Each day of a river trip there’s a special moment, when camp is nearly packed up in the morning, the boats almost ready to push off from the shore. The person rowing each boat scurries around strapping down the final odds and ends to suit their style, the excitement of what lies around the next bend starts to build—and the people on the shore look over the boats and decide who to hop in with for the next few hours down the river. It was in that moment, near the end of my trip down the Yampa River, that I hopped into Jo’s boat for the first time.
Jo was the trip leader. Her voice was calm and confident each day as she had guided our group downstream. She wasn’t the gregarious type of guide who chats nonstop. She was more subdued, quiet. She had directed the other guides in putting on a so-far flawlessly fun trip. But I hadn’t found myself riding in her boat yet. So, realizing that my opportunity would soon be gone, I asked if she had room, rinsed the sand off my sandals and hopped aboard. Within a few minutes, the boat had filled with other passengers, and we were nosing into the current. It was the first time during the five-day trip that I’d been on a boat full of women, including the guide.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not the type of woman who actively seeks out all-female environments. I deeply appreciate my female friends, and once in a while enjoy a female-only outdoor adventure, but I’ve never gravitated toward “women’s only” trips. This particular Yampa rafting trip had been a fantastic mix of mindbogglingly intelligent men and women—who also happened to be kind, and great conversationalists. I’d never found myself feeling the “odd woman out” or in any way feeling uncomfortable or in need of female-specific companionship. I’d enjoyed the conversation during every single boat ride of that week just as much as the scenery going by. So the little wave of calm excitement that came over me on that randomly all-female boat took me a little by surprise.
Jo pointed out special landmarks along the river banks—like the ladder left from surveying for a potential dam site decades ago. And as she deftly piloted the raft around eddies and through riffles and small rapids, I realized that riding with a female guide meant something important to me, something I hadn’t thought about before. I didn’t grow up on rivers. I’d never been on whitewater until I was 18, and never rowed my own boat until I was over 30 years old. And, like many women in many other outdoor sports, my guides and mentors on river trips had mostly been men—very thoughtful men whom I appreciated so much as friends and leaders that I hadn’t even given a thought to what it would mean to ride with a female guide. But there I was, in the front of the raft, watching Jo at the oars, and Tillie and Emily in conversation in the back of the boat. And I thought: This is something truly special to me.
For one, it was meaningful for me to see a woman in charge on the river. Even though I don’t foresee myself ever becoming a river guide, something in my conscience whispered, “Thank you.” Thank you for modeling the fact that we, too, can take charge. And it doesn’t always have to look the same way it does when a man takes charge. That’s OK—in fact, that’s beautiful. And secondly—perhaps most importantly: In the current of a wild river, I felt a sense of freedom and adventure, of being the mistress of my own destiny, in a very rare, unique way. It’s the type of feeling I think many women may never have the privilege to feel, and I’m immensely grateful for it.
As we followed the river between gnarly crags and ancient cottonwoods that day on the Yampa, I realized I may never have fully experienced that feeling if I hadn’t had the good fortune to hop onto a boat full of women that morning.