An Outside investigation of sexual harassment in outdoor workplaces, where unwanted advances, discrimination, and assault are a frequent and destructive occurrence for far too many women
The first time Bridget Crocker was sexually harassed while on the job was in July of 1991. It happened on a typical summer day in the mountains of Wyoming—the sky a brilliant blue, towering cumulus clouds gathering on the horizon, tourists posing for pictures in front of local landmarks. The weather was unusually hot, and the rafting company where Crocker worked was doing brisk business. Crocker, then 20, was the only female guide in that day’s group of five, and after a busy morning leading clients down a stretch of Class III whitewater, she had to pee. There was no time to find a bathroom, so she dashed over to some bushes behind the guide van.
Download the Audm app for your iPhone to listen to more longform titles.
Crocker had just squatted to relieve herself when she realized that someone was standing over her. It was a male guide. From her position—slightly off-balance, vulnerable, shorts around her ankles—the man loomed large. She had been raped as a teenager less than three miles upstream from this same spot. Now alarm bells went off.
Have a story or news tip to share with Outside?
Email, text, or mail it to us.
“It’s been puzzling me,” the guy said, looking down at her. “Are your nipples pink or brown? I know you’re a B cup, but what color are your nipples?”
“You’ve got some nerve,” Crocker hissed. She pulled up her shorts and stormed away. The guide was fired, but others were aware that Crocker had lodged a complaint, and that soon caused problems for her.
In the weeks that followed, she was bullied for ratting out a peer. Male coworkers taped up porn in the guide van and flung insults—one called her a “dirty, hairy feminist.” One evening, on the way back from the river at the end of a long day, the guide driving the van swerved onto a dirt road and pulled over. “Kiss me,” he said, tapping his mouth. “Show me you’re not a bitch feminist dyke.”
Without waiting for a response, he leaned over and plastered his mouth on hers. From that moment, the harassment stopped. It was as if the men had demonstrated their power and were satisfied.
But Crocker had learned an important lesson: never tell. The river community is small and tightly knit, and she knew that if she wanted to fulfill her dream of working as an international guide, she couldn’t develop a reputation for being difficult. Even as she became one of the best guides in the business, progressing from running the Snake to the Colorado to Class V rivers like Africa’s Zambezi and Chile’s Biobío, sexual harassment tainted nearly every trip she worked. “Like my PFD and ability to read maps,” she later wrote, “harassment-coping skills were necessary for my survival.”
As one of a relatively small number of female Class V river guides, Crocker sometimes felt alone. She wasn’t. Over the past year, I corresponded with two dozen current and former river guides, both female and male, who acknowledged that sexual harassment, discrimination, and even assault are all too common on commercial river trips.
Rose McMackin, who led whitewater excursions in Utah, California, and Oregon for five years, said that getting hit on by male guides was a “consistent experience” everywhere she worked, and that one senior guide spit at and refused to speak to her after she turned down his advances. A guide from Montana named Lucy Tompkins told of a senior guide who groped her and another woman. Elisha McArthur, who has worked in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, told me about women who couldn’t get hired or advance to more difficult stretches of river unless they were having sex with a male head guide or supervisor. Jeremy Anderson, who has guided trips in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, recounted the story of a female guide who was raped while passed out drunk. And several women, including Crocker, complained about inebriated men who crawled into their beds at night—without consent—to try and have sex with them. “That behavior wasn’t out of the norm,” said Anderson.
River running isn’t the only outdoor pursuit where harassment occurs. Some 70 percent of the 4,176 people who responded to an Outside survey for this story reported that they’d been harassed in the outdoors or while working in the outdoor industry. I eventually talked to or exchanged e-mail with 80 such people, representing nearly every sport that the magazine has covered in its 40-year history. I spoke with women who were sexually harassed or assaulted at ski races, at mountain-bike events, while trekking overseas, at gear companies, even while reporting about the outdoors. I heard from a female scientist who was raped while conducting research at a remote field site, a woman who was stalked in the mountains of Canada by a former climbing partner, and dozens of other women who have been followed, catcalled, belittled, threatened, or asked for sexual favors in ways that made them feel profoundly unsafe while working or playing outside.
Though the problem is widespread, my reporting suggests that it’s especially prevalent in the river-guiding community, where work-life boundaries are hazy and coworkers sometimes spend days or weeks camping together in remote locations. Not all rafting companies have seen incidents like Crocker’s, of course, and women’s experiences vary widely from one river to the next. Still, judging by the feedback I got, this stain on the seemingly laid-back sport of river running serves as a disturbing case study of what women who work in male-dominated outdoor spaces deal with on a regular basis.
In 2016, the issue gained a national spotlight when a story broke about workplace harassment in an unexpected place: the world of federally employed guides, scientists, and others working on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. More recently, scandals have erupted in some of America’s most powerful institutions, including entertainment, journalism, sports, politics, and government. Commercial river guiding doesn’t have the kind of visibility that Hollywood does, but the abuses that occur there—and the inadequate resources typically available to women when something bad happens—warrant closer scrutiny and tangible ideas for change. Fortunately, more women are ready to speak out.
With wavy blonde hair, a tan face, and a wide grin, Crocker looks like someone who has spent her life outside. She grew up fishing and hiking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the Snake River winding through her backyard. From the time she was young, she says, the river was her “refuge and protection,” the place she’d go when life got rough.
And it sometimes did. When Crocker was 17, she was molested by an older man. A few months later, while she was on a private canoe trip with a college student working in Wyoming for the summer, the student raped her one afternoon alongside the river.
These episodes left Crocker feeling powerless, like she wasn’t worthy of protection. For two years, she carried those feelings clenched inside like a fist—until one day in September of 1990, when she and a group of friends pushed away from the shore of the Colorado River and into the gaping maw of the Grand Canyon. It was on that trip that Crocker got behind the oars of a fully loaded 18-foot raft and rowed her first real rapid. She experienced the pure, uninhibited joy of navigating whitewater, but there was another feeling, too: a sense of belonging. That’s when Crocker decided to become a guide.
Almost anyone who spends time outside can relate to these emotions, but they can be especially powerful for women. According to Denise Mitten, chair of the adventure-education master’s program at Arizona’s Prescott College, women are more likely than men to view wilderness as a sanctuary, and women who spend time outdoors tend to have a more positive body image than those who don’t. In a world where women learn from an early age to be hyperaware of how we look, the wilderness is a place where many of us finally feel at home in our bodies. It’s where we gain confidence and strength, whether that involves maneuvering a boat through surging rapids or linking turns on a steep mountainside.
And then, too often, that sense of belonging is ripped away.
Many women who told me about the sexual harassment or assault they’d endured described it as a sort of betrayal. Heather McLaughlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University who studies sexual harassment, has heard a similar refrain from other women. “There’s a sense of loss,” she says, noting that some women leave jobs or careers to escape abuse. “Whether it’s working outdoors or being a police officer or working construction, to be forced out of a job you love for reasons that have nothing to do with your ability to do the job can be really heartbreaking.”
During dozens of interviews I conducted, one moment in particular captured how harassment can change women’s connection to the outdoors. I was having lunch with Jessie (not her real name), a Grand Canyon guide whose supervisor harassed her in 2015. Now 28, Jessie works a less fulfilling office job, and I asked whether she still runs rivers in her personal time with family or friends. She’d already described to me how deeply she’d fallen in love with whitewater, so I expected the answer to be yes. Instead, she shook her head and looked down at her food.
“Um, no,” she said. “My husband’s actually more into it now than me. I just really lost the joy in it.”
Alisa May Geiser, a climber and adventure filmmaker who was assaulted at a ski race in the early 2000s, put it like this: “I’ve lost a tremendous amount of trust. There used to be a sense of safety. Like, how can anyone else who chooses to connect with the world in this way—who knows the feeling of being out in the mountains, these people you build so much trust with…” She trailed off. “Somewhere in my heart I thought we were above this. But we’re not.”
North America’s wilderness has long been dominated by men, and our most iconic rivers are no exception. The first white man to navigate the Colorado, the one-armed Civil War hero John Wesley Powell, viewed the river the way westerners of the 19th century tended to see many wild places: as a dangerous environment that required brute strength just to survive. Like America’s tallest peaks and remotest frontiers, the canyon’s depths were a place for men to test their endurance and spirit.
“Many men are out there to conquer,” says Mitten. “And for some, women are just one more thing to conquer.”
So in the 20th century, when women began asserting their right to be included in the wilderness, they often met with resistance. “Women have their place in this world, but they do not belong in the canyons of the Colorado,” wrote river pioneer Buzz Holmstrom in 1938, after an outfitter announced his intent to take two female passengers on a Grand Canyon raft trip.
Yet women continued to push into the canyon’s inner depths. In 1952, Georgie White became the first woman to climb behind the oars and successfully row the Grand Canyon’s notorious rapids. As a guide, she was known for serving her clients their meals straight out of cans and partying like one of the boys. Also like them, White largely refused to hire female guides when she started her own river-running company in the mid-1950s. She preferred burly ex-firefighters as boatmen and employed women as cooks.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that female boaters really broke into commercial rafting on the Colorado and other rivers. The term sexual harassment wouldn’t be widely used for two more decades, but early female guides described treatment that would be considered illegal today: companies that refused to hire them, colleagues who called them “boat hags,” promotions denied because they were assumed to be weak. None dared complain. To be granted the honor of rowing a raft, women needed to prove they were tough and capable—and that meant sucking it up. Most figured that once they demonstrated skill and strength, they’d be fully accepted on the Colorado and other rivers.
They were wrong.
In January of 2016, the legacy of sexism on America’s rivers exploded into the news and public consciousness. A 13-page report from the Department of the Interior’s inspector general found “evidence of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment” in Grand Canyon National Park’s River District. Four current and former River District employees had subjected female guides and others to a steady stream of sexual advances, refusing them food or otherwise retaliating when the women turned them down. According to the complaints, the boatmen had also stuck cameras up women’s skirts, groped and verbally berated them, and exposed themselves.
The federal employees kept quiet at first. “It was complicated,” one told Outside in 2016. “I relied on [the boatman] to have my back on the water. If I made enemies, I’d be screwed out there.”
Eventually, several female employees became so afraid for their safety that they filed formal complaints with interior secretary Sally Jewell. Those led to a lengthy investigation and a damning report from the inspector general, the dissolution of the River District, and a congressional hearing. Park superintendent Dave Uberuaga retired four months after the report was released. Although the response to the incidents was far from perfect, one Grand Canyon guide, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that the overall feeling was relief. At last, issues that had been swept under the rug for so long were being openly acknowledged.
Yet the same guide said that, compared with public-sector agencies, the commercial boating industry has been far less willing to address its own “prevalent” sexual-harassment problems. Additionally, since the thousands of commercial river guides around the country far outnumber the 35 people who eventually spoke out about the Grand Canyon River District, the problem in the industry is wider in scope—and more difficult to pin down.
In January of 2016, Crocker was having lunch at her home on the California coast when she saw an article online about harassment in the Park Service. She clicked through to the report detailing the Grand Canyon guides’ experiences, then printed a copy. By the time she finished reading the first page, tears were running down her cheeks. “I realized even then that this was an important document in the history of the sport,” she says.
After composing herself, Crocker, now a travel writer, grabbed a pen and highlighter and began annotating the report with her own experiences. Next to a section about a woman who’d asked her supervisor what she could do to help and was told she could “get naked,” Crocker wrote about the times she’d heard similar responses. Next to a section that described retaliation when a woman rebuffed a supervisor’s advances, she wrote about a trip leader who’d told her she’d never work for that company again after she’d refused to have sex with him.
Crocker’s notes spilled out of the margins and onto the backs of the pages. It wasn’t until she saw her experiences listed in one place that she realized that the things she’d put up with for years weren’t just part of a freewheeling river culture. They were potentially illegal.
Other commercial guides had similar reactions. Nikki Cooley, a 38-year-old Navajo woman who led raft trips in Arizona and Utah from 2000 to 2013, read the report alongside her husband, Craig Ahrens, also a river guide, at their home in Flagstaff. At one point they looked up at each other with the same response: It’s about fucking time.
“I’ve been harassed many times,” Cooley told me in a phone interview. She recalled a man who’d repeatedly shown her his penis and another who’d told her she belonged in the kitchen. “I had one trip leader who would always look while I was taking a bath,” she added. “I had to start bathing with my clothes on.”
Is there a higher rate of sexual harassment and abuse among river guides than in other outdoor sports? While there’s no data to say for sure, there are several reasons why sexual misconduct may seem particularly common in rafting. One is the sheer size of the industry. In 2016, for example, roughly 276,500 people signed up to be led down the Arkansas River near Salida, Colorado—the nation’s most popular commercially rafted stretch of whitewater. By comparison, that same year, just shy of 11,000 people attempted to climb Washington’s Mount Rainier, one of America’s most popular peaks for beginning climbers, and not all of them used guides.
It doesn’t help that, compared with sports like climbing and skiing, rafting is still relatively unregulated. Ski resorts are increasingly owned by large corporations that have a phalanx of human-resources professionals to draft sexual-harassment policies and make sure they’re followed. Alpine guides are often certified through the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), which holds guides and outfitters to high standards of conduct.
Rafting, by contrast, has no governing body, and companies tend to be small and family run. Lenore Perconti, a raft guide with ten years’ experience who also works in human resources at a ski resort, says that most river businesses don’t have the resources to hire HR professionals, so few provide adequate sexual-harassment training or have internal processes in place for employees to file claims. Complaints are handled by people who haven’t necessarily been taught how to deal with them, and are rarely reported to state or federal agencies. When you’re poorly paid, seasonally employed, and living out of your truck or van, as many raft guides are, going through the hassle and expense of finding a lawyer or figuring out how to file a claim with the state labor agency or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is practically unthinkable.
This makes quantifying the scope of sexual misconduct in commercial river guiding difficult, especially compared with public-sector fields that have been roiled by sexual abuse. In the National Park Service and Forest Service, employees attend training sessions on how to identify and report sexual misconduct, and federal offices are tasked with collecting reports and ensuring that perpetrators remain accountable. The system is far from perfect, but at least it’s a system.
In river guiding, there’s no such clearinghouse, no body to impose regulations. Women who are harassed often don’t know where to turn.
The woman I’m calling Jessie is soft-spoken but forceful, with long red hair. Growing up in a small mountain town in Colorado, she decided as a teenager that she wanted to be a river guide. She started locally, then moved up to bigger waters in California, Utah, and Colorado. In 2011, she earned one of the most coveted spots for a North American guide: rowing rafts on multi-day trips through the Grand Canyon.
At first, Jessie was in heaven—she characterizes her early years in the canyon as the happiest time of her life. The senior boatmen she trained with had been guides for a decade or more, and Jessie expected that she’d stay in rafting for a similar stretch. As long as she didn’t get pregnant, the boatmen told her, she’d have no trouble. Jessie laughed this off. She had no plans to start a family.
In 2014, after three seasons on the river, Jessie met a guide she’d never worked with before. Early on during one Grand Canyon trip, he revealed that he was having marital troubles and started drinking heavily. On their third day out, as the guides were getting ready to tuck in for the night on their rafts—clients sleep on land, guides generally on top of their boats—the man drunkenly lingered on Jessie’s raft, making her uneasy. “He wouldn’t leave me alone,” she says. Another guide saw what was happening and invited her to sleep on his boat.
The next night, as Jessie was getting ready for bed, the same man crawled onto her boat, put his hand on her hip, and asked if he could sleep with her. She demanded that he leave.
“That’s when I was like, There are complete assholes down here who I have to wade through if I want to stay,” she recalls. “That was my first experience of feeling so, I don’t know, female. Like I had a target on my back.”
When the trip ended, Jessie considered reporting the guide’s behavior to the company’s owners, but she says her trip leader advised against it. He told her that a formal report could result in a harassment investigation, and dealing with that would be traumatizing for her.
“He made it sound like he was looking out for me,” Jessie says. “At that point he’d been working at the company for 11 or 12 years, so he knew the game. He knew that if I was seen as a problem, I potentially could not get as many trips the next year.”
Jessie’s trip leader recalls the situation differently—he says that he laid out the options for her and she chose not to make a formal complaint. Whichever version is true, she kept quiet.
The following summer, Jessie was guiding another trip, and after having a couple of drinks one evening, she stumbled and spilled some dishwater on the beach. It wasn’t a big deal, but a client noticed, and Jessie decided that she should apologize to her trip leader for appearing to be drunk on the job. This person was a senior guide in the company and had enormous power over how many trips she would get in the future.
Jessie was sitting in her raft, and she called to the trip leader as he walked by. He climbed into her raft, put his arm around her, and told her not to worry. Then, without warning, he lifted her up and flipped her into the back deck of the boat, a distance of several feet. There, he held her on top of him and wrapped his arms around her. “As I’m trying to wiggle out, his face is right there and he’s trying to kiss me,” Jessie says. She shoved an elbow into his chest and pushed away.
At this point in her story, Jessie pauses, her voice getting thin. “You feel so betrayed,” she says. “There are these old men who get to just stick around, and what do they have to endure to keep their place as guides? Not as much as a young woman who’s trying to break through the ranks and become a senior boatman.”
Jessie says she again felt dissuaded from filing a complaint. In an e-mail to me, she wrote: “I was literally sobbing on the phone with a manager, feeling scared and extremely vulnerable, and instead of something like, ‘Let us help you, because something bad obviously happened,’ I remember the manager pointing out that there are differences between inappropriate behaviors and sexual harassment. That filled me with so much doubt and really clammed me up. What was the point then of coming forward?”
One of Jessie’s coworkers and a friend corroborate her account of the two incidents, and other river guides agreed that complaining can have an impact on a guide’s ability to move ahead in the job. When reached for comment, a spokesperson at the company where Jessie worked—which she doesn’t want to name—says that upper management was aware of one incident from the time period Jessie worked there, but that they weren’t able to investigate it because the employee asked them not to.
That was Jessie’s last Grand Canyon trip. “I lost a lot,” she told me. “A career on one of the greatest rivers in the world, respect for myself because I feel like I failed every other female in the canyon by not coming forward, not to mention confidence in myself and my voice. The guys who harassed me? To my knowledge, they’re still employed.”
Harassment and violence can happen anywhere, but researchers have found that such behavior is especially likely in male-dominated workplaces. Heather McLaughlin of Oklahoma State University has found that when women are socially isolated, they’re more likely to experience behaviors or comments about their bodies that are “menacing, malicious, or degrading.” Behavior that might be simply unsettling in an office can take on a much darker tone in a remote canyon, where there’s nowhere to go but downstream.
This behavior can have devastating consequences for women as they pursue ambitious, difficult careers. In a study published in the journal Gender and Society, McLaughlin found that a surprising number of women who experience sexual harassment quit their jobs. In a sample of 364 women who McLaughlin tracked over a two-year period, 54 percent reported switching jobs. Among women who had experienced harassment, the rate was closer to 80 percent. Many changed careers entirely, moving to fields where they thought sexual misconduct would be less pervasive.
Finding a new profession has economic consequences. But in fields like river guiding that are majority male, it also preserves the gender imbalance that fuels harassment. “When you objectify women and treat them like they don’t belong or are less competent, a lot quit,” McLaughlin says. “It perpetuates the very skewed number of women represented in an industry.”
Without statistics, it’s impossible to know how many women, like Jessie, leave river life after being mistreated. Still, every female river guide I spoke with characterized the industry as male dominated. A journalist in West Virginia who researched harassment and gender disparity found that only two in ten guides on two of the most popular rivers in the state are women. A male guide told me that in his two years on Canada’s Kicking Horse River, there wasn’t a single full-time female guide employed by the company he worked for.
The disparities may be greater among senior-level guides. According to Alexandra Thevenin, co-owner of a Flagstaff-based company called Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA), more than half of entry-level guides are women, but only a handful of the company’s top guides are. Thevenin believes that’s because women either have kids and don’t return to guiding, or they realize at a younger age that it’s not a sustainable long-term career.
Some guides I spoke to agree with that assessment, but many are also convinced by McLaughlin’s research: a hostile environment drives young women away.
Lucy Tompkins, a 23-year-old former raft guide from Montana, is a good example. As a kid, Tompkins had gone on raft trips on Idaho’s Salmon River and fallen in love—not just with whitewater, but with living outside, waking up to the sounds and smells of a river. After her freshman year in college, she tagged along on a commercial river trip to set up camp and cook, gaining experience so she could become a guide.
During that trip, Tompkins found herself hanging out with a woman who was rowing a gear boat. Tompkins noticed the intense pressure she faced. When she got her boat stuck on a rock, she was inordinately worried that she would lose the hard-earned respect of her male colleagues. “I got a taste of how hard women have to work to be recognized,” Tompkins says.
Undeterred, Tompkins applied the next summer to guide raft trips on a Class III river in Montana. The company was founded by women and prided itself on having a family-friendly atmosphere. But one day during training, a male guide cracked a joke that began: “What’s the difference between a woman and a washing machine?”
The punch line—that a washing machine doesn’t follow you around after you dump your load into it—made Tompkins uncomfortable. “It just seemed really unnecessary,” she says. “You can have fun and be sort of raunchy without getting into that territory.”
Later that day, all the guides were together on the river when a different man told the joke again. Knowing that Tompkins disliked it, he singled her out to deliver the punch line. She refused. All her coworkers were there, egging her on. “That was hard for me,” she says. “I might’ve teared up a bit.”
Another time, in a crowded truck, an older guide put his hand on her upper thigh. He had often flirted with her and other female guides in the past, but this was too much.
The incidents caused other guides to label Tompkins uptight. Feeling like she didn’t fit in was painful, and the following season she decided not to return. “I would’ve liked to,” she told me. “I loved being outside and feeling strong enough to maneuver a raft through a rapid, but it was never that inclusive an environment.”
In addition to outright harassment from colleagues, female guides regularly encounter customers who undermine them in sexist ways. Stacy Williams, who rowed dories and led fly-fishing trips on Utah’s Green River for five years in the 1990s, told me about a client who asked whether a blow job came with the lunch she was preparing for him. Teresa Jennings, a raft guide on the Arkansas from 2005 to 2009, often had clients look at her, look at the burly guy standing next to her, and request to be in his boat. Or they would question whether she was strong enough to handle Class IV rapids. One guy told her that he “had a hard time taking direction from women.”
Such behaviors erode confidence, ultimately convincing women that they don’t belong. “As a woman in the outdoor industry, you have to work twice as hard and be twice as tough and twice as badass in order to get half the respect,” says Elisha McArthur. “I think more women would stay in the industry if it was a more welcoming place.”
As more stories of sexual abuse in the outdoors have come to light, women have begun to reassert their place in America’s wilderness. After the Grand Canyon sexual-harassment report was released, Crocker was inspired to speak out in an online article for Men’s Journal. Her story inspired Jess Daddio, the guide turned journalist who investigated sexual harassment on rivers in West Virginia. And Lucy Tompkins talked about her experiences to a local newspaper. Gradually, in the slow-motion way that an 18-foot raft turns in a current, things have started to change.
When Tompkins decided she wasn’t going to return to guiding, for instance, she sent her former boss an e-mail describing her reasons for quitting. “Sexist jokes just aren’t funny,” she wrote. “I know river culture is traditionally crass, but I think that is born from its exclusive white-male origins. If we are going to bring people of different genders and backgrounds into river culture, it can’t continue to make fun of and humiliate them.”
The co-owner thanked her for speaking up, adding that the senior guide who’d touched Tompkins had been stripped of his leadership position.
Other guiding companies are making changes, too. In 2016, AZRA’s Thevenin revamped her company’s harassment training from a five-minute read of a written policy to an hourlong session that teaches what sexual harassment looks like and how to report it. She says the move was prompted partly by the Park Service scandal but also because of a situation in which an employee wasn’t comfortable coming forward with an experience regarding alleged sexual misconduct.
“One of my concerns as an owner has always been that victims don’t let us know when problems arise,” Thevenin says. “Until we know what’s happening, we can’t put a stop to it. It’s the responsibility of the employer to help victims find a voice.” She hopes that AZRA’s new mandatory-reporting policy—which requires employees to speak up if they’re aware of harassment or assault—will encourage people to come forward.
Other companies have banned guides from drinking alcohol, and people in the outdoor industry are beginning to broach the topic in their personal circles. “We’ve been dealing with this issue heavily,” says Grand Canyon guide Laura Fallon. “As a group, we very much processed and talked about it.” And in early 2017, the America Outdoors Association trade group created an anti-harassment policy and reporting form that it distributed to nearly 600 outdoor recreation companies, many of them river related.
But Lenore Perconti, the raft guide turned HR professional, says that formal policies aren’t the whole answer. When she started guiding a decade ago, sexual-harassment training consisted of watching one of those 1990s videos of office workers acting out harassment scenarios. In one of them, a man talks about the dangers of misconduct while a creepy boss rubs his secretary’s shoulders. River guides, who often live in trucks and trailers and party with their coworkers every night, doubled over with laughter.
“People don’t take things seriously when they don’t connect with them,” Perconti says. “The video became fuel for a culture that dismissed some of these potentially very serious issues. Despite the fact that companies are making their employees watch these videos and having them sign policies, sexual harassment still happens, because the culture hasn’t changed.”
For the past two years, Perconti has tried to change the culture by taking over sexual-harassment training at the company she used to work for. Instead of showing a cheesy video, she emphasizes open conversations about what’s appropriate, where to draw the line between work life and personal life, and how to spot situations that make other people uncomfortable. But in an industry made up of dozens of mom-and-pop businesses scattered across the country, making improvements in one place can achieve only so much. Perconti has tried to offer her services to other rafting companies, but so far they’ve turned her down.
That’s why guide Elisha McArthur is starting her own company, Canyon River Instruction, in Colorado, to offer raft training and women-specific clinics. She hopes eventually to use the curriculum to standardize raft-guide training nationwide. Right now, she says, river guiding in the U.S. isn’t seen as a career the way it is in places like Canada and New Zealand; here it’s something you do when you’re young, you rarely get benefits, and you’re easily replaceable. She hopes to modernize training and create industry-wide certifications through an organization like the American Canoe Association, eventually professionalizing rafting the way the AMGA helped legitimize climbing—and perhaps building the kind of environment where sexual harassment is no longer ingrained in the culture.
It’s a slow process, though, and McArthur is bracing for pushback. The river community has always existed outside the boundaries of conventional society, and many want it to stay that way. As one Grand Canyon guide wrote to me, some commercial guides “are upset that the boating world will now become more scrutinized. For them, one of the best things about being in the canyon was that the proper rules from the outside world didn’t apply—there was a freedom and a throwback to the good old days. The new attention to sexual harassment and discrimination is getting in the way of their fun.”
But as Jeremy Anderson puts it, “Yeah, maybe your freedom’s going to be taken away if you’re a douchebag. But if you’re not, you’re still going to be able to do your thing.”
The afternoon I spoke with Nikki Cooley, she was in her office at Northern Arizona University, where she works to help Native American tribes write climate-change management plans. Her then six-year-old daughter was home sick from school that day and was playing quietly in her mother’s office.
“I’ve always said that I don’t want my daughter to be a river guide,” Cooley said. “I don’t want her to be around men who think it’s OK to harass women, because you have no place to turn.”
By telling their stories, Cooley, Crocker, and other women hope that the next generation of female river guides will find a more welcoming environment. When she was first getting into guiding, Crocker confided to an older woman—an outdoor guide herself—how she’d been treated by her male coworkers. The woman responded that if Crocker wanted to stay in the industry, she’d better learn how to deal with it.
“I don’t want to have to pass on to younger raft guides what that woman told me,” Crocker says. “I refuse. That’s a big part of why I came forward. Maybe by the time the next generation is older, it won’t be an issue for them. I hope so. I can’t imagine rivers not being part of their lives.”
Krista Langlois (@cestmoiLanglois) is a writer in Durango, Colorado. She has guided canoe, kayak, and raft trips in Utah, Alaska, and New Zealand. Molly Mendoza is an illustrator based in Portland, Oregon.