Raft guide Keren Mikva declares it “Ladies Day” at New Mexico River Adventures, as seven women step up to guide a group of IT employees from Albuquerque over the rapids of the Rio Grande Gorge. Guides read the water, anticipate turns and direct their teams around jutting rock formations. Bright yellow vessels crash against the whitewater, with company co-owner Wendy Gontram at the head of the pack.

Gontram had her first taste of rafting on a commercial trip when she was 20 years old.

"It just looked like so much fun," she recalls. "I said, 'How do I do this?' and they said, 'Come out next summer and take a guide school.'"

Gontram, stationed at the back of the raft, commands her rowers to plunge their oars deep into the water.

"Right side forward, left side back," she yells.

Gontram's words drown in a cascade of waves barraging the boat. Paddlers strain to hear her directions. She shouts again, and this time they get it. They catch up with the rhythm of their comrades and the raft straightens, pointing downstream again.

Female raft guides at New Mexico River Adventures say gender equality is on the rise—at least here.
Female raft guides at New Mexico River Adventures say gender equality is on the rise—at least here. | Andrew Koss

After decades of falling on deaf ears, the voices of female raft guides are finally being heard. The rafting industry took a blow earlier this year when allegations of sexual harassment surfaced among guides in the Grand Canyon. A 2016 investigative report by the US Office of Inspector General reveals a culture of propositioning, intimidation and retaliation.

Males still dominate the field in north central New Mexico's rafting industry. SFR contacted seven rafting companies and asked for a count of female employees. Men outnumbered women at a ratio of roughly 3-to-1 at most companies.

At New Wave Rafting Co., Kathy Miller is the only female guide. Her husband, Steve Miller, claims, "Women seem less interested in guiding than men, as a rule."

When asked how many of their employees are women, a man at Los Rios River Runners responds, "Without asking them to pull down their pants? Let me see."

He finds that 16 of their 57 guides are female.

"It goes into a big cultural question of how we raise males versus females and what we raise females to believe they can do," says Wendy Meyer, who has been guiding for eight years at New Mexico River Adventures. "Young boys are pushed more into sports and active outside things than females are."

Nine women comprise a third of New Mexico River Adventures' staff.

"We certainly have tried to have a more balanced company in terms of gender," Gontram says. "It is empowering for young girls that are guests to see women in the outdoors and know it's not just a man's job."

At Kokopelli Rafting Adventures, nearly half of guides are female.

"I work for a company where people just want to guide," says Tori Simmons, a Kokopelli guide. "I'm also used to a male environment because I'm a ski patroller."

Though she stresses that most of her colleagues have been respectful, Katherine Hagan, who guides for multiple area companies as-needed, says there have been "a couple of occasions of ass-grabbing or catcalls. … I look at it like it's a locker room, and maybe that's a bit of a justification." When someone crosses the line, she says she sticks up for herself, and "that sends a pretty strong signal."

Gontram notes different attitudes from one region to another. In her 16 years in the industry, she's also worked on California's Kern River as well as the Colorado and Arkansas rivers.

"We are lucky here in New Mexico on the Rio Grande," she says. "The type of guide that's here isn't necessarily the younger demographic of college students that a lot of other places see."

That's not to say there isn't some pressure to perform in front of men.

"Sometimes they're a lot bigger than you, sometimes they're a lot taller, and they like to push through everything," says Amanda Grant, who led trips on the Snake and Colorado rivers before coming to work for New Mexico River Adventures. "It's fun to go out there and prove that females can do it too, and you can be just as good as any of the male raft guides."

Passengers also sometimes echo those stigmas of lowered expectations for women.

"They'll see the big buff men, and they'll see some smaller females, and be like, 'Are you sure you can row this boat?'" Grant says. "And you're like, 'Of course I can. I could flip this on you if I wanted to.'"

In companies where women comfortably take control, guides credit those in charge for creating a hostile environment for gender inequality.

"Those of us who are in our first season are really blessed to have landed at this company, where there's such a huge female population of raft guides," says Mikva, with New Mexico River Adventures.

Meyer agrees there's "a lot of respect all around. If you work hard, you show up, you do your job, the standards are the same for everyone."