in guide roles has changed…

“I think the role of women in the outdoor industry continues to grow and expand all over the world. Less and less people each year are surprised or concerned that they have me, a woman, as their guide or trip leader, and they are embracing trips that result from a crew that works together, has fun, and delivers safe, quality experiences…regardless of gender.”

Sara O’Donnel | OARS Utah guide since 2015

Sara O’Donnel | OARS Vernal guide since 2015

Home base: Cheyenne, WY

Years as a guide: 5

Path to guiding: “I did a multi-day trip through Gates of Lodore when I was 11, but I didn’t appreciate it fully until I was in college. I studied abroad in Italy and that made me realize how much I need the outdoors, so I signed up for guide school in California. Having been on a rafting trip doesn’t really mean you know anything about guiding, so that was a huge wake up call for me. Guiding was hard and required a lot of strength and energy, and it took me quite a while to feel comfortable in these roles.”

On what’s attracting more women to guiding…

“The lack of women in outdoor sports, or in any group for that matter, hasn’t ever been because women didn’t want to be a part of those groups. It’s because they were taught that they didn’t belong there, or were straight up not allowed. We all know the stories of the first female rafters who broke the norm, didn’t conform to society’s standards, and became the figureheads of women in the rafting community. Now, just like then, all it takes is representation and accessibility. Girls who see female guides are much more likely to see guiding and rafting as a viable goal.”

 Madalyn Russell | OARS Wyoming guide since 2015

Madalyn Russell | OARS Wyoming guide since 2016

Home base: Marietta, GA

Years as a guide: 3

Path to guiding: “I got my degree in outdoor recreation at Georgia Southern University, which ultimately exposed me to career opportunities in the outdoor industry. Making it my profession was a dream that I wasn’t sure was totally possible. I was instantly hooked to the river lifestyle after doing a class trip to the Allagash River—88 miles of canoeing and kayaking. I moved to Jackson [Wyoming] during the summer of 2016 and got hooked up with daily trips through a friend.”

On women fighting the status quo…

“The female movement is alive in many different fields, women speaking up about unfair treatment in the workplace and just standing up for what’s right. I am inspired by my colleagues and managers, not letting any stigmas stand in their way. It’s those people that will change the field for the better.”

Christina Winters | OARS California guide since 2016

Christina Winters | OARS California guide since 2016

Home base: Auburn, CA

Years as a guide: 8

Path to guiding: “Growing up in Auburn, we would always go to the confluence—the area where the North Fork and the Middle Fork of the American River converge. It’s a really popular spot during the summer but once fall and winter roll around, it’s usually completely dead. Regardless of the season, rain or shine, I always found myself gravitating towards the river. It was always a place of solitude for me. It was the place that I could go and hear myself think. I would hike a couple of miles up the North Fork canyon and just find peace and hope that would balance me again. I started guiding with the hope that, even if just for a couple of minutes, the people I encountered could feel that peace and balance.”

On the culture shift in guiding…

“More women are feeling empowered to get outdoors and are realizing you don’t have to choose between being tough and being a girl. There is a greater understanding that you don’t have to do everything like the boys do to be a good guide. On the flip side, I feel like male guides are realizing that too and a more supportive culture has been born.”

Lindsey Mersereau | OARS Vernal Guide since 2015

Lindsey Mersereau | OARS Vernal Guide since 2015

Home base: Telluride, CO

Years as a guide: 4

Path to guiding: “I grew up going to summer camp in New England; Camp Jewell YMCA. I’m considered a “lifer” because I spent 10 summers there as a camper and an additional four summers as a counselor. I continued to work as a summer camp counselor for a total of seven summers. At that point, I decided to make a career change. I was offered a position with Barker-Ewing as the Camp Manager and it seemed like a good fit; outdoors + with people. After paying my dues my first season, I cashed in on my hard work and went through guide school my second summer and continued on to become a daily guide on the Snake River.”

On women in the outdoors rewriting the rules…

“Often the outdoors has been perceived as a place for men and not women. I believe this perception is based on the fact that women are child bearers and most often become the primary caregivers of children and therefore expected to spend the majority of their time in the home. I enjoy being a part of a world where these roles are being rewritten. Being a woman among a male-dominated industry continues to build the argument that gender does not determine a person’s capability of completing a job well done – an understanding that can be applied far beyond the river running community.”

Joelle Stanions | OARS Vernal Guide since 2010

Joelle Stanions | OARS Vernal Guide since 2010

Home base: Park City, UT

Years as a guide: 14

Path to guiding: “A really great friend of mine, Lori Spilker-Duncan, told me it was a lot of fun and took me on my first rafting trip.”

On being a female in a male-dominated field…

“I never feel like I am treated differently by any of the guys I work with. They all show me a huge amount of respect. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and that has nothing to do with what our gender is.”

Amber Shannon | OARS Idaho Guide Since 2007

Amber Shannon | OARS Idaho Guide Since 2007

Home base: Victor, ID

Years as a guide: 12

Path to guiding: “Honestly? I dated a boy who was a guide. He is still one of my best friends and one of my all-time favorite people to work and boat with.”

On being a woman in the modern guiding community…

“Guiding in current times is very open and accepting. People judge based on your skill set, not your size, your looks, or your sex. The question is, ‘Can you do this and make it look easy and fun? Yes? Great! Now go do it!’ It’s all about working as a crew and getting the work done together. I am often working with guides who I have been boating with for the better part of a decade. After that many years of love and friendship there is no room for boys vs. girls. It just turns into us. That being said, when issues do come up, I am lucky that in my guiding career I have always had a few really strong women mentors to turn to when I needed help.”

Nicole Smedegaard | OARS Oregon guide since 2012

Nicole Smedegaard | OARS Oregon guide since 2012

Home base: Eugene, OR

Years as a guide: 7

Path to guiding: “I did it for love. I started rafting because I wanted to get to know a boatman (Sean and I are still together). Then I became obsessed. I bought a used raft so I could learn (my raft and I are also still together). I started as a private boater and after a year on the sticks with my own oar rig, there was this summer in Eugene where it never got warm enough to go swimming. I grew up swimming at every opportunity all summer long, so I missed that so much that I decided to go back [home] to the Rogue for a summer. I didn’t think I was good enough to get a raft guide job, but I applied anyway to every company that works the Rogue. I carefully outlined my river resume, listing every trip I had done and what classification and water level it was at. To my surprise, OARS Oregon called me within a couple weeks and I had interviewed and accepted before spring even hit!  Of course I was a real newb at first and rowing a fully loaded 16’ Sotar was way different than my empty 13’ Vanguard. I found all the rocks in the river that year and now that I know where they are, I consider myself a pro.”

On the importance of equality in the outdoors…

“Having more female guides means there are more outdoor industry female role models for the next generation to look up to. It means the stereotype will shift and youth will be able to envision themselves in this industry as a norm.  Gender equality isn’t just how you are treated; it is also how you are represented. Outfitters, your guide team should be half women! On multi-day trips, having a fun, balanced team keeps everyone sane and creates a culture of accountability for your actions and words.”

Kate Wollney | Human Resources Officer/Oregon Area Manager – with OARS since 2006

Kate Wollney | Human Resources Officer/Oregon Area Manager – with OARS since 2006

Home base: Grants Pass, OR

Years as a guide: 25

Path to guiding: “A family vacation on the Rogue River when I was 14. It was the first time I felt at home.  This was in 1985.  It was a small trip, so there were only three guides: Richard, Beth and Larry.  I’m sure seeing Beth helped me realize that could be me working as a river guide. I recently saw Beth and thanked her for making it look so natural for a woman to be a guide.”

On seeing more women in leadership roles…

“For me, the experience was rather like a roller coaster.  In my hippy Portland, OR rafting community, women were already treated as equals.  Then I’d go out to other places like southern Oregon, Utah, Idaho, or Grand Canyon and there would be very few women and even fewer in leadership.  Then I would come back home and feel like women were equals.  Fortunately, industry-wide, women are gaining more and more equal leadership.”

Wild Women of the West: Closing the Gender Gap Outdoors

Ruth Ann Ratay | OARS Grand Canyon Dories guide since 2004

Home base: Corning, CA

Years as a guide: 20

Path to guiding: “The river; and working to provide access to it for underprivileged youth and people with disabilities.”

On making an impact on youth…

“Sometimes you get to have a strong impact on youth just by doing your job and doing it well. I have a thank you note on my fridge from a past client who has become a good friend. She was a somewhat miserable teenager and her experience in Grand Canyon affected her outlook. I got to be a small part of that, and I am thankful for it.”

Laura Doll | Grand Canyon Hiking & Warehouse Manager since 2017

Laura Doll | Grand Canyon Hiking & Warehouse Manager since 2017

Home base: Flagstaff, AZ

Years as a guide: 2 years

Path to guiding: “I felt a pull to spend more time in Grand Canyon as I feel more at peace there than almost anywhere else. And I’m a facilitator. I taught dance for years, helping people build their confidence, come out of their shells, and step out of their comfort zones where the magic happens. A hike through Grand Canyon is a dream for people. There’s nothing more rewarding than to be the facilitator of that dream, especially when helping someone accomplish such a challenging feat!

On being role models…

“On my very first trip as a hiking guide, a young 20-something-year-old gal client said that I inspired her to become more independent and to have the confidence to travel solo and know that she’ll be just fine. That was a special moment, knowing that I may have helped change someone in a positive way. Seeing strong, capable women excelling in any field definitely inspires other women to follow suit!”

Photos: Erik Boomer, Amy Martin, Krystle Wright, Justin Bailie, Cari Morgan and Cindi Stephens

Cari Morgan heashot

Cari Morgan

Cari Morgan is the Content Marketing Manager for OARS. Since 2014, she has managed the company’s blog, The Eddy, and has been the primary “voice” behind the brand’s social media sphere.

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