THROWBACK THURSDAY: Female Empowerment on the Westwater
“Does the trailer look crooked to you?"
Hannah and I took a step back to survey the massive pile of gear we just strapped onto Bre's old snowmobile trailer. Paco pads, oar frames, dry boxes full of avocados and sour patch kids, a rusty yellow groover, pajama onesies: all the fixin's for the perfect weekend rafting trip.
"Well…the hitch looks a little low,” I said matter-of-factly, eyeing the bulging trailer tires.
We looked at each other for a couple of minutes, thinking through the options.
“I think it'll be fine," shrugged Hannah. She plopped into the driver’s seat. “Let's go!"
Fifteen women piled into three vehicles and drove south to the put-in for a new adventure. Our colorful production had a purpose. We were all with WOW, otherwise known as Women on Westwater, and we were ready to take on anything that came our way.
Our close-knit band of WOW women grew initially from a desire to embolden, empower, and bond the group of female employees and trip leaders from Outdoor Adventures. You see, our rental shop and trips program at the University of Utah has always flourished due to a strong community of adventurous friends. And all genders included, we spend many weekends together under the stars. But these expeditions are often planned without much intention beyond taking on a physical challenge or seeking out time to simply enjoy being outdoors in the wilderness. WOW was started by several women at Outdoor Adventures who sought to address an unspoken need for something more structured with opportunities to engage in constructive conversations surrounding gender in the outdoors, share personal experiences, and practice providing solution-based feedback with each other while out in nature, looking up at the Milky Way. The safe-space created by other women and Mother Nature facilitated a topic that is often left unintentionally unaddressed in multi-gendered trips.
Let me return to my story of WOW's adventure on the Westwater. With back-to- back class Ill rapids and one class IV, this fiery stretch of rapids on the Colorado river promised us all a good physical challenge. At 17 miles, our charted course could technically be run in one day, but we wanted to take our time and savor the experience, so we decided to break the trip into two days and sleep out along the river.
As one of the four boat captains, I felt nervous and lacked confidence in my rowing skills. Still, I knew in my heart that all of us were competent leaders. We could do it. I could do it. And ultimately, we did. After an intense first day where I flipped over navigating the first class II rapid we encountered, I spent the night zipped up in my sleeping bag troubled by nagging self-doubt until I finally fell into a restless sleep. The morning brought a few bites of breakfast burrito that churned in my stomach threateningly before we pushed off the shore to paddle out and face the challenges of our big rapid day. Through all of the stress, sweat, and yes…tears that day, the supportive voices of my fellow women brought us all safely across the swirling washing machine currents of Westwater Canyon. When we cleared Last Chance rapid, we celebrated shared our accomplishment by drifting along in the calm, smooth waters as we hooted and hollered with joy up at the big open sky. WOW. We did it.
Every woman experiences her gender uniquely. The stories told that night under the stars are sacred and true. They deserve to be shouted to the sky, wild and free. I want to share some anonymous snippets of the challenging realities of our wild warrior women. Quotations are paraphrased to maintain anonymity.
I encountered a male hiker on the trail who questioned my ability to lead the group of participants behind me because I'm a female. He chuckled and said something like, “You're letting her tell you what to do?”
In a gas station parking lot once, a random man told me that I needed to be careful and watch out for rapists when I wear my swimsuit and I’m alone.
A male co-leader told me to "climb like a girl but be strong like a guy" and at the time I was too shocked to say anything back so I just let it slide.
A customer didn’t believe me when I explained how the shocks worked on the mountain bike I had just rented to him. Then, a male co-worker walked over and said the exact same thing I had said in terms of instructions. The customer didn’t push back with my co-worker. Instead, he simply nodded and left happily.
A male co-leader mentioned to me once that his opinion was ignored on a rafting trip where he was the only male leader amongst four women. I feel that way on most trips.
I think I was hired for my job because of how I look and I don't know how to take that.
It's not to say that we, as women, are angry or that we want some sort of retaliation or vengeful justice. We actually hold a lot of love in our hearts for our male co-workers and co-leaders. And we believe that the community of Outdoor Adventures thrives through diversity of all of our identities. But there does need to be an intentional change where we carve out more time for honest expression and offer more pathways for exchanging respectful feedback. and more awareness of how gender impacts and influences the ways in which we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us.
So here's to women who roll a fat burrito and eat every bite. To women who display their bruises and scrapes with pride like the warriors they are. To women who crush, send, and nail their lines. To women who embody the lifestyle and can crush cans of beer or La Croix with their bare hands. To women who laugh, and howl, and speak their minds with abandon. To women who only fully wake up with a cup of coffee in-hand. To women whose strength runs as deep as a river and as ferociously as a class IV rapid. To women who are dedicated to empowering each other, recognize that gender is fluid, and who know that intersectionality is everything.
Here's to all women. All I can say is, WOW.
*Original article was published in the November 2017 issue of AORE's Student News publication.