Breaking into the Current: Being a Female Guide on the Middle Fork

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
Helfrich Guide
Travel Oregon | A Rare Trip Down the Owyhee

Travel Oregon | A Rare Trip Down the Owyhee

There’s an unusual amount of hustle and bustle in the sleepy community of Rome on this Sunday in April. It’s a warm morning as we prepare the rafts and drift boats for our four-day journey through the Lower Owyhee Canyonlands. Individuals, families and outfitters alike have come here to run the 67-mile stretch of river from Rome to Leslie Gulch. For the past six years, this desert region has been suffering from drought and has not built up the winter snowpack that provides the amount of water necessary to run this stretch. But water has finally returned, and for a few short weeks, this is one of the most sought-after runs in the Pacific Northwest.

That Wild Beauty

Twelve miles past put-in at Rome, we enter Sweetwater Canyon. Civilization disappears. Lava walls rise to spectacular heights on both sides, leaving no question as to the area’s nickname: the Grand Canyon of Oregon. For miles the canyon walls squeeze in around the boats, but just as suddenly as the rock formations closed in, the river widens and the land opens up into the Chalk Basin. This portion of the canyonlands is composed of pale ashy sediment and a rusty red rock called rhyolite. It is a beautiful mosaic of reds, browns and blacks, dotted with bright yellow balsamroot flowers in bloom.

This is a recurring theme in the Lower Owyhee Canyonlands, an ever-changing landscape of color, size and texture. At mile 25 we catch sight of Pruitt’s Castle. With holes in its large eroded walls and tall spikes of white rock banded with brown and red lava streaks, it has the appearance of a medieval fortress. After 7 miles we enter Iron Point. The canyon narrows and the cliff walls rise to over 800 feet in spectacular fashion. Light and color constantly change as sunrays sparkle off the gray reflective rock faces covered in green lichen.

History is also abundant in the Owyhee Canyonlands, with places like Rustler’s Cabin, an old homestead hidden by large poplar trees. In the 1800s, bandits from Idaho set up this hidden ranch to stash the cattle they stole from Oregon ranchers. The rock corrals they built to contain the cattle still stand today. There are also large outcroppings of petroglyphs dotting the banks of the river, carved by the Native Americans who used to live in this region. No one is exactly sure how old the rock art is, but estimates put them at 6,000 years or more.

The river itself is tame for the most part. Due to the large sediment deposits in this area, the water remains brown and murky throughout the season. Class II and III rapids emerge every so often during the float, but nothing that would frighten a decent boatman. The Montgomery rapid (Class III-plus) in Iron Point canyon is the most challenging water on the trip, but nothing an outfitter can’t handle. This is a trip that families of moderately experienced boaters can enjoy.

Nights in the canyon

Good campsites are easy to come by throughout the trip. And being one of the few places in the Lower 48 without much light pollution, each spot provides breathtaking views of the night sky. A warm fire and our guide George playing some old river classics on his guitar make the stars seem even brighter.

Nights in the canyon are a different kind of special. Every night when our group arrives at camp, the Helfrich guides who set out ahead of us in the morning greet us with cocktails. Unlike traditional camping, our large tents and cozy cots are already set up and waiting, giving us the opportunity to relax and watch the river flow by, read a book or tell stories from our day on the river.

 

 

The idea of an extended river family is something that Helfrich has embraced wholeheartedly and a feeling that seems to spread to everyone on the trip. The river has a way of connecting people from different walks of life. In addition to a gratifying wilderness experience, you’re bound together by moments in the white water and laughter around the campfire.

While watching the sun set over Devil’s Tower, I ask Kelsey what’s kept her guiding river trips all these years. “The people you get to meet and the experience of introducing people to these places is so special,” she tells me. “It’s such hard work but so rewarding at the same time. I think the Owyhee is such a unique trip — because it’s such an untouched landscape. And that’s something that’s really rare.”

Join us this year!

Join us for a 5 day trip and experience the wonders of this pristine river canyon!

Available Dates:

April 23-27

April 30 – May 4

May 7-11

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This article was written by Jonathan Conti and featured in Travel Oregon.  Visit their website to read the original article!

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