Annalee Decker shares with us her journey to becoming a rafting Wild Whitewater Woman and the five steps it takes to become one too.
It was a hot summer afternoon that I accomplished my near-obsessive mission of becoming a professional raft guide at the US National White Water Center (USNWC) in Charlotte, NC. My final and most difficult obstacle was the flip drill. For new boaters, a flip drill requires the guide to flip a boat upside down, climb on, flip the boat right side up, and climb on again.
Major factors that help you more easily complete this drill include being tall and having a fair share of upper body strength. I had neither of these tools in my arsenal. I am a 5’2” girl who had never considered working her upper body prior to guide school. I was forced to solve the problem using brains over brawn.
To do this, I began to watch other women complete the drill and asked a lot of questions. I learned how to do a flip drill with techniques that better suited my body. As a woman in the historically male-dominated sport of whitewater rafting, before even passing my check-out, my first and most important lesson was to get it done like a woman; don’t try to do it like a man. The first steps to become a Wild Whitewater Woman.
I first stumbled on the idea of becoming a raft guide while searching for a summer job that did not include fluorescent lights. While procrastinating on my search, I read a social media post from the USNWC advertising their guide school; I immediately signed up. For the next month, I travelled between my college and Charlotte to participate in weekend training.
Despite my adrenalin-junkie, gritty personality, guide training was one of the hardest processes I have experienced. During those long and cold Spring training sessions, I mixed up my paddle strokes, missed lines entirely, and fell out of the boat more often than I like to admit. Adversity notwithstanding, I fell in love.
I am a very different person from when I started in the industry. The river often provides humbling and painful lessons and, as I have grown from a terrified rookie to trip leader and mentor to beginning male and female guides, my personal growth has been priceless. Mentoring, in fact, has been my greatest privilege.
So, based on my experience as a young, female white water raft guide turned mentor, here are five tips and tricks that I have found to be the most helpful for both genders, but women especially, who are just starting to push some rubber downstream.
1. Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously
Get out of your own head. It is easy for beginners to torture themselves because of their trips not being as smooth as the seasoned guides. Whether it’s clean lines, surfing abilities, or swimmer clean-up, I have found rookies to damage their self-confidence not from a lack of skill but from lack of practice.
For new guides, you are never really guiding the boat, you are just suggesting where you want it to go. In the end, the river decides what happens. The rookie guide is there to make sure that the decision is carried out safely. The cool tricks and super clean lines seen from the seasoned guides are a result of many hours logged on stream practicing their skills with a mixture of success and, more often, spectacular failure. So take it easy; you’ll get there.
2. Create Your Wild Whitewater Woman Costume
The average person in your boat has a preconceived notion on what the typical raft guide looks like. A woman is not what most will expect. Use these ideas to your advantage and do whatever you want to make yourself feel comfortable and confident leading strangers through the rapids. In my case, my costume includes funky sunglasses and a “Don’t Panic” sticker on the back of my helmet. The sticker somehow always seems to work as a talking point when meeting new boaters.
Leading with humour and the slightly bizarre can also creatively inspire confidence in your paddlers. It communicates to your guests that there is no reason to be afraid. Another example is while visiting the Gauley River in WV, I met a video boater who, when kayaking, wore purple lipstick matching the color of her boat. Her obvious personality change and attitude flip when applying or removing her lipstick was comical.
3. Let the Comments Roll
Whitewater is historically a testosterone-saturated industry. So much so that the aforementioned preconceived ideas on the typical raft guide is a burly, tanned man with a beard or dreads for good measure. Some of us do look like that, but most don’t. This fact is known within the community but not to the paddlers we take on tour. Often, the general public will approach a female guide’s raft with scepticism and some will feel free to say so.
Sexism exists in this industry, but female boaters will experience the most discrimination from their customers. Do not let this undercut your confidence. Those guests cannot do what we do. You have earned your place so get into your guide position, let the comments roll, and start calling strokes.
4. Establish Your Credibility
To head-off quick judgments that might get under your skin, hone a skill that will ease the fears of your paddlers. For me, it is pulling people back into the raft. I am a small girl that at a glance does not appear to be particularly strong; however, when guests watch me pull a person twice my size from the water during my safety talk, I earn their respect. This respect goes a long way in ensuring a trip runs as smoothly as the river permits. Respect builds trust and guests need to trust your judgements.
5. Find a Mentor and Be a Mentor
When faced with the potential failure of my flip drill, I went looking for guidance from fellow female guides. Ask for help, and then listen to every piece of advice. Try out every tip and find what works best for you. Remember who gave the best advice! Find that person and make them your mentor. My first was a fellow female raft guide who passed my first check-out. Her smooth guiding style and hilarious attitude towards life became my model for success. When she and other mentors moved to other rivers and jobs, I found new teachers and transitioned into being one myself.
Helping and being helped is the best way to build female participation in the whitewater community, so hop in the back of the boat and do it like a girl.
#AreYouReady to become a rafting Wild Whitewater Woman?
The International Rafting Federation actively encourages women to become raft guides and/or raft racers. Details about guide training and assessments can be found here on our website. Why not take the next step to becoming a wild whitewater woman!
#RaftersAreAwesome #StrongerTogether #oneloveoneriver #likeagirl #womenofwhitewater #RiverFamily #WeAreIRF