To be frank, being a female guide on the Middle Fork is hard. Guiding is a physically and emotionally exhausting job, and the Middle Fork of the Salmon is a particularly male dominated river. Before coming to Helfrich I had never worked with another female guide.
At the company where I learned to guide, when I was handed my first paycheck I was told it was the first one with a woman’s name on it in eight years. My co-workers were young, strong, bullheaded, men who had never interacted with a female guide on the river. Because of this, they treated me like another one of the guys. Because I lacked female role models on the river I leaned into this. I would wear button up shirts at dinner, make crude jokes with the boys, and always try to prove that I could hang with the other guides despite my gender.
On the surface this worked. I was a good guide, I pulled my weight and fit in well. Despite this, behind the scenes I faced many hurdles as a female guide, and I often felt like I was fighting an uphill battle to be given work and treated with respect. Like in any male dominated field I often was tokenized and felt like I held my whole gender on my shoulders. If I messed up then maybe the company wouldn’t hire another woman for eight more years. This pressure added up over time, and it made the already difficult job of guiding much more emotionally taxing.
Eventually this pressure wasn’t worth it and I looked for a different company. Having met Kelsey on the river, I reached out to Helfrich River Outfitters. The idea of a female outfitter sounded like a dream after having never worked with another woman on the river. Kelsey had thrived and risen to leadership in an arena that I knew was very tough on women. I wanted to work for a company that valued me as me and didn’t try to fit me into the typical guide box. Looking back two years later, reaching out to Kelsey was one of the best choices I have ever made.
On one of my first Helfrich trips I got to work with a female guide- Mel Frogh- for the first time after two seasons on the river. Working with Mel immediately changed how I operated on the river. Mel showed me that you can be a badass and successful river guide without just becoming “one of the boys.” Mel wore dresses to dinner and wore her hair down on the river and she still commanded and held the respect of both coworkers and guests. This may sound silly, but at the time it felt very groundbreaking.
Since that trip I have had the privilege of working with Mel, Kelsey, and a variety of other female guides on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and other rivers. At Helfrich I feel like people value me for the skills I bring to the team as a woman, and I feel like the Helfrich guides have become my family both on and off the river.
HRO is hiring more women every year and has been very supportive of my goals as a guide. At times it is still difficult as a female on the river, but it is all worth it to get to live on the Middle Fork and be a role model for girls who come on river trips. Now that I am a full time guide my biggest goal is to be a role model for young women who hope to one day work on the river. It makes me so happy when girls end a trip and tell me that they want to one day be river guides.
A trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon is life changing regardless of age, but it can especially be impactful and spark a love of the outdoors in young girls.
– Catie Stukel