As any experienced guide will tell you, it takes boatloads of hard work to create a fun and memorable raft trip. Earlier this month, luck conspired to create a unique situation on one of Hells Canyon Raft’s 3-day trips on the Snake River…the entire guide team was made up of women!
“It’s not something we deliberately planned,” says Hells Canyon Raft co-owner, Heidi Armacost. “It was a combination of training, hard work, and chance that all the guides were available, not working on other trips.
When Heidi and Kurt organize their trips, they always match a few well-seasoned guides with newer guides. The more experienced guides can provide insight and leadership while the new guides learn the ropes. When the team launched for this 32-mile Hells Canyon trip on July 8, it just so happened that the entire team was made up of female guides, from the Team Leader to the Swamper (camp helper).
“My first season here I was one of only three full-time female guides and, on a majority of trips, I was the only female. I never thought I would have a trip with just female guides,” says Trip Leader Catherine Connors.
“Obviously your first year you learn a ton about packing and rowing and how to share the river with other people who have never experienced whitewater or the insane beauty of Hells Canyon or Salmon River,” says Connors. “I still had a lot to learn in my second year. I learn from every guide, the new ones included. You’re always learning wherever you are in your career. The river is different every season, the water levels are different, the rapids are never the same.”
At the same time Connors was learning and working her way up through the guide ranks, Hells Canyon Raft onboarded several more female guides. Hells Canyon Raft has been known for having the best guides in the business. They now have six full time (many part time) female guides on staff, and their skills and training levels aligned at the right time to put together this all-female team.
“For the guests, the quality of the experience was no different,” says Conners. “For me, it was perhaps the smoothest trip I’ve ever been on. Teamwork was next level. We ran it like a well-oiled machine. Everyone anticipated each other’s needs, and it seemed easier to collaborate, to be an extra set of hands, without feeling like you were overstepping.”
The trip’s 17-year-old swamper agreed. Ensi Armacost has grown up on the river with her familyand spent this summer working as a swamper, which is the person who helps with the gear boat, setting up the camps.
“Honestly, it didn’t really differ from the way we run every other trip, but there WAS something special about it. Catherine and Gabby always brings so much energy and fun to a trip. They are great listeners, great at organizing tasks, and the team really worked together to share the load and we were very efficient.”
Ensi says she learned a lot from every trip she worked on this summer, but working with this all-female crew – which included Catherine, Gabby, Bobbie, Lydia, and Haley – gave her an extra boost. “I definitely noticed my confidence being built up by my fellow guides. When one of the more experienced guides makes a point to tell you how much they appreciate you, it made me feel confident that I’m doing the right things and that I’m contributing.”
Any questions the guests might have had about the guides’ physical abilities were quickly put to rest. “Honestly, women manage the physicality the same,” says the young Armacost. “Our girl guides are all super strong, there are always extra hands ready if needed.”
For some of the guests on this particular Hells Canyon Snake River trip, it was a special opportunity to send an important message to their daughters…and sons.
“We are beyond grateful for this experience and appreciate the specialness of being on the river and especially being on the river with this crew,” wrote Piper G. “As an educator and woman, it was a phenomenal experience to be with an all-female guide team, the flow, the vibe was unique. I also think that the young kids that were there getting to witness this was really important. I hope that it happens more!”
“I think it’s cool that there are impressionable young females getting exposed to this who can now picture it as something they can do,” says Connors. “There are way more trips where there are all male guides and that makes it feel like it’s less attainable.”
As much as the females on the trip appreciated this rare experience, Connors says the male guests noticed the special dynamic, too. The younger boys would ask the female guides if they wanted to toss a frisbee or approach them for fishing tips. She thinks on a more typical trip those boys might have first approached a male guide out of habit. “A lot of the praise I’ve received from the parents comes from the fathers, saying they’re excited their kids are being exposed to this.”
Being a strong female role model is only a small part of what Catherine and Ensi love about guide life. Both women agreed that there’s something magical about running whitewater, especially on the Lower Salmon and Snake Rivers. Hells Canyon creates a truly enchanting setting. From the stunning vistas created by the towering canyon walls, to the wildlife and storied history of the area’s early settlers.
Catherine and Ensi both pointed out that they fell in love with guiding on trips led by both women AND men, and they were quick to sing the praises of HCR’s male guides as great leaders and teachers.
This culture of learning, mentorship and support among the guide team gets a lot of the credit for a huge honor that was recently bestowed on Hells Canyon Raft. HCR was nominated for and selected as one of USA Today’s 10 Best Whitewater Rafting Tours in the United States. This people’s choice award emphasized that “This Idaho-based raft company believes every turn of the river has a story to tell, and their Hells Canyon rafting trips are “journeys through a land rich in myth and geologic wonder.””
That means that no matter who guides your Hells Canyon Raft trip, you’re sure to benefit from their meticulous planning, training and perhaps most importantly, their positive river vibes.
Ensi is headed off to college this fall but plans to return as a guide next summer. As for Catherine, her three years as a raft guide have already been life changing. “Finding this job in Hells Canyon made me realize that there are so many opportunities that, one, you’re good at, and, two, you like, and the river is definitely somewhere I’ll be hanging out for a while.”