On a not-yet-broiling day around the Fourth of July, Elisha McArthur stood on the stern of her raft, calling out orders to the student rowing her down the Arkansas River not far from the headquarters of her business near Browns Canyon.

The student on the oars was a little nervous. Though she’d been boating for a while, she’d mostly sat on a baffle letting her husband do the rowing. But it didn’t take long for her to realize how much more fun it would be to point the bow in a certain direction, catch a current of her choosing, work the oars to row around boulders, and feel the satisfaction of navigating herself down a river.

The craft she piloted was named after a woman pirate, Grace O’Malley. In fact, all of the boats in McArthur’s fleet are named for women pirates. There’s Mary Read (convicted of piracy in the 18th century) and Anne Bonny (an Irish pirate who operated in the Caribbean in the 1600s). Charlotte de Berry was a pirate captain also alive in the 1600s and convict Charlotte Badger led an 1806 mutiny in Tasmania.

It’s tempting to read something about feminism or #MeToo into McArthur’s naming choices. But the 42-year-old owner of Canyon River Instruction, the only outfitter in Colorado dedicated exclusively to teaching people how to raft and kayak, says it isn’t that serious. 

“I honestly don’t know why I did it. It was just fun,” she said. “I’d already worked at a company that named a fleet of boats after science fiction movies. The pirates were just the second theme that popped into my head.”

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

There’s not much else McArthur has done without intention and purpose. At 15, she knew she wanted to dedicate her life to working on rivers. Her path there has consisted of Everest-level highs and Grand Canyon-level lows. Like the time she left an unhealthy marriage with her 1-year-old daughter, Charlotte, in tow, and hitched a ride from Buena Vista to the Salt River in Arizona. She went because she knew the river and because she’d heard a rumor that a couple living on the Salt had a 1-year-old baby. 

A woman row the oars on a raft in the middle of a whitewater river
McArthur skipped college and has been guiding on rivers since age 15. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

She arrived in the dark, holding everything she’d brought — Charlotte, her fiddle and her river equipment. And sure enough, a couple in the guiding community had a baby and the woman said she’d watch Charlotte. McArthur started “getting her feet back under her,” and when the season ended, she and Charlotte went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lived with McArthur’s mother. 

“But it was the kind of thing, like, I wasn’t where I wanted to be,” she said. “I went to the Salt out of desperation, not because it was the Salt season, which would have been the normal rhythm for me. But I was a new mom, a single mom and feeling the guilt of ‘single moms aren’t raft guides.’” When the season ended, she said she came close to getting a job in day care, “because that’s the pressure we put on women.” 

McArthur’s skill set was rafting, though. “It’s what I’d always done. And I realized if I was going to be the best mom I could be to Charlotte, that meant I had to be the best me I was going to be, as unconventional as it was,” she said. “Once I came to that point, I feel like Charlotte held a mirror up to my face and was like ‘hey, this is who you are and this is why I chose you as my mom, now get on the ball.’”

How McArthur rowed her boat into a leadership role

In the years since, McArthur has done more than get on the ball when it comes to working and leading in the Colorado river industry. After a couple seasons on the Salt and Rio Grande, she came back to Colorado and resumed guiding on the Arkansas River.

All the while she was expanding herself and her skill set. It wasn’t always easy, in part because the river industry has been historically male-dominated. Some women can recall years past when they were one of two or three women working at a company, while others say there were only two ways exist within the boys club hierarchy: talk, dress and work as hard as any man or become the “sexy girl.”  McArthur refused to “sleep her way to the top,” she says, and felt like she “couldn’t stand out at all.  Like, I had to be as crusty, salty and agro as the male dudes I worked with.” 

But in 2016, two things happened that changed her life dramatically. 

First, she realized that being a “dirtbag guide,” who told the dirtiest jokes and “was hazed, so I participated in hazing” wasn’t who she was, “but a defense, a survival mechanism to maintain my safe space in a male-dominated space.” 

Then a group of women guides from another company asked her to help them out and do flip-and-recovery exercises, where you intentionally flip a raft upside down and use ropes, carabiners and your bodyweight to flip it back over. 

They went to a pond, flipped and practiced re-righting. Charlotte even joined— she was 8 at the time, and she climbed onto the overturned boat, too. With just the women and no men, McArthur was “completely mind-blown,” she said, calling the vibe that night a “safe space, one of the most incredible of my life.”

“Literally, that evening changed my life,” she added. “It was like holy shit, why did nobody ever do this with me? And it makes me wonder how different the first stage of my career would have been if I’d had that space and encouragement.” 

A few days after that first women-only flipping practice, McArthur went to her boss saying they needed to run all-women’s clinics. He put the idea back onto her, clearly not into it, she said. So she started Canyon River Instruction to offer customized whitewater education for private boaters and outfitters, she said, with a focus on women. 

Narrowing the gender gap in river guiding 

At the early-July clinic, 10 or so women spent mornings on three days in a big, echoing building on McArthur’s property next to her house, a boat barn and a small farm with goats, sheep and chickens. They sipped from their water bottles, told jokes and learned rafting concepts first demonstrated on a whiteboard. Jessica Ransom gave a short lecture on ferry angles, the positioning of a boat needed to maintain its course on the river. McArthur explained how river flows work — think of the water coursing downstream as several currents, like strands of spaghetti, each with its own catchable flow. Erin Kearns led a discussion on gear. And Jessica Lewis discussed the importance of having a growth mindset. Then the group went to the put-in on the Arkansas, and practiced what they’d learned in real time. 

The participants brought a wide age spread — mid-20s to 60-ish — and experience ranging from “I’ve gone on one raft trip and my life was changed. Now I need rafting,” to “I’m a member of the U.S.A. women’s raft team, but we paddle-raft and I want to learn to row better.” And all had a desire to learn these things in a safe space like the one McArthur first felt during her spontaneous women’s boat-flipping class. 

A woman inflates an orange raft sitting on a trailer
Canyon River Instruction is based in the Arkansas Valley with various of whitewater sections of the Arkansas River. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The fact that women’s classes have been filling for years mirrors what’s happening in the Colorado boating industry, which multiple outfitters confirm for the past several years has been inching toward greater parity in its guide ranks. 

The exact male/female breakdown is hard to come by since Colorado doesn’t require guide licensure. And Grant Brown, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s boating safety and registrations program manager, said individual outfitters aren’t required to turn in employee lists. So The Colorado Sun called or emailed every rafting-specific outfitter on Brown’s list and multiple others on the internet. Only 15 or so responded, but among those that did, the majority reported at least a third of their guide pools are female. 

One-third of guides at Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in Chaffee County are women; same with Liquid Descent on Clear Creek in Idaho Springs.  

Mild to Wild, which operates out of Durango, reports a 50/50 split, and Breckenridge Outdoor Center, which serves people with disabilities, employs 19 women and four male guides. 

Jessica Smith, river program manager at Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Cañon City said, “We are lucky to be the home of 25 female guides and 52 full-time guides. Those numbers increase to 27 and 55 when we consider our part-time staff.” And Liquid Adventures, which runs trips on Clear Creek and the Colorado River, reports having “a little less than 30 guides with 10 of them being female.” 

But the numbers only say so much about cultural change, when it’s what women guides bring to a rafting experience that matters, outfitters say.  

“Men muscle through rapids, women finesse them”

Many of the outfitters contacted by The Sun went a step further in their responses, calling out specific expertise or assets women bring to their business. 

“In an industry where physical strength once symbolized a person’s ability to do the job, our industry now values a guide’s ability to read the river and guide with finesse just as much if not more,” Smith said. “Women have helped to bring that balance to an industry that no longer has a cookie-cutter mold of what a guide should be. The river guide community as a whole has benefited by becoming more welcoming and more diverse.”

Mild to Wild’s owner, Molly Mickel, said one of her lead guides, Anna Folks, took Sen. Michael Bennet through Class IV-V Snaggletooth Rapid on the Dolores River when he was working to get a bill passed protecting it and that Bennet called her “an extraordinary guide” on the senate floor. 

And Lily Durkee, the founder of Diversify Whitewater, a nonprofit working to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, praised Judy Alvarez, who was an avid kayaker before having a baby and gave it up to focus on her offspring, but after attending one of Diversify Whitewater’s clinics is now back on a path toward teaching others to paddle.

“Diversify Whitewater creates safe spaces for BIPOC to paddle and try new skills that may be scary,” Durkee said, using the term for Black, Indigenous and people of color. “But what’s interesting is we just had an event in the D.C. area and I saw the demographics from that were majority women. Another event in the D.C. area in June brought 38 women and 12 men. I seek out those safe and inclusive spaces where it doesn’t feel too scary. If I’m going to step up, I want to be surrounded by friends and other women. They’re supportive, they don’t rush me, they don’t pressure me into something I don’t feel comfy with. I think these warm spaces we try to create may be more attractive for women.”

Durkee said Canyon River Instruction sponsors one of Diversity Whitewater’s events, giving them a free lesson every year to use in their free raffle. 

Other outfitters said their female guides brought compassion, empathy and an air of acceptance which, according to Smith, makes “some customers feel more comfortable.” 

But some women boaters criticize the trope of women not being able to row as well as men due to physical differences. 

A woman is giving a lecture while standing between three other women
McArthur started the company after leading an impromptu all-women raft skills clinic that she says blew her mind. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Gina Basse is a CPW river ranger who started guiding for a company on the Arkansas River on her 18th birthday. She said she compares everything to working at Loveland ski area, which was the “worst place she’d ever worked as far as culture goes,” and that even back 10-plus years ago, her first river job “was not that bad.” 

What she doesn’t like is “women-specific groups spending so much time talking about how different women are, when I’m in the background, like, I’m not different than any dude I work with except smarter. I’ve worked with petite women and petite men, but it’s not like the sex of women is not as strong.” And there have been women she stopped working with when they told her how to run a rapid, because they’re stuck in the men-power-through, women-finesse mindset, “and I’m like oh, give it a break.” 

But, she added, “There are a lot of really cool women that care about rivers and I’ve found a lot of them. We’re all kind of connected even though we’re all all kind of working in different places. Not just locations in the state but some of us who really care about rivers are working in nonprofits and water quality — on the resource side.”

Elisha McArthur, paddling it forward 

One thing McArthur doesn’t want people to see “is just the shiny, bubbly part of me.” 

Sure, she wears glitter on her cheeks and tutus when she’s instructing, but that’s who she truly is and was, even in the days when she felt obligated to “dude it up” to be accepted. It wasn’t until she was working at Far Flung Adventures, where she got her start as an 18-year-old back in the 1990s, that her employer made her feel like she could be herself and that doing so gave the clients a better experience. 

What she wants people to know is that she’s “human and struggles just as much as anybody.” She recently had a friend out to visit and do an instructor level training with her, and she had “all kinds of shit hit the fan” on a certain day, she said. “I broke down in sobbing tears in front of him. His response: Oh, you are human after all.”

But McArthur may be the ultimate champion for more river women getting the same respect and opportunities as men. She gets most passionate when she talks about this subject, saying, “At one point I was the only female guide working in the entire country of Scotland.” 

Three woman prepare raft gear inside a warehouse
Canyon River Instruction employees chat while preparing inside the gear warehouse before a scheduled group tour. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

While there, she met a woman who owns a raft company but couldn’t get certified as a raft guide under the International Rafting Federation because she couldn’t mantle up onto and into a raft in a Class IV rapid, a feat possibly only for the “fittest 20-something dude with big strong arms,” McArthur said. “Even when I was 20-something and young and fit I’ve never in my life had been able to mantle into my boat. It’s because women have a lower center of gravity. And hips and boobs. I can’t get into my raft in that scenario based on the simple physics of my body. In Europe it’s almost impossible for women to become Class IV guides because they’re never able to pass this flip test.” 

That regulation doesn’t exist in the United States, but McArthur said she still wants “the river world, particularly the river industry, to be a healthier, more compassionate, open and accepting place. I want it to be a place where raft guiding is looked on as an actual career — not just a job for college kids or dirtbags. I want to get away from the concept of it not being professional and I want it to be a more inclusive career.” 

And she thinks the river world, and culture at large, “needs to redefine what feminine means.”

“So often in our culture we think of women as being weak, or soft, but I think soft is a word that can encompass feminine in a positive, not negative way” she said. “Because when you think about the actual nature of feminine — childbirth is one of the most physically, emotionally, mentally intensive and taxing things that a human body can do, straight up, plain and simple. Women are designed to be hardcore, badass and able to endure long marathons of intense pain, but still be caring and nurturing and loving. That is the very nature of feminine, and I feel in our culture we have lost sight of the hardcore badass nature of women that is the very essence of who we are.” 

She’s also showing by example what a female river professional can be.   

This year, as chair of raft committee for the American Canoe Association, she introduced the first-ever raft guide instructor training for the organization, for instance. At the same time that’s taking off, she is jetting around the globe teaching raft instructor trainers and swiftwater instructor trainers, as the highest-certified trainer for the ACA and the only level 5 raft instructor-trainer-educator in the world, she said.

But perhaps most importantly, she and her guides, with their mad skills and glitter-streaked faces, are showing everyone that rafting, guiding and instructing are absolutely a women’s realm through the work she does within and outside of Canyon River Instruction, on her personal trips and through the various partnerships the company holds with other organizations. 

A woman wearing a lifejacket and helmet stands in a river back puts glitter on cheekbones
McArthur, applying her signature face glitter at the river put-in, started Canyon River Instruction offering women-specific whitewater rowing courses. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Perhaps the best is the partnership between Canyon River Instruction and elevateHER, a Colorado nonprofit working to instill self-worth and grit in young women and those who identify as women through holistic wellness programs, mentoring and outdoor adventure.

The Canyon River Instruction/elevateHER clinic teaches girls in sixth through 12th grades how to raft. They meet for three days in the summer and learn the fundamentals of raft guiding, river communication, water hydrology, self rescue and safety. 

At night, they camp out, making new friends while building leadership skills and life skills on and off the river. 

At one of these camps before the women’s camp in July, McArthur, Lewis, Ransom and the girls were rafting the Arkansas when they saw another boat flipped over and submerged under a tree.

The instructors can see the commotion, so they park the elevateHERs, with Ransom on point, on a gravel bar in the middle of the river. Then Lewis and McArthur row over, offering their assistance.

The guys take one look at them in their short, flow-y skirts, their girly colored helmets and their face glitter reflecting the sun. “‘Nah,’ they say, because they think we can’t help them,” McArthur said, but they quickly changed their minds.

The women got right to work.

Raft flipped right side up. Situation corrected. 

But best of all, a day or so later, Charlotte approached McArthur and said, “Mom, you looked really badass doing that rescue in your little pink ruffly skirt.” 

“Just heart-melting words from my surly 15-year-old,” the mom-guide-instructor-trailblazer said. 

It’s fun to imagine what it might have inspired Charlotte and the little girls to do.