By: Olivia Lynch
When I was seven years old, my family took our first multi day river trip down the Lower Salmon in Central Idaho. I vaguely remember eating peanut M&Ms and watching my dad row the boat. Over the next ten years, my dad taught me how to row that same boat, which came with confusion, frustration, and satisfaction.
A couple weeks before my seventeenth birthday, my dad broke his back at the takeout of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, right before we were supposed to put in on the Lower Salmon. We came to an agreement - I would row the Lower section. And I did. It was the first river I rowed in its entirety - all 60 miles. On my birthday, I rowed my first class four with my dad right behind me shouting directions. Afterwards, he apologized. "You had that on your own - I didn't need to give you any directions!" Not once has my dad ever recognized my femininity as a weakness, and I owe a lot of my independence and strength to him. He thinks I'm a badass, and so do I.
This past summer, I was finally old enough to start river guiding. I joined Sawtooth Adventure Company in Stanley, Idaho and was the youngest employee at 18 years old. I was lucky enough to work on a crew that was half women and half men, which is rare in the outdoor industry. As the summer plodded along and I got more comfortable in my surroundings, I noticed my female peers had to work harder to be recognized as able bodied guides. My peers received comments like "You're guiding my boat? But you're so small!" and "Wow! I didn't know women could do this!"
As Tarah O'Connor said in an interview for Kari Traa, “When a male customer attends a course, he will typically turn to your male colleague, if there is one there – and assume that he is the leader. It never happens the other way around." Unfortunately, this is a reality that any woman in the outdoor industry faces.
On the other hand, it is absolute pleasure to be a female raft guide. It's empowering to show little girls that hey, women CAN do these things. We are strong, intelligent, and capable. I had a few little girls this summer tell me, "I want to be a river guide when I grow up." I response to that, I'd give them a high five and tell their moms that it pays well with a wink. I love the undeniable feminine and calm energy of the river and the face glitter and music that only happens on girls’ trips. You get to watch guests' faces light up as you point out bald eagles' nests. You have the rare opportunity educate them on how the dams on the Snake River are negatively affecting salmon populations.
There are countless issues surrounding the outdoor industry, such as gender imbalance, use of indigenous land, access to clean air and water, lack of racial diversity, wealth imbalance... the list goes on. Being a woman in this industry has given me awareness of these issues and helped shape where I stand on them. It has helped me realize that I'm passionate about water rights, which is what I'm currently studying in college. Access to clean water is not a given. We cannot be the last generation to be able to enjoy these scenic and beautiful places. I recognize that I profit from the land, and I am working to give back to the places that have shaped me through conservation and education.
I hope that my words can inspire those reading to get after it and get into those imbalanced communities. Start those conversations and break down those old-fashioned beliefs. You don't have to have years of whitewater experience to be a guide. Many of my coworkers this last summer had never rafted before, but by the end of the summer, they were well versed in water etiquette. Most raft companies are hiring right now! A life in the outdoors is a life well lived, and it's better with glitter and supportive women around you.