When you go rafting with Montana Whitewater, you will embark on a thrilling adventure along the beautiful rivers of Montana, navigating through roaring rapids and breathtaking landscapes lead by world-class raft guides, both male and female. Raft guiding has long been considered a male-dominated profession. However, in recent years, a remarkable shift has taken place, with women stepping into this and making their presence felt & known.
We would like to acknowledge and celebrate the incredible female raft guides of Montana Whitewater for not only defying the odds but for leaving an undeniable mark on the whitewater industry. These women are constantly inspiring others with their courage, passion, and unwavering spirit. The guiding community is a place where all people should feel they have a place to succeed, grow, and learn. This blog interviews just some of the ladies at Montana Whitewater in hopes that they can provide inspiration to future female raft guides out there.
Q&A with Female Raft Guides Hanna, Emma, Julia, Elizabeth, and Morgan
When and why did you start to work for Montana Whitewater?
Hanna: I worked at MWW for 4 summer seasons starting in 2017. I originally came to Gardiner for guide school, per the recommendation from my friends Jenna and Theron. I met them down in Durango, CO and they had convinced me that MWW was the place to pursue my love for the river.
Emma: I started working for Montana Whitewater in the summer of 2019. The beginning of 2019 had been quite difficult for me and I was going through a lot of personal changes and needed to branch out of my comfort zone. Two things I was personally scared of were public speaking and heights, both of which I made a pact with myself that I would overcome by the end of summer. I knew I needed a job for the summer and as I was job searching I came across a zip line guide opening at Montana Whitewater. I immediately applied and the next thing I know it was May and I’m standing on top of a zip line platform, trembling from the heights. It was make-or-break time, so I closed my eyes and jumped. It was a rocky training week, but every day I gained more courage and every day I was less and less scared to take the leap onto the zip line. By the end of it I can say that I have no problem with public speaking and I live for the days that the wind is blowing through my hair while at the top of a 75-foot platform.
Elizabeth: I started working for Montana Whitewater in 2019 after I graduated from the University of Vermont. I had been guided on the Upper Hudson River for two seasons and was ready for something new. My friend had worked with MWW as a zip line guide the year before and talked me into applying for one of their open positions as a raft guide.
Morgan: I started working for MWW in 2022. I had been guiding on the S. Fork of the American but I moved out to Bozeman in 2021 to start grad school for Art. Looking to guide on a new river, I found MWW and chose to start on the Gallatin.
What was your biggest struggle in becoming/being a female raft guide?
Hanna: During guide school, my biggest struggle was the same as many other female raft guides. I couldn’t get myself back in the dang boat. It was so defeating to be stuck in the water and the time it took to develop the skill made accomplishing it that much better.
Emma: My biggest struggle being a guide would be having to connect to every type of person. I like to try to create genuine connections with people and so it took time to learn how to connect with all the different types of people that we would take out on tours. This, though, was also one of my greatest rewards.
Julia: Becoming a female raft guide was just a good old-fashioned combination of hard work and determination… and freezing your ass off for a few weeks in early spring. I trained on the New River in West Virginia, where the training program I attended spanned out over the course of 10 weekends beginning in late March. It was a lot of work and I definitely remember days feeling like I got my butt kicked, but in the end, it was all totally worth it. Being a guide for over 15 years comes with its own challenges. It is probably one of the most fun jobs you can have, but you do miss out on a few things. Since our season peaks in the summer, we don’t usually have the luxury of spending holiday weekends with our families and friends. Also, these days I’m so tired from paddling every day on the river that when I do have a day off from work, I rarely seize the opportunity to go and explore or do something fun, and instead just veg out all day.
Elizabeth: For me, the biggest struggle starting out as a female raft guide was definitely feeling as if I had to prove myself. I think that no matter what your gender there’s pressure to prove that you can do your job well when you’re first starting out, but as a girl it felt like so many people were expecting me to fail or need more help. The culture in the guide community can also be really difficult for a woman. I definitely struggled to find the confidence to call my male counterparts out when they said something sexist or rude because I didn’t want to be perceived as shrill or up-tight. Eventually, I found my voice and realized that if they couldn’t take my point of view that was their problem and not mine. As a young woman starting out in a predominantly male-dominated industry, it took time before I felt like I could really call out men who were twice my age with twice as much experience when they made a comment I didn’t like.
Morgan: The biggest struggle for me about being a female raft guide is maintaining relationships. Oftentimes guide posts are in locations with little to no cell service, and days off are usually during the week when other friends or partners are working. Guiding is a beautiful job, and time on the river is so special, but it can be really difficult for people outside of the community to understand why you choose to spend all your time on the water, especially when it is in dangerous situations.
Biggest rookie mistake?
Hanna: My biggest rookie mistake was on the 4th of July of my first summer. I went into 7up sideways and flipped a small boat of 6 people. The importance of making sure to ‘T’ up to a wave will forever be embedded in my mind from that experience.
Emma: …..that’s a hard one. Personally, I would always wear my Apple watch on the zip course and one day when I was teamed up with Josh on a super, he bounced me coming down the line on what we call the bucking bronco line and I was breaking myself and the zipline caught my watch band and my watch went flying off onto the ground. I was luckily able to find it later on, and it was not broken!
Julia: So many to choose from…
Make sure to stay humble, especially when you’re first starting out and think you’re getting it. Before you know it, it’s low water and you have a boat full of middle school girl soccer players you don’t think there’s any point in tying down any of your gear until after lunch, but you’re super hungover and end up flipping in a class 2 rapid and watch your lunch coolers, helmet, dry bag, and throw rope float down the river….
Elizabeth: ……never learning how to actually tie a bowline knot……..
Morgan: My biggest rookie mistake was not setting boundaries and asking for help. It was my first season on the SF American River. I got a crew of guys who were boisterous, to begin with, but I felt I could hold my own just fine. The next 3.5 hours on the river were filled with harassment, misogyny, and a really bad time. There is a stigma that you need to be the sassy, tough, raft guide, and being the only girl on that trip I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t handle a boat given to me. It got to the point that I threatened to flip us all in a rapid and not pull any of them back in if they didn’t shut up. Once I got to the takeout, I told my trip leader it was terrible but I made it. I then found out that I had options to pull over and kick them off my boat. It didn’t matter that they were customers, that my well-being and safety were more important than their money and everyone there had my back. If I hadn’t been so proud to prove myself, I could have avoided what is still the worst boat ride I have ever had.
Advice you would give to women thinking about getting into the guiding/outdoor rec world?
Hanna: The advice I would give to gals getting into the guiding industry is to just go for it. Whatever concerns, worries, or doubts they have about pursuing this passion will be defeated by the river’s magic. The raft guide community is welcoming, encouraging and endearing. The river will forever hold a prominent place in my life and it is the best escape from the realities of the world. It is incredible to share the joy of the river with others and an amazing lifestyle to experience.
Emma: Advice that I would give to women trying to get into the outdoor industry is that it is just as much a women’s outdoors as it is a man’s, in fact, we often think faster and look better outside anyway – haha. But in all honesty, just go out and do it. Every woman I worked with this past summer was just as capable to do the job as any man I worked with. We just need to believe we can.
Julia: Luckily for girls/women today, the outdoor industry has changed a lot, even from when I was 19 and first starting out. That said, you do have to be tough. You can’t complain about the cold or lifting heavy things. If you want to be considered equal to your male counterparts, make sure you can do the job just as well. Also, make sure you have a good sense of humor and be ready to talk some s**t to and with your buddies.
Elizabeth: I think that the most important thing you can do is take up space. If it’s important to you, say it. If you want to do something (or not do something), then say something. No one can read your mind, and if you don’t speak up and take up that room then you won’t get what you want.
Morgan: The advice I would give to those wanting to get involved in the outdoor or guiding community is to do it your way. Don’t look at how it’s been done and make it a rule book, oftentimes we see the “standard outdoor industry woman” and make that the goal. You don’t have to be the grittiest person in the room to pave your way, you just have to be you and show up. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re one of the boys or the girliest gal around, it is going to be a roller coaster, but if you do it your way, with your spice, it’ll be a rad ride.
Thank you to Hanna, Emma, Julia, Elizabeth, and Morgan for taking the time to interview with us, and of course, for being a part of the Montana Whitewater family. We love ya!