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.
My husband, Dirk Gibson, grew up working on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, and then he owned a Middle Fork Company of his own for a time. This led to meeting many special people, including Jeremy Pisca and Laura Stott. It was on one of our trips that the two of them also found each other.
Now, years later, we all enjoy an annual river trip together with many of our friends with Helfrich River Outfitters. Last year started out with a lot of uncertainty due to the Coronavirus. We were not sure that our annual river trip was going to be possible. However, it ended up being a fantastic trip where our good friends, Laura and Jeremy, said I do. Although the virus forced them to cancel their summer wedding, Jeremy was not detoured. He decided he was getting married on our river trip. All he needed was for Dirk to become ordained and permission from Ken and Kelsey to have a wedding on the Middle Fork. All of this was decided with only a few short weeks before our trip was to begin.
Jeremy and Laura did not expect or request anything extra or special from anyone. They were just thrilled to be getting married. Laura had even told me, as we floated down the river, that we needed to look for some kind of flowers, or even weeds, to pick for her to carry. Unknown to both Laura and myself, Kelsey had already had some flowers arranged. Not only did she have the flowers taken care of, but the crew had also made a decorated arch with oars for them to get married under. It could not have been more beautiful with the river and fishing boats in the background. Kelsey and the guides again went above and beyond when the ceremony began by taking out their phones and snapping pictures of the wedding. They captured some beautiful moments. The guides took it even further by making a beautiful wedding cake. None of this was asked for or even discussed, and it could not have been more special. Dirk was honored to marry them and I was so happy to be the maid of honor. The whole event was a special experience in the most beautiful place.
The HRO Crew went above and beyond to make sure it was a memory of a lifetime. Jeremy and Laura’s weddinganniversary is only two days apart from Dirk’s and mine. So now this year, when we take our annual trip, we will get to celebrate our anniversaries together!
Spring time comes a little later up in the Frank Church Wilderness, making June the ideal time for flower children. During this time of year, you can spot blooms of many different species of wild flowers, such as syringa, camas, arrow-leaf balsam root, elephant head, indian paint brush, and many others.
Syringa is often referred to as “false orange” because of it’s strong fragrance that smells like citrus blossoms and permeates the entire river corridor. Camas lilies were once an important staple of both the indigenous peoples and early settlers of the region, with many reporting the root to have a flavor similar to sweet potato when cooked. Indian paint brush and arrow-leaf balsam root are almost impossible to miss, carpeting meadows with flashes of color and texture.
Because of the lush greenery and flora during this season, it is not uncommon to witness incredible sightings of wildlife and migratory birds, such as the brightly yellow and red colored Western Tananger. You can often find them flying in contrast to the majestic and cascading water falls that run at their fullest at the beginning of the season.
Whether you are rafting, hiking, fishing, or just taking in the sights, June is a great time to feast your eyes on the incredible colors and scenery that come with the springtime bloom. Don’t forget to pack your camera and grab some once in a lifetime shots!