By Rebecca Lawton
Women in boats have been in the news lately, for all the wrong reasons. Ugly reports of misogyny have surfaced from the Colorado River Unit of the National Park Service in Grand Canyon, and commercial boatwomen have stepped forward to complement the tales with some of them own. Today I’ll add a few more thoughts to the mix.
Much of the crappy stuff is true. I know, because I saw it and lived it. Not taking no for an answer from others was basically the approach that got many of us to the Grand Canyon to work as river guides in the 1970s and 80s. It took persistence, hard physical work, a passion for the outdoors, and an ability to embrace demanding environments with all our hearts. But, as we’ve been reading, saying no sometimes doesn’t stop bad behavior or change a situation enough to want to stay in it.
Commercial river-guiding for me began with a weekend trip with my brother, a professional boatman on the Stanislaus River in California. The river was lovely and amazing, and I fell for it right away. I doubted I’d be a guide, though. Back then, women guides were rare, and they were generally wives of boatmen brought along to help before they got their own boats.
I was 17, not about to get married. Guiding was clearly not in the cards for me. How wrong I was. When a boatman friend recommended me to a rafting outfitter he knew, I was hired after a quick interview. That outfitter wanted to balance crews with women—he himself had been trained by a woman. He knew how exceptional they could be on the water.
Next I went through weeks of official training trips. I trained on the American and Stanislaus rivers, learning the routes by heart until I understood currents better by feel and sight. Little did I know I’d be learning how to boat for the rest of my life.
As other women have said in the recent articles, I was often the only woman on a river crew. I became known as “Miss Becca” in California, “that girl on the ARTA crew” in Utah, a “cowgirl boater” in Idaho, and someone who could handle 22-foot snout boats in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. When men stood on shore and pantomimed that I should remove my swimsuit top, I flipped them the bird. When we scouted the biggest rapids on the Colorado, and some male passenger asked me, “Are you sure you can handle this?” I told him what he could do with himself.
Not the best approach, but the only one my teenaged mind could come up with at the time.
I persisted at guiding. I studied the water. I learned from the river. I watched where small bits of wood floated, felt where currents carried my boat, saw how waves tossed the boats of my colleagues—studied the gestalt of it all with hawk‑like intensity.
But you know who else taught me to read water? The boatmen.
They urged me to row the biggest rapids when I balked. “You’ll be mad at yourself if you don’t row Lava Falls,” said one mentor on my very first training trip. “And you can totally do it.” I’d already worked in three states for several years, trained by—you guessed it—boatmen who believed in gender‑balanced crews. Another mentor in Grand Canyon taught me to row the tricky “bubble line” entry at the same rapids, Lava, and his teaching never failed me in the ten summers I guided there. Yet another mentor was injured while trying to row his boat out of the monster backwater below Granite Falls. I took over his boat and got us through some of the Canyon’s biggest rapids that same day: Hermit, Crystal, the Gems. He sat behind me, gave pointers, and cheered as we aced each run.
It’s true that I learned from the men in part because at the time there were few women to learn from. It’s also true that some of the guys who came to boating after I did were picked up far more easily for the big-water work. But it’s further true that they were excellent teachers and cheerleaders. I’d seen the work of Georgie White, the pioneer Woman of the River, and her evolving approach of running bigger and bigger rafts with powerful motors wasn’t for me. Instead I was hooked on oar power. I wanted to row like the men who worked for one of the few companies hiring women in the Canyon.
Two other oarswomen had preceded me into that company, but I rarely if ever found myself on the same crew with them. The owners had noticed that putting women on the crews improved the trips, and they spread us around the roster. I saw my few female counterparts mostly in passing at the boathouse back in Flagstaff. They were lithe, strong, and cheerful. They didn’t take any bull off anybody.
It wasn’t easy, by any stretch. People I considered otherwise enlightened (men and women) felt free to make remarks about my body or express doubt that someone so small could do the job. They talked about women in my presence in colorful ways, as if I weren’t there. They passed me over for choice assignments in favor of the big guys with sometimes less skill and experience. For me, the unpleasant parts of the job seemed huge but were not so different from unfairness and inappropriate behavior I’ve known on other jobs since.
For years when people asked what I wanted to be called—boatman or boatwoman—I answered “boatman.” I wasn’t as attuned to language then, although I was keeping beaucoups journals that would become my book Reading Water: Lessons from the River. Once, when one of the many journalists sent on a trip asked which label I preferred, I answered with the usual reply: “boatman.” Later I found he’d written me up in a Denver newspaper as “Boatwoman Becca Lawton.” I remember groaning, and I remember someone accusing me of preferring “boatman” because I wanted to be one of the boys.
I replied, rather hotly, that they were wrong. I wanted to be one of the crew. I loved my job. Being excellent at it and—in my opinion, not perceived as different—was part of the formula for keeping it.
My opinion of labeling has changed since then. Being a writer has sensitized me to the power of words. Using neutral language, like “river guides” instead of “boatmen” vs. “boatwomen,” shows we’ve evolved our words to embrace the equality we feel. I’d rather be called a boatwoman now than a boatman, because gender-inclusive labels sound right to me, even if they don’t sound like the Old West.
Besides, language is generative: It creates our world. What I want and wanted even then, before I had a daughter, is for our children to have options.
Because being a woman river guide is about not taking no for an answer if it will deprive us of our dreams. It’s about getting to row kick-ass waves and test ourselves against world-class rapids that teach confidence. It’s about learning to handle adrenaline. It’s about pushing our limits way past the point we sometimes believe we can.
As for the claims of sexism and groping and glass ceilings and expectation of sexual favors, they happen. If they had never happened in the Canyon, a tough job would’ve been much easier and more enjoyable. My career in the Canyon, which began with commercial boating and continued with river-rangering, might’ve gone on for many more years. As it was, I ultimately left because of how tiring it all became, both mentally and physically. But while I was there, I kept my head down and worked hard and continued to learn from the master teacher, the river.
And I continued to learn from the men and women I called—and still call—my colleagues and friends.
Author and scientist Rebecca Lawton was a professional oarswoman in the Grand Canyon in the 1970s and 80s. Her bestselling account of the boating life, Reading Water, is available at Amazon and Smashwords.