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Navigating Rapids: A Woman’s Raft Guiding Story through the Grand Canyon

I pulled on the oars with all my strength, watching over my shoulder with a panicked expression as the center obstacle in Bedrock Rapid in Grand Canyon grew ever closer. Just when I thought I’d made it far enough to the right to clear it, I bounced off a rocky shoal protruding from the right bank and headed back toward the center.

“Pull! Pull!” our trip leader shouted.

I didn’t need telling twice. Pointing my stern downstream as I’d been taught, I stood up and used all my weight to yard on the oars, gasping as I spun.

“No, no, no, no, no,” I muttered under my breath, surely headed toward the huge chunk of metamorphic rock blocking the middle of the channel and splitting the current in two, the rapid that had haunted my nightmares for three years.

At the last minute, a lateral wave pushed me to the inside of the current and I was nudged gently to the side, exactly where I wanted to be. I felt my adrenaline drop and the nausea kick in as I pulled into the eddy on the right side of the river formed by the very shoal that had sabotaged me.

I watched as the rest of my crew pulled away from the obstacle effortlessly, their broad shoulders and huge forearms rippling. One of my co-guides looked positively bored.

I was on my second commercial Grand Canyon trip, rowing a baggage boat 225 miles over the course of 12 days through some of the most iconic and sought-after whitewater in the world. While this was my fourth time down the Colorado River through the canyon, I wasn’t yet cleared to have passengers in my raft. As such, I rowed huge piles of gear consisting of faded dry bags full of dusty charcoal, all of the groovers, soaps, and trash.

Contrary to my first commercial trip, I wasn’t the only woman this time around. Women are a bit more rare in the river guiding industry, and as a matter of numbers, I’d been the only gal on a trip of 23 male guests and six other male guides on my first trip. This time, I had Kelsie, who was a serious badass.

While incredibly kind and helpful, Kelsie was pretty intimidating. She is on the International Women’s Rafting Team (also known as the Red Ladies), one of the few women to drive motor boats for the company I worked for, and a Colorado River expert.

And yet, she would sit on the beach with me almost every night, especially before big rapid days and draw out the lines in the sand. She knew we had similar styles, and suggested when to pull on the oars rather than push, how to use your legs when making big moves.

My first commercial trip had been with men that were incredible allies. They didn’t mind delaying so that I could run ahead to scout the rapid with my friends and co-guides Matt and Zach. They were patient as I learned how to set up the kitchen and instructed me how to rig my 18- foot gray raft.

Yet they were all at least 6-feet tall and burly. I am 5’5” and…not. So when I watched Matt enter a rapid with his bow (front of the raft) pointing downstream, pushing against the oars, I tried to do the same. I threw myself against the oars, frantic, barely pulling off moves that the men did easily.

They chose lines down the rapids that required a lot of strength. They often pulled off huge moves across the river in nothing more than a few strokes, jumping from eddy to eddy and dodging rocks easily.

These men were incredible boaters. I usually ran in the center of the pack, so I watched from both in front and behind as they danced their way down the river.

Yet if you’re familiar with rafting or whitewater in general, you know that people of different genders, or even just different sizes, need to go about things differently.

Kelsie would stand with me on shore and patiently point out alternative lines to the ones the men were taking. She was serious but kind. She would show me all of the options and then say something like, “But knowing your style, I think you’d like this way better.” She didn’t take away any sense of agency or show any doubt about my abilities.

Kelsie showed me lines I hadn’t even noticed. She also hammered home the fact that there’s no such thing as an upstream ferry move in the Grand Canyon. There’s simply too much water, and the boats are too big, to pull against the current.

This trip, I steered my raft so I was right on Kelsie’s tail, following every stroke she took, matching her positioning as she entered each rapid.

She navigated with much more finesse than I did, calculating exactly how many strokes she had to take to dodge rocks and hydraulics. I fumbled my way through, often bouncing off shore or cliffs and narrowly avoiding flipping on a number of occasions.

Yet none of my co-guides were judgmental, often describing their own more catastrophic mistakes in good humor.

Which brings us to a little rapid called Dubendorff.

We perched high up on the left shore, and every guide described how they were going to go about it. There was a burly move to the right, or we could go to the left and go through a series of waves, being sure to miss the huge ledge hole in the center. Kelsie stood next to me, pointing and miming the moves.

I hadn’t had good runs so far. I’d hit the menacing bottom wall in Crystal, I’d barely pulled off the “split the horns” move in Horn Creek. I was nervous.

We set off, again right behind Kelsie. She looked back and nodded her approval at my positioning, and then it began.

I didn’t know where I was in the rapid. I just pushed forward and tried to keep it straight. Then I saw the line that we’d discussed and knew I was right on it. I pushed again and looked straight at the ledge hole. I had missed it.

I spun out at the bottom. I’d had a perfect run. Kelsie was in the eddy below the rapid and stood up to whoop and pump her fist. I couldn’t contain my own joyous shouts.

The rest of the trip didn’t exactly go perfectly. I fell out of the raft completely in Lava Falls, the biggest rapid in the Grand Canyon, to name just one of the many mistakes I made downstream of Dubendorff. But I carried that confidence with me through to the end, still basking in the glory of my perfect run.

I can’t say rafting with women is any better than a bunch of men, because I felt equally supported either way. But something about having a fellow badass gal pushed me to be better, something to strive for.

I’ll head back to the Grand Canyon this summer, and I’m hoping I still have that confidence I gained on that particular September trip. I just have to stay in the raft this time.

Author bio: Monica Nigon is a ski patroller, river guide, and writer based out of Pagosa Springs, Colo. Originally from the Midwest, she grew up in boating the muddy waters and skiing the icy slopes of southeastern Minnesota. She moved to Colorado in 2015 and now spends her time rowing boats through the Grand Canyon in the summer and ski patrolling at Wolf Creek Ski Area in the winter. She also enjoys mountain biking, climbing, hiking, and playing Irish music on her fiddle. Follow Monica on Instagram: @monicanogin.

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