Last week, the U.S. Department of Interior released a damning report confirming a pattern of sexual harassment among river guides employed by the National Park Service (NPS). The paper describes a party culture gone awry, where women are treated as sex objects, physically harassed, and verbally put down with alarming regularity. According to the report, workplace offenses ranged from unwanted touching to photographing a woman from beneath her skirt to even an alleged rape that went unreported. The investigation focused solely on guides in the Grand Canyon River District employed by the NPS. But Bridget Crocker, a second-generation guide who spent 17 years on the river, points out that doesn't mean that incidents of sexual harassment, as in other workplaces, have skipped over private tour companies.
"The first time I read the report through, I cried, because it's all true," says Crocker, who has lead groups on some of the country's most iconic rivers, including Wyoming's Snake River, the Kern and Tuolumne rivers in California, the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, and the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. "I'm not surprised by the allegations," she says, "only that it took this long for them to surface."
For the past few years Crocker has been writing a memoir, detailing her years of working as a guide, including harassment that she experienced on the water. Last week's report, she says, is evidence that she's not alone. "It took a lot of courage, and a lot of organization for those women to come forward and make such a strong case," says Crocker. "Like one of the quotes in the report said, the river industry is very laissez faire when it comes to sexual harassment. It's so deeply entrenched and has been going on for so long that it's really difficult to make any kind of positive impact."
Crocker also argues that the male-dominated culture exaggerates a problem that extends well beyond the guide industry. "Harassment takes on different forms across different industries, but it's the same problem at the core," says Crocker. "For river guides, I think the remoteness of the wilderness makes it seem like no one is watching. Couple that with excessive drinking and drug use in a party atmosphere, and the river becomes an alternate reality where society's rules no longer apply." Here, Crocker tells us some of her most shocking stories from her years working as a guide, experiences that mirror the report.
From the US DOI Report, page 6: "An employee of a different GRCA contractor (Contract Employee 5) also reported that Supervisor 1 made inappropriate comments to her during a 2014 river trip. She said that when she asked him what she could do to help with river trip duties, he responded that she could help him by being 'naked in [the] motor well' of his boat."
Bridget Crocker: On the river, I was the only woman in the crew at least 75 percent of the time. There were companies that had multiple women guides, but not enough to go around, so they'd split us up on different teams. I quickly figured out that "locker room talk" was the way the crew communicated. Off-color jokes, crude language, derogatory and demeaning terms — those are all part of how river guides converse. It happens hourly, constantly, and if you don't play along, you become a target.
In my early years, I would ask the more experienced teammates, "What do you need me to do?" regarding camp chores. The common response: "Have sex with me." I also got smacked on the rear — football player style — a fair amount. If I tried to reason with my smacker, something like "Hey, how would you like it if I did that do you?" I'd get a hyena laugh and a "Yes, please!" in response.
I didn't have much tolerance for any of that behavior. And it showed. But zero tolerance had its price: One day in the van, after we'd gotten off the river, one of the guides sat next to me and said, "I need you to show me that you're not a bitch. Everyone says you're a bitch, a feminist dyke, so kiss me and prove you're not." I quickly learned to let the locker room talk slide. Being a target was worse.
Still, there were some things I couldn't let slide. About halfway through the season, I was peeing behind a bush when I realized I wasn't alone. One of the male guides was standing over me. Before I could speak, he did: "It's been puzzling me all season — are your nipples pink or brown? I know you're a B cup, I have that figured out, but what color are your nipples?"
At the end of the work day, I told the owner of the guiding company. He tried to brush it off, "Awww, he just has a crush on you." Luckily his new wife was standing there and heard everything. She was not happy about it. "What do you want me to do, fire him?" the owner asked. "Yes," his wife replied. "Yes," I said, emboldened by her.
The nipple inquirer was promptly fired. And somehow everyone knew why. When I got into the van the next morning, the guys had taped photos of women, topless and spread eagle, torn from Playboy and Penthouse, to the inside. "What are you going to do, get us all fired?" they said. They taunted me, calling me a "dirty, hairy feminist."
Page 5: "Employee 4 also stated that during one 2006 river trip, Boatman 3 refused to provide food for female GRCA employees after they rejected his sexual advances. She said that women on river trips were forced to 'walk the line' between 'not being hated and not being desired.' She said that she resigned from NPS when the stress of working with the River District employees became too much.
Another former employee, Employee 9, reported that Supervisor 1 treated her 'horribly' during a 2006 river trip after she rejected his attempts to flirt with her. She said that he verbally harassed and belittled her, saying she should have never been hired and questioning her abilities in front of her colleagues and professional associates, which caused her to feel ashamed."
By the time I'd had over a decade of guiding under my belt and was leading trips on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (one of the most sought-after jobs in guiding), I'd been propositioned for sex so many times by my male co-workers that I'd developed a three-fold technique for deflection:
- Appear genuinely happy, and express how flattered you are.
- Tell the requestor that you have a boyfriend back home (or in my case, a newly wed husband) and that it's going really, really well, and that you really, really don't want to do anything to mess it up.
- Lament the fact that you can't sleep with the requestor, because under any other circumstance, you would really want to (repeat #1), but alas, you can't (repeat #2).
I must not have been convincing enough, because in one instance, after the trip leader made it clear we should have sex, he appointed me to carry the shit on my boat (literally, we pack out all the human waste), something always assigned to the most junior staff members. Then he didn't speak directly to me the rest of the trip. Unless he overheard me talking about future trips on the Grand, or working with the same rafting company again, he made snide remarks like, "Oh you won't be coming back here, not with this company anyway."
Page 11: "She [Human Resources] referred to GRCA as a 'good ol' boy network,' stated that female employees who reported being victims of misconduct had a harder time proving their complaints than male employees, and said that midlevel managers were inclined to handle complaints themselves rather than notify senior managers."
Little changed over the years. When I returned to guide for a rafting company I worked for previously, the owner made a pass at me. We'd been drinking, and smoking marijuana, and he physically forced himself on me. I ran into the bathroom and locked the door. He chased me, banging on the door saying, "Come on, I'm sorry! I took it too far. I'm sorry!" I was able to escape to my truck when his son arrived.
I completed my shift the next day, then never worked for that company again. Even so, I was careful to remain on friendly terms with the owner. I never confronted him about what happened. His company was on my resume, and I needed his backing, his recommendation. I couldn't risk being labeled "difficult to work with" and losing a shot at guiding on one of my dream rivers. So I let it slide.
With the exception of California — where there are way more women working as guides — the rivers of the Western U.S. are a good ol' boy network. I'd never wear a bikini on any of them, or even a bikini top and shorts because it would attract way too much negative attention. The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon is the only place on earth where they still use the term boatman. I remember being laughed and mocked because I wanted to call myself a boatwoman. If you want to be part of the culture, you have to accept the label boatman. I finally just didn't call myself anything. Instead I let my competency and skill on the water speak for me."
-Reporting by Jayme Moye