Why Female River Guides Aren't Welcome in the Grand Canyon

When a female guide complained about inappropriate behavior and harassment, she was accused of lying. Photo: Eric Nyquist

Last winter, a federal government report acknowledged a long-standing pattern of sexual harassment against female river guides employed by the National Park Service in the Grand Canyon. But no official account can capture the day-to-day realities of that harmful environment. Here, three former Park Service river guides recount what they endured, and discuss what needs to change.

In early January, the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General released a 13-page report chronicling 15 years of sexual harassment and hostile working conditions for National Park Service employees working on the Colorado River. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell requested the investigation after 13 Park Service employees sent letters to Jewell detailing their experiences working in the Grand Canyon’s River District, a subsection of the Park Service that oversees the Colorado River. The conclusion by the Inspector General was stunning:

“We found evidence of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment in the GRCA River District,” the report said. “In addition to the 13 original complainants, we identified 22 other individuals who reported experiencing or witnessing sexual harassment and hostile work environments while working in the River District.”

The report referred to both current and former Park Service boatmen, supervisors, and other employees. Names were not mentioned. Instead, those bringing allegations were referred to as Employees 1-19, and those accused of wrongdoing were called Boatman 1, 2, and 3, and Supervisors 1-7. Instances of sexual harassment included episodes in which Boatman 1 repeatedly propositioned Employees 2 and 3 for sex, and Boatman 2 took a photo up Employee 1’s skirt. Examples of creating a hostile work environment included Boatman 3 refusing to provide food to women on his trips if they rejected his sexual advances, and yelling and threatening Employee 4 while holding an axe.

The boatmen mentioned in the report received small reprimands over the years for their actions, such as written warnings and brief suspensions. For example, in one incident in 2004, Supervisor 1 received a ten-day suspension for grabbing a woman’s crotch. By contrast, after two female workers—Employees 1 and 2 in the federal report—were accused of having “twerked” and drank from a penis-shaped straw during a river trip party in 2014, managers refused to renew their employment contracts. According to the report, the investigation into their alleged behavior was not as thorough as it should have been, considering the severity of the punishment.

As damning as the report is, some victims say its findings only scratch the surface of the demoralizing day-to-day reality for female river rangers in the Grand Canyon. According to three former employees who Outside spoke to about their time on the river, the issues in the canyon don’t end with a few lewd boatmen. Rather, they’re indicative of systemic failures on the part of the Park Service to protect workers from a harmful environment. These women claim that both mid-level managers and top park brass were aware of these issues for years, and that many of the supervisors and employees mentioned in the report remain in their positions today. 

The Park Service responded to the report in February by promising discipline and sweeping changes. A plan issued in early February by Sue Masica, the director of the Intermountain Region, which overseas Grand Canyon National Park, sets forth an eight-month timeline for changing the culture on the river and disciplining employees—including park superintendent Dave Uberuaga and deputy superintendent Diane Chalfant. On March 16, Uberuaga announced the reorganization of the River District Office—its six employees will be reassigned to other areas of the park, according to a DOI spokesperson—and acknowledged that “a culture was tolerated that allowed sexual harassment and created a hostile work environment.” Details of the district reorganization are “still in development,” according to an emailed statement from a Park Service spokesperson.

Some of the changes in Masica’s plan, like adding more pre-trip training and requiring uniforms to be worn at all times, will be implemented quickly. Other items—like a top-to-bottom review of river culture—may not happen until later this year. Details on punishment for both remaining boatmen and supervisors were left vague, since Park Service policy requires that punishment be kept confidential.

All three women Outside spoke to are pursuing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claims against the Park Service. The commission is designed to help mediate and investigate employees’ complaints of unlawful discrimination against their employers. Rachel Brady (Employee 5 in the federal report) is currently in mediation. If a settlement isn’t reached at a meeting scheduled for late April, and the two sides can't come to terms during an administrative hearing with the EEOC, Brady may choose to take her case to federal court. A second woman we spoke to, who requested to go by the pseudonym Allison (Employee 1), is currently working to schedule a mediation. The third former employee, who requested to use the pseudonym Katie (Employee 3), filed a separate EEOC claim earlier this month.

Here's what life for female Park Service workers was like on the river, in their own words:

OUTSIDE: When did you get started on the river, and what jobs had you done for the Park Service before then?
RACHEL: I started in January of 2013, and I was the law enforcement river ranger. I had been working for the Park Service since 2004, at Glacier, Mount Rainier, and Death Valley national parks. Previously, I’d done a lot of canoeing, paddle boating, and boating with motors, but I didn’t have a ton of rowing experience. I was nervous about learning to row on the Colorado River, but the River District ranger who hired me assured me they had a method for training people and that it wouldn’t be an issue. That turned out not to be the case at all. 

ALLISON: My first river trip for the Park Service in Grand Canyon was in 2005. I started in Grand Canyon as an intern doing invasive plant removal and continued working for the park over the next several years.

KATIE: I started working as a seasonal law enforcement ranger for the park service in 2003. I’d worked at Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Yosemite. I was a longtime whitewater boater, and I had worked as a commercial river guide. I started working as a river ranger in 2009. The Grand Canyon is my favorite place in the world, so this was my dream job.

Had you heard anything about river guide culture, or any cautionary advice from former employees, before you started?
ALLISON: I knew what to expect from my own experiences in regards to being in an isolated environment and living and working in a wilderness situation with the same group of people for long time periods. I had lots of experience doing that. There was a meeting with our crew before the first trip in 2005, and there were some off-handed remarks and a list of expectations, but no explicit warnings about the river rangers who were our boatmen on the trip. I did have an inkling that there may have been some things in the past that had happened, but I had no real idea. I was a brand-new intern. 

KATIE: The woman who had the job before me, and who recommended me, had a really different and positive experience. So no, she didn’t warn me about it. But before I came in, I knew it was a boy’s club. I knew there would be rough guys and I knew I could navigate that. But it didn’t take long to realize that this wasn’t just a boy’s club, this was a really dangerous environment. This was pathologic behavior. These men were unstable.

RACHEL: Before I’d started, the guy who hired me said, yeah, the guys in the boatshop can be pretty gruff and I should “give it back as good as I got it.” But I’d worked on trail crews where I was the only female with a group of five men, and law enforcement is a very male-dominated field. I had not heard anything about the culture in the boatshop prior to starting, but not long after, I was told by another boatman to “watch out for Boatman 3.”

Rachel, what was your first trip like?
RACHEL: On my first trip, in February and March of 2013, Boatman 3 was the trip leader, so he was responsible for deciding where we were going to stay each night, where we would do work, and where we’d stop for lunch. He’s been on the river a long time and has a lot of knowledge about how to row the rapids. 

On the last day of the trip, I’m rowing the boat, trying to focus on learning how to row down the Colorado River, and he just lays into me. He starts grilling me on my experience. He’s asking about my law-enforcement skills, my EMS skills, my search-and-rescue skills, and he told me that I shouldn’t have gotten the job, that I “contributed nothing” to the River District. He pretty much just made me miserable. I went home after the trip and bawled my eyes out. I began to have serious concerns about what I had gotten myself into.

On another trip, in April 2013, I was sent on a two-boat training trip with Boatman 3 and Boatman 1. Within the first mile of rowing on Boatman 3’s boat, he yelled at me and grabbed the oars out of my hands. Because of this, I spent the rest of the 226-mile trip on Boatman 1’s boat, which I could row a lot better. 

Boatman 1 is an older guy and, in comparison with Boatman 3, he took me under his wing. He was super patient and we got along well. But then, four days into the trip, we stopped at Phantom Ranch. The three of us were staying in the ranger station for the night. He asked me if I was sore, since I was using new muscles to row. All of a sudden he started to give me a back rub, progressing lower and lower. Then he patted me twice on the rear end.  

It made me feel really uncomfortable, but there was also a feeling that he was my ally against this other guy who was subjecting me to a hostile work environment. Not to mention that I was alone with both of these individuals for a week, rowing with them every day and then camping at beaches together. They were carrying the satellite phones and I felt cut off from the outside world. So I didn’t say anything right away, even though I felt uncomfortable.  

Over the next few days, we’d be on the boat and he’d be telling me about his open marriage and how, in the seventies, the commercial boatmen would receive sex from women instead of tips. A few days later, as we were unloading the boats, he smacked me on the ass. At that point, I told him to stop. On one of our last nights on the river, I was asking him about how he set up his boat for sleeping. He said, “There’s plenty of room for two if you want to try it out.”

Allison, what about your first experience?
ALLISON: My first trip was pretty rough. On about the fifth day, we’d finished our work and several of us were hanging out in the kitchen area. It was Halloween and we were all in costume. My camera was out on a table, because I’d been taking pictures of people in costume, and the next thing I knew Boatman 2’s hand was underneath my skirt and he was taking a photo in there with my camera. It was upsetting to say the least, and it changed the dynamic of the trip from there on out.   

The next morning [the project leader] worked to try to get things back on track and to cultivate the community again, reminding everyone that we still had more than half the trip left to live and work together. But the response from the boatman who took the photo was, “What happens on the river stays on the river.” Any attempt from the project leader to bring us back together was just completely dismissed by him. 

That first incident was definitely upsetting, but really the worst was yet to come. Over the next several years, the retaliation for reporting the harassment was worse than the actual event.  

It sounds like Boatman 1, 2, and 3 were the main perpetrators of this culture. What other things did they do?
KATIE: On a river trip in September of 2010, I had my first real incident with Boatman 1. I mentioned that it was going to be cold that night and he suggested that I could sleep with him and we could cuddle. It wasn’t anything major, just unwanted sexual attention. For me, reporting it was complicated. I relied on him to have my back on the water. If I made enemies, I’d be screwed out there. Even if I did want to report it, I didn’t think there was anyone I could report it to—none of our supervisors were going to do anything. 

In April of 2011, we were on a training trip. The whole River District staff was on it. I was running a different boat than usual, and Boatman 1 was training me on it. He asked if we could pull over at a spot where he thought he’d left some tent poles on a previous trip. He goes off to look for the poles, which he doesn’t find, and when he comes back he suggests we take a bath together. I said no, but he continued to get naked and be persistent about it.  

Yeah, people on the river go take a bath sometimes and get naked, but you do it in private. This was not walking up on someone accidentally taking a bath—he was putting it right in my face. He kept trying to get on the boat completely naked, penis exposed. I wouldn’t let him. I wanted to leave to meet up with the rest of the group, but he refused to put his clothes back on. I told a supervisor what happened, but the supervisor did nothing.

ALLISON: A little more than a year after my first trip, I was on another research trip and we double-camped one evening on a trip with Boatman 3. He followed me to my camp that night and began berating me for reporting sexual harassment the year before. He said it was my fault that Boatman 2 lost his job, and that we should have kept our mouths shut. He said, “What happens on the river stays on the river.”

We did another trip together in 2014, which was ultimately the worst trip. Boatman 3 prevented me from accomplishing my work by refusing to stop at my work sites and continually changing plans at the last minute, so I wasn’t able to collect the data I needed. He also accused me of inappropriate behavior on that trip, which ultimately led to my term position not being renewed. He falsely accused me of dancing, dressing, and acting inappropriately during our last night of the trip during a staff party. He told management that it was the “craziest party” he’d ever seen on the river. The accusations were completely untrue, and I provided extensive documentation from the majority of other people on the trip, proving that his accusations were false. However, as was stated in the report from the OIG, management failed to conduct a thorough investigation and ultimately I paid for it.

So these men would lie to management?
KATIE: They would blatantly tell stories about things that had happened, saying the women had been drinking a lot or dressed inappropriately. They would say, "These girls show up not wearing any underwear, and someone takes a picture and all of a sudden it's sexual harassment," as if it was the victim's fault. This was the general response to any sexual harassment complaint. 

Furthermore, the boatmen would often supply alcohol to female passengers, and if the female became visibly intoxicated, they would use this incident to discredit the victim if she ever came forward with a complaint. They would discredit the victim for months or years with this one incident, saying, There was this one time we saw her get drunk.

When I first arrived and heard the stories from the men, at first I thought, Oh, well maybe there are some women that are doing this. And then I met the women and I realized that it wasn’t them. These women are super awesome, super professional: They rarely drank alcohol and never dressed inappropriately. 

And then you start seeing this repeated bad behavior from the guys. So it kind of took a couple of years before I really understood what was going on. …Unfortunately, people in positions of authority bought into the victim-blaming and no one ever believed what the women said. It was always, These boys are being victimized.

What happened when you reported these issues to your superiors at the park service?
KATIE: I confided in my deputy chief, and he just made a joke out of it. He’d come from the ski world and he said, “There, it’s not sexual harassment until the guy whips out his penis and slaps you across the face with it.” That answer was so emblematic of everyone’s response to what was happening on the river. They all thought it was a joke. They didn’t take it seriously. 

I made a formal report in 2013 to management and testified in the 2013 Equal Employment Opportunity investigation into civil rights violations within the River District. The only tangible result of this investigation was that two of the victims who had reported violations to management lost their jobs. I also heard through the grapevine that Rachel was being subjected to similar and even worse behavior by River District employees after the 2013 investigation.

When someone did come forward, it was her fault. You didn’t want to be the one who came forward. I just felt like I should be tough, I should be able to take it. …Their way of dealing with issues like this was to not send the guys out on the river with certain women. But that’s not dealing with it.

At this point, I don’t believe anything the Park Service says or does. I lost all trust after that. 

RACHEL: I reported Boatman 1’s sexual harassment to a River District ranger in May 2013. I was not aware of Boatman 1’s history of sexually harassing other women. The ranger reached out to the person who had been in my position before me and asked if she’d had any issues with Boatman 1. In response, she wrote him a 29-page letter. That’s what kicked off the initial EEOC investigation. 

Everyone in the boatshop was interviewed by an EEOC investigator, but I never saw a final report or heard any sort of outcome from it. As far as I could tell, there was never any punishment. Despite this scrutiny, Boatman 3 continued to subject me to a sexually hostile work environment for over a year.   

Finally, after putting up with Boatman 3’s behavior for a year and a half, I told the ranger that I couldn’t take it anymore. He told me that saying this “wasn’t being helpful” and accused me of not being “truthful.” I then decided to file an EEOC complaint. 

In May 2014, I was asked to have a meeting with the River District ranger, the deputy chief ranger, and the chief ranger. I went into the meeting and the chief said he’d heard I filed an EEOC claim and he wanted to know in my words what was going on. I told him everything—that Boatman 3 had been subjecting me to a hostile work environment for a year and a half, that I was depressed, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. I told him I was ready to quit and be done with this. 

Then the chief said he had a question for me: “I want to know why you filed an EEOC complaint instead of letting us deal with it in-house.” To me, that was very telling about how park management wanted to deal with the issue. I told him that filing an EEOC complaint is my right. Furthermore, the River District ranger told me that he knew Boatman 3 had been treating me like this since after the first river trip, yet Boatman 3’s behavior never changed. I didn’t have any faith that management was going to change the culture over there. 

What kind of effect did this have on your ability to work?
KATIE: It became physically difficult to go to work. They were bullies, they were unstable. I felt physically ill when I went to work. This wasn’t boys being boys, it was really pathologic stuff.

I’m a nurse, and from my medical training I have really strong concerns that this repeated exposure to hostility is affecting these women’s health—it was adversely affecting my health. It’s well established in the medical literature that chronic exposure to harassment and violence can lead to numerous adverse health consequences.

Most of the women felt that they could recover from the actual sexual harassment incidents and move on with their lives. But the repeated re-victimization by park managers is what devastated most of us. I’m not the same person I was three years ago. I experienced some of the blackest days of my life watching what happened to the other women. How is there no justice and no accountability? How does this happen in one of the most special and protected places in the world?

RACHEL: I put up with it a long time. It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I had severe anxiety, and I suffered from depression. I dreaded working with these guys.

After you wrote your letters and filed the EEOC claims, did anything change?
RACHEL: After I filed my EEOC claim, I was forced to move into a high-stress law-enforcement position at the canyon. I never saw any change after I wrote my letter. All the boatmen and supervisors who were listed in my letter still continued to work in Grand Canyon, and I had to see them on a daily basis. I watched a manager who was being interviewed by OIG get promoted to superintendent of another park.

It was horrible working in this environment for two-and-a-half years. On some of my days off, I wouldn’t even get out of bed. I was forced to use all my sick leave because I was under such constant stress. The working conditions were so bad that I resigned under constructive-discharge circumstances over a year after I filed my EEOC complaint. The career that I loved and had been working towards for eleven years is still in tatters.  

The Park Service has since issued a strategic plan to deal with the culture of sexism on the river. Do you feel the park has adequately addressed the problem? 
RACHEL: While I was pleased to see the response from Park Service Intermountain Region Director Sue Masica, I'm still concerned about certain disparities. The women who reported these issues have had their careers forever altered. However, the supervisors and River District employees who were part of the OIG investigation have either received promotions or are still employed by Grand Canyon.

This does not seem consistent with the Park Service's long-standing, zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment and hostile work environments. I hope that our affidavits, the investigation, and the agency's response assures a safe and respectful environment for female employees of Grand Canyon.

ALLISON: I think the response from the regional director is a good start. Because it is sensitive and private information, they don’t specifically say what punishments will be employed, but I’m hopeful that significant changes will happen.

KATIE: I'm pleased with the response by the regional director. It's very comprehensive and addresses many aspects of the issue—discipline, training, reform. If the Park Service follows through on what she has proposed, I think there is a genuine opportunity for accountability and change, but ultimately it will depend on the follow-through. I’m concerned that it doesn’t incorporate evidence-based research on dealing with these issues and they will miss the boat entirely on how to implement reforms.

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