When Dagny Deutchman was 16 and guiding a raft down the Middle Fork, she was sexually harassed and later propositioned by a man more than twice her age.
Ten years later, Deutchman said she’s experienced several forms of sexual harassment on the river, including outfitters who commented on her body and made indirect comments about sex. Her experience is far from unusual. But Idaho’s outfitters and guides are attempting to tackle the issue, improve working conditions and spur a public discussion.
Around 150,000 people come to Idaho each year to raft the state’s 3,000 miles of rivers. Some spend days at a time traveling the water, away from civilization.
With around 400 commercial outfitters and around 2,000 licensed river guides, the number of women guiding on the river remains unclear. But their presence is well-known. Guides interviewed by the Statesman estimated that less than half of their peers are female.
The Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association and the Middle Fork Outfitters Association in 2016 released a new suggested policy for commercial outfitters to use in an effort to stop sexual harassment in the rafting industry. The guidelines are similar to what you’ll find in many large companies’ handbooks. But for a number of the outfitters, they were new — many had no harassment policy at all for supervisors or employees.
The guidelines define harassment as “behavior of a sexual nature that may include unwanted or offensive comments, jokes, propositions, unwelcome touching, gestures, retaliation against reporting sexual harassment, or displays of sexualized images. Sexual harassment also doesn’t have to be sexual in nature, it can also be offensive remarks about a person’s sex.” The conduct must be pervasive or severe enough to interfere with someone’s ability to perform their job, or to result in a hostile work environment. Employees who engage in such behavior are subject to disciplinary action, including possible termination.
The policy was the Idaho groups’ response to a slew of allegations against the National Park Service, some leading to official resignations, about female guides being sexually harassed. The two organizations chose to be “proactive” about the problem, said Grant Simonds, executive director of the MFOA. He noted “harassment can occur in any industry.”
More recently, IOGA invited journalist Jayme Moye to speak Dec. 14 at its annual meeting, highlighting existing efforts like the policy and yet detailing how far the industry has to go. Her appearance was heavily promoted to local media, and organizers noted its timing with recent national discussions of harassment, saying they hoped to spur more conversations in Idaho.
Moye’s reporting for Men’s Journal and other publications examined the National Park Service problems and myriad other examples of harassment in 2016 in the river-guiding industry in Colorado. Her articles outed a variety of issues female river guides faced when trying to make their way in a male-dominated profession: crass and sexist language, sexual assault and threats of retaliation that helped create a fear of reporting the incidents.
At the conference, Moye said she found that sexual harassment seemed to be prominent among guides and outfitters.
In some ways, those on rafting trips were “more prone to that behavior because you are out in the wilderness and that invokes a feeling of kind of being outside the law of normal civilization or society,” she said. “On one hand, that’s an amazing escape, on the other hand, it can cause people to act in ways they wouldn’t behave normally.”
The industry’s move to stop harassment appears to be supported by most.
Deutchman said she has seen male guides be very protective of female crew members if something inappropriate happens, and supportive if a guest gets out of line.
“I think it’s good that they’re trying to be forward-thinking,” Deutchman said about the new guidelines. “However, there is a power discrepancy between outfitters and guides, and I would hate to see that” abused to get rid of people who aren’t well-liked, she added.
She views sexual bias as the more important issue within the guiding community, as some people still question a woman’s ability to do the job as well as male guides.
Madeline Friend, of Logan, Utah, has served as a river guide since 2014 and has been a wilderness guide in other fields since she was 18 years old. Now 26, Friend said she’s definitely experienced sexual harassment in the field. Sometimes, it came through comments on a woman’s appearance. At other times, a male guest would refuse to ride in a female guide’s boat, or would ignore a female guide’s answer to a question.
The hope is that out in the wilderness, societal issues such as sexual harassment aren’t as predominant, Friend said. But “any woman in any industry experiences it,” she said. “It’s in guiding as much as anywhere.
“It’s the number one reason I consider not returning every year. But I love to be outside and being in that community. If we want to continue to have women in this industry, it needs to change.”
Building on resources
Idaho had one other pre-existing resource for guides — a helpline and other tools established after a longtime, well-known Middle Fork river guide, Telly Evans, died by suicide in 2010.
The nonprofit Redside Foundation aids guides in crisis, offering the free helpline and coordinating mental health assistance for guides who have faced harassment or are struggling for other reasons. Redside also offers scholarships, grants and community development, Executive Director Emerald LaFortune said. The foundation has a licensed counselor on retainer to take free, confidential calls from guides.
LaFortune said there is no data collected on Idaho’s suicide or depression rates among outdoor guides. But most outfitters recognize that it is an issue and make efforts to help those in mental health crisis — including cases involving harassment.
“Anytime an industry brings guidelines to the table, they’re saying this is something that we don’t want to see happen in our community,” LaFortune said. “The problem with sex harassment and assault in so many arenas is that it’s not an issue that’s discussed.
“Some of the best outfitters in the state (are in support), so the leaders in this industry are taking a stand and I think that’s a real first step.”
Even outfitters who have been more active about discouraging harassment are using this moment to revisit their policies.
Chrissy Wilson, of Pendleton, Oregon, worked for Northwest Rafting Co., guiding for seven years on water in both Oregon and Idaho. Wilson said she never felt threatened and did not experience sexual harassment. But “harassment was part of our manual and we always talked about it.”
Wilson said she was grateful for the outfitter she worked for because she always felt safe.
“I’m thankful for this push,” Wilson said about the anti-sexual harassment guidelines. “I think it’s a great message for us professionally but also to take responsibility as leaders.”
Zach Collier, the company’s owner, said he supports the new guidelines. While Collier said he did not know of an issue with sexual harassment among Idaho guides, the separation between owners and guides means he may not be aware of problems on the river, especially if they don’t get reported. Because of that, he implemented and updated the policy.
“We based our guidelines off these guidelines (from IOGA and MFOA),” Collier said. “Now it’s a part of our annual training just to talk about it. We want to let people know that sexual harassment is not an OK behavior and if there’s an issue, we’re a fairly small company, so come to me.”