Taos Woman

River-raft guiding — not just for men anymore

Rough riders

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In Taos, you’ll find lots of women paddling white water. Many of the local rafting companies have female river rafting guides who add their skills and finesse to this adrenaline-filled world in trips on the Río Grande and the Río Chama.

In the early days of the business, river rafting guides were usually men. Some of the first women guides ran into obstacles, but they persevered and now river rafting has become much more gender-balanced. One local guide school will have more women training than men this season – for the first time ever. 

Balance 

Wendy Gontram is co-owner of New Mexico River Adventures, which runs river trips. “The sport used to be male-dominated,” she says. “That is changing and a lot of companies are working hard to ensure an equal ratio of women and men in their crews.” 

She notices that having both genders on a boat brings a better balance to the experience. Each gender brings their own strengths to the river to create a healthier work environment and a better rafting experience for the guests. On occasion, there may be groups that prefer to have women guides. “Girl scouts or groups of young women sometimes prefer to have an all-female guide crew. It’s an experience that we are happy to provide. Our female guides are great role models – demonstrating how they can navigate whitewater and manage a bunch of heavy gear.”

For Gontram, river rafting is the chance to be outside on the water. “I love that my office is primarily on the river,” she says. In the course of a rafting trip, guests get to learn about the geology and ecology of the area and there is always a chance that big horn sheep or deer will be nearby with otters, beavers and muskrats swimming in the river. Overhead, there are amazing hawks, eagles, herons and falcons.  

When recruiting for river rafting guides at New Mexico River Adventures, Gontram looks for an enthusiastic attitude, a willingness to learn and a love of the outdoors. The potential guides have the opportunity to attend one of two guide schools offered each year before joining the crew.

“Taos is really wonderful place to be a woman,” says Gontram. “A lot of stereotypes were broken down years ago. Now everyone knows that women can guide just as well if not better than men. It’s an honor to carry on that tradition of strength. I’m proud of all of our crew; everyone is treated equally. It’s really fun – we encourage all women to come interview with us.”

Finesse 

Kathy Miller was a young mother of two when she met her outdoors-oriented husband. She learned how to kayak and hike. “I couldn’t get enough of white water,” she remembers. Miller and her husband were fortunate enough to get a river permit from the Bureau of Land Management. With permit in hand, a VW square back car and one boat, they started New Wave Rafting. “We were adventurers and saw that maybe we could make a living on the river,” she says. 

Founded in 1980, New Wave is one of the most established rafting companies in Taos. Miller was the president of the New Mexico River Outfitters Association for years. In her experience, there were no obstacles for her as a woman. “I was always welcome,” she says. “I never expected barriers.” 

Acknowledging that having too many men as guides can create a testosterone-fest, Miller loves having women on her crew. “There is no question – having women on our boats make the whole thing better. Like anything else, with gender balance it is more inclusive and fun for everyone. There are no barriers for women in white water. They bring more finesse than brute strength, and skill is more important than strength in river rafting.”

Cisco Guevara, founder of Los Rios River Runners, agrees. “Female energy is important in wild environments and the adrenaline-filled world of river rafting. I would rather have an all-female crew than one that is all male. Men sometimes try to out compete each other. Women are more likely to cooperate and create a safer and more manageable trip,” he says.

I can do this!

For Suzie Benton of Los Rios River Runners, a chance to accompany a friend in her boat turned into a 13-year career in rafting. “I was helping a friend get her ‘check off runs’ (the practice runs required before you are allowed to have guests in your boat) and I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ ” she says. The next season she signed up for whitewater school through Los Rios River Runners and has been a guide ever since.

She loves the opportunity to meet people in an environment that may be unfamiliar and extremely uncomfortable for them, and watch a team form as everyone successfully navigates rapids. Many people come away with a new viewpoint on life and the natural world.

Although Benton acknowledges there are more male guides than female, she says, “The guys in this industry are very welcoming and supportive. River guides tend to be a tight bunch because we’re in the middle of nowhere with a lot of risk.”

Guiding life 

For young women who are getting the chance to be river rafting guides, the experience allows them to build strength and confidence while being in the outdoors. Hannah Edwards of New Mexico River Adventures (NMRA) was on road trip from Louisiana to California four years ago when she passed through New Mexico. She remembers, “I was in awe of the scenery and how different it was from Louisiana. I made a mental note that I wanted to live here in the future. After I graduated with a bachelor’s in business management, I remembered I had told myself that I wanted to be a white-water rafting guide for a summer.”  

Edwards googled “river rafting in New Mexico” and New Mexico River Adventures was the first link. She was invited to come for guide school. “That was the first time I had made real plans to independently move to a new place. It was a magic moment.”

One of her loves is getting to work in the beautiful New Mexico scenery. She’s learned skills that will help her succeed in any career including leadership, thinking quickly and being solution-oriented. She gets so much exercise that she can eat whatever she wants. Life in the outdoors has allowed her to become more well-rounded, less-materialistic and most of all – happy.

Although she’s heard some horror stories from the past, she hasn’t experienced any discrimination in her work as a rafting guide. “NMRA has been very inclusive and supportive from the beginning; women are seen as equal. Some men throw in rogue paddle strokes, but most just offer to help hold the boat and carry things too often. Coming from the South, I understand that usually they are only trying to be chivalrous,” she says.

For women who love the outdoors and want to try guiding on the river, Edwards says, “Don’t think you aren’t tough enough. I was a notoriously scared person. This experience has given me a genuine confidence I’ve never had. It’s changed me and my life forever. Go rafting!”

For more information:

New Mexico River Adventures: newmexicoriveradventures.com or call (800) 983-7756

New Wave Rafting: newwaverafting.com or call (800) 984-1444 

Los Rios River Runners: losriosriverrunners.com or call (575) 776-8854

A good idea for women interested in outdoor careers like river guiding or ski instructing is to find a mentor who can help with the intricacies of outdoor sports, while giving you solid advice. One recommended resource is Camber Outdoors (camberoutdoors.org) – a mentor program that promotes women in outdoor industry leadership positions.

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