Monday, June 13, 2016

Safe Space

I turn into the small dirt parking lot with my big white truck, pulling behind a long trailer bearing a large pink raft. The faded hearts painted on the bow of the boat were once sparkly, like the rain drops rippling on the serpentine-green pond to my left, but now they're more, muddy… I would say muddy like the brown swollen river raging through town about a mile away, but not muddy like that. Muddy like, like sparkles that have been well worn, rubbed into a kind of purple mush that speaks of the kind of Love that comes only through use, you know, that "Velveteen Rabbit" kind of Love. That pink boat could be "real."

My eight year old daughter, Charlotte and I get out and begin to sort through our various dry bags and mesh totes in the back of the truck. A young woman pulls up and parks near by, greets us and commence to do the same. We pull out wet suits, dry suits, helmets, life jackets and begin to suit up as two other women join us. The sky is grey, and a light sprinkle kisses the pond ever so gently, but the air is warm for an early June evening in Colorado.

Another car pulls up, and we all start to groan & shake our heads at the driver. He guides for the same company as we all do, his girlfriend is one of the women there with us. "What is he doing here?"  "No. He can't come."  "I knew he'd do this!" Some of the comments fly among the girls… Ryan gets out of his car, aware of his intrusion & defending himself adamantly that he isn't going with us. "See?" He says "Dry cloths!" Plucking at his Hawaiian print shirt  as my daughter joins in the "no stinky boys" assault. "Here," I say handing him my phone, "as long as you're going to hang around, might as well make yourself useful & take pictures."

We heft the raft off the trailer and over our heads to trek single file over the narrow slatted wood footbridge towards the pond. After a tangle with some branches we set her down & push her gently into the pale green water. Her name is Serendipity, as the faded purple sparkle smudge still reads- in those loved, real letters. The four of us women hop in, Ryan shore bound and Charlotte choosing to swim, and we paddle, a few proficient simple strokes, out into the middle of the pond.

None of these women are new at this, a lifetime of experience exists between the four of us, and interestingly enough, it's the new girls, the trainees, who opted out of this evenings escapades. To their credit, it's been a long week of training, with another long week still to go. But Kate, across from me in the raft, has been there with them every step of the way, myself almost every step, and the other two- well, they work hard also. I think, maybe there is something the new girls don't understand yet… they haven't met with much of the sexism in the river world yet. Our guide school is small, and half taught by understanding women. Those girls have been flipping boats this week, with Kate & I's help.

But for April and Chelsea, it's been a while… These girls are good guides. Flips happen, but they happen less when you're on it, and these girls are on it! It's another high water year though, June 6th and the River is over 3,000 CFS with a lot more snow up in them hills still.

I went nine years without flipping once. I was waiting for it, Every. Single. Day. When the day came, it was a rushing torrent of relief! Relief in having done the thing, followed by immediate relief in realizing that I could, and had indeed, climbed up ontop of my upside-down boat! I wasn't sure if I could… It had been so long! I hadn't practiced. I didn't have sisters to paddle out on a pond with…

That was 8 year ago. I have come a long way in my guiding career since then. I have in fact, surpassed my career as "guide." I spent 3 years as a "Head Boatman" two more as a "River Manager" and have now graduated to "part time," and do more instructing than guiding. I know I can flip a boat. I do it often. It is a skill I have confidence in now, but I did not always have that confidence. How I wish I had had a "Safe Space" to find that confidence in… No, I found my confidence in very vulnerable spaces, and can only imagine how much sooner I could have found that, had I had sisters & mentors to paddle out on a pond with me.

We take turns flipping the boat, and we all crawl back on each time, just to practice. Wedging our fingers into the floor lacing of the upside-down boat to get on the bottom. Flipping it back over & practicing getting in the upright boat... This is the hard part.
This is where one of the biggest chasms erupt between men and women in the River world. Men (in general) tend to have more upper body strength and a higher center of gravity than women. "Mantling" off the perimeter line into the boat is a relatively easy task for most men, and much more of a struggle for women. It is also the most common method that guides are taught to use to get in their raft. Slender women tend to be able to, but still struggle more with it than most men. But me? I am not slender, I am of good viking stock. Tall, blond, full hips, breasts that get in the way of everything, and a mommy tummy to top it off. In 17 years of guiding, I have never once been able to "mantle" myself back into my boat. (Mantling is a climbing term describing a move where you hoist yourself up onto straight arms to climb atop a surface, in this context you are using the rope that goes around the boat to hoist your arm straight upon, a rather dynamic hold to say the least.) So, I rig a strap across one of the center tubes (called thwarts,) of my raft every day, as something to grab so that I can pull myself in (oh, believe you me, I can pull! If there is something I can grab, I can get in that boat, & fast!)

Here is where I, and just about every other female raft guide I have ever known, hit the battlefield. I am obviously not the only woman to figure this strap method out, most do. But men just don't seem to understand. They look at our straps, and demand we take it off. They claim that it's an entrapment hazard (Oh, I could go on & on about that! But suffice it to say that in all actuality it is no more a hazard than the perimeter line, the thwarts, the lunch cooler, the frame on a oar rig, or the dry bags we guides clip into our boats.) They tell us we need to be able to get in without it, and that we are not allowed to rig it.

And here is where girls get scared. They take their strap off like they are told to, and now they are uncertain of their ability to get back in their raft. It's not that they can't, it just becomes harder, and their confidence falters, and that is a safety hazard. A guide needs to be able to get back in their boat as quickly as possible. (Yes, guides fall out sometimes too. We are all just in-between swims.) And a guide needs to feel confidant in their skills.

Years ago I assessed the cost/ benefit ratio of rigging a cross thwart strap in my boat and came to the conclusion that my need to get myself back in my boat quickly, far outweighed the small potential for entrapment the strap posed, when it came to the safety of my guests. And so, I put that strap on my boat, and have rigged that way every single day since. Yes, men have given me a hard time about it, women have asked questioningly about it, I patiently explain it every time. As I get older, rack up more miles and more experience, am better know in the River community, as my reputation grows with my career, my word seems to carry more weight. People tend to believe me now.

It wasn't always like that… When I was a young guide, everyone had opinions for me, and mine didn't count. Especially when it came to silly girly things like a strap to help me in my boat. Part of being a guide was needing to "man up." Raft guiding is still a male dominated field, but back then there were even fewer women, and we had to work twice as hard, be twice as tough as the men did, to get half the respect. Being the stubborn headstrong person I am though, I stuck to my guns. I knew I was right, I knew my guests were safer when I had that strap on my boat. I fought for it, I defied direct orders, I kept rigging that strap, and I am so glad I did.

Out on the pond the sprinkles stop, the sky is still grey but the temperature is pleasant. We take turns flipping the raft over & back over. We try different ways to climb up. We try mantling, thwart hugging, strap grabbing. We talk about what is easy or hard about each one. One of our four, Chelsea, is able to do the mantle. Kate is recovering from shoulder surgery and is extra concerned about her raft climbing ability with her compromised shoulder, but finds the strap to work just fine for her. We all agree that the strap is the easiest & quickest way.
We have created a safe space. A space where we, as professional whitewater women, can explore our needs for boat flipping and entry, what makes us most confidant in our abilities to get our boat over & get in it. No one is there to tell us we can't or we should, or we're wrong, or we're somehow less, simply because our center of gravity is lower… But they never think about that. They just think we should be able to do everything they can in the same way they can. One thing I think often gets forgotten in the race for equality is that yes, absolutely men and women are equal, but they are equal and different. There are things that women can do that men cannot, and vice versa. Equality requires diversity, and diversity should be celebrated, not belittled.

Within our safe space these girls were able to find that confidence they were looking for. Even my daughter was excited to try climbing on the boat all by herself, her little 8 year old arms had quite the reach to grab the floor lacings of the upside down boat, and with a lot of cheering she was able to pull herself up! She needed a little help to reach the strap on the right side up boat, but once she had it, she could get herself in then too! Not only was this space safe for professional women seeking to improve their skills and confidence, but it was also safe for a little girl to try something really big and challenging for the first time ever.

I was recently talking to a friend with a little girl Charlotte's age and she was commenting about how much competition she sees between girls, not just little girls, but women too. The competition between her & her best friend, between their daughters. How a little competition can be healthy, but how all too often it's not healthy. I want to create more safe spaces where women can build each other up, can help each other out, can support each other. Where we don't have to compete, but we can all win. A safe space where we can all feel beautiful, successful, confidant. A safe space where we can share ideas, practice skills and all come out feeling better about ourselves. I didn't have any of those safe spaces in which to grow my whitewater career… and I can only imagine where I would be now if I did have them. I can only imagine where my daughter will be when she is my age. And I am so incredibly grateful that I am able to provide that safe space to other women now. 

The light begins to turn a saturating evening orange as we load the raft back onto the trailer, the mood content, confidant and grateful. We all agree that this felt so good, and that everyone feels much better about taking out high water raft trips, that having this safe space was so essential, and that we want to create more safe spaces for women to excel in. The orange light accentuates those smudged hearts on the bow of the boat, as well as the smiles on all our faces- from the smooth chipmunk cheeks of childhood to the fine leathery lines made by years of smiling in the sunshine. Love, there is love here. Love is why I boat, and Love is why I share my Love of boating. For in the end, Love is all that is real, and Love is what make us "real."