Watch Out Guys, Women River Guides Are Taking Over

“It is so wonderful to see so many women guides on this trip!”

I’ve heard this comment countless times, from river guests of both genders. Most guides agree. We love having a diverse and unique group of talented co-workers, no matter the gender. And as anyone who has taken a river trip has noticed, a guide’s talent often defies typical gender stereotypes. Female guides row large gear boats with ease, lift heavy boxes and holler enthusiastically at their paddle crews. Male guides cook up a delicious pineapple upside down cake, read poetry, and take emotional care of their crew. In a river family, we value our co-workers based on who they are as a person, not who they are as a gender.

Female River Guides

Women, however, haven’t always had a place behind the oars or paddle. In the 1950s, Grand Canyon rafting pioneer Georgie White became the first woman to swim and row the Grand Canyon in its entirety. Male river guides, however, still largely outnumbered female guides. Across the west in the 1970s, many women were brought on as cooks or camp help but weren’t asked to take charge of the boats.

Cindell Dale, or “Dellie” as she is known on the river, remembers years of Grand Canyon trips as a cook where she was only allowed to row if it was flat water, windy, or a crew member was sick or injured. Women had just started rowing in the Grand Canyon, and were still establishing themselves as talented commercial guides.

“The straw that broke the camels back,” she recalls, “was the male rookie guide I was riding with running left at Bedrock Rapid. I knew I never wanted to take that line again.” Dellie says that it was both women and men in the company who supported her, saying, “Will you just stop cooking and row already?”

“Male guides supported me too,” she notes, “which is great because it made that next step more attainable. Or, they knew I’d try way harder so I could prove them wrong!”

Cindell Dale running Hermit Rapid. Photographs by John Blaustein
Photo: Cindell Dale running Hermit Rapid

 

That support, as well as her own tenacity and hard work, led to Dellie guiding countless trips down the Grand Canyon since her first days on the river.  Since then, many other women have entered the river guiding community as well, proving themselves equally competent and reliable leaders on the water.

While many other guiding industries remain heavily male dominated, river guiding, is not. In 2012, for example, OARS Dories in Idaho employed an equal number of male and female guides. Women are respected across the rafting industry as lead guides, paddle captains, river managers and gear boaters, with no hesitation about their skills based on their gender.

It always makes me smile when a guest comments on how impressed they are by the number of strong, women guides on their river trip. My smile gets wider, however, when a young girl looks at me on the oars and says, “I want to be a river guide when I grow up!” Thanks to many female river running pioneers and the support of their community, I know she will have the chance.

Thank you to Cindell “Dellie” Dale for her interview. Thank you also to the countless other women boating pioneers of the mid 20th century and today that are unnamed in this article.


Photos: Woods Wheatcroft (top), John Blaustein (bottom)

 

  • Liz Hymans

    Emerald, your research is a little weak. OARS should be proud! They hired me in the early 1970’s, and I was the first woman to row Grand Canyon for OARS, one of the first to work as commercial guides in Grand Canyon (See Breaking into the Current by Louise Teal), and I was also the first woman certified on the Tuolumne. Other than AZRA, other companies were a bit slow to hire women.

    • Cari_Morgan

      Liz, thank you for sharing your experience with O.A.R.S. I manage the O.A.R.S. blog and thought you’d like to know that we’re actually working on a follow-up piece to this post that highlights some of the early women of rafting (including yourself!). Do you mind if I contact you for potential photos and other info?

    • Emerald LaFortune

      Liz – I’m so glad you chimed in, I absolutely hope to hear more about your experience as the first woman to row GC for OARS. While this article was intended as a very broad overview of the topic, I think it’s important to start compiling more details and stories that current guides can share with our guests. I agree that OARS should be proud of their history of employing female guides – and I am proud to work for them today!

    • Dwight Morgan

      I (Dwight Morgan) agree with Liz – check out Louise’s book, “Breaking into the Current,” for an introduction to some of the women running the Grand Canyon back in the 70’s and 80’s…

      • Linda

        Hi Dwight, Good to see that you are keeping up with the water. I went on OARS Tatshenshini trip last summer as a guest and it was fantastic. Joslin was one of the guides and she was great! I still remember you rowing our boat on the T and one part of the Middle Fork Salmon in the ’70s. Take care, Linda Woodward

  • Jeffe Aronson

    Emerald shines again! Nice job guys.

  • RAFA GALLO

    I sure hope this happens again, remember when we had Kelly, Beth , Glenna, Julie, the Amazonkies, and many many more women guiding , it kept the guys on their toes, learning to read water instead of powering thru…

  • Joslin

    Rock on Emerald! I loved reading your words. Let’s go boating girl!

    • Emerald LaFortune

      Yes please Joslin, let’s get on the water! I love staying up to date with your writing, can’t wait to see what you have coming out next.

  • Suki Tutthill

    Enjoyed your article, especially after doing Cataract Canyon last summer with our grandchildren and their Mom. I’m the 67 year old Grandma. Was glad to see one of our 5 guides was “Jaime”. She added so much to the trip besides rowing the gear, like spending time with our 8 year old Makenna, the only girl of 7 boys on the trip! She is a hard worker, a great cook and shared her wonderful blue grass voice with guide Peter. It was awesome to see her rowing through the big rapids and handling the raft. She was a great role model for Makenna

    • Cari_Morgan

      Thanks for the comment, Suki! And great pictures!

  • Barbara Maher

    I was on a GC with Liz Hymans. She dazzled all of us with her wardrobe which included a new bathing suit every day accessorized with matching pop beads. She had an umbrella for shade on her raft and when she put the umbrella away, we knew we were in for a big ride. That was my first Canyon trip. Happily, I have had three more and hope to go one more time before I am too old to hike into the spectacular side canyons. Thank you OARS women (and men) for the many wonderful trips. I’m fortunate to be a “frequent floater” and look forward to more adventures with OARS.

  • Penny

    1988 on Main Salmon wearing tutu and pink oars.