“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.
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!”
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)