I’m sitting at The Editor’s Desk here at DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE Headquarters (ok, the sofa in my bungalow on Fox Lake), having just finished reading “OUT HERE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM” by Kathryn Joyce in The Huffington Post. http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/park-rangers/?ncid=edlinkushpmg00000141 The story of Cheyenne Szydlo’s experiences at the hands of Grand Canyon boatman Dave Loeffler and his associates outlined in Joyce’s piece have me, as a man of the river, outraged and ashamed. How could this type of behavior – sexual harassment of the worst kind, like flashing cameras below skirts, aggressive come ons, and withholding food and proper times and places to perform Forest Service work if sex wasn’t given – not only be allowed by senior river guides and their supervisors, but go unreported by ANY of their male coworkers in the department? Where were the men willing to act like gentlemen?
The article outlines a fairly long pattern of abuse over many years in the Grand Canyon. This is no one time thing. Rather, it’s endemic in the local culture, and takes on added importance. These allegations of sexual abuse taking place in our country’s greatest whitewater National Park, committed by river guides in the employ of our federal government, on one of the most highly coveted river runs in the world, makes all of us in the industry look bad. This is especially true when people rush to the defense of these men without reading about the entire affair.
Woman after woman stand up in the article to tell stories of abuse, where supervisors would allegedly “joked that they ‘used to not call it sexual harassment until the guy whipped out his penis and slapped you across the face with it.’” Charges would be dropped. Even when a report of allegations crossed Grand Canyon Chief Ranger Bill Wright’s desk, “no disciplinary actions were taken.”
Changes have finally been made, but the damage to all of our reputations as members of the river guide community will take much more time. Even though boatmen in the Forest Service did object to this highly inappropriate and illegal behavior, their fear of blacklisting prohibited them from going further. Here I am ashamed. These men should have put a stop to the offenders! They should have QUIT. They should have never allowed females in their care to be treated this way on the river. They could have, if only they had been brave. Instead, they acted as cowards, and these poor female coworkers were allowed to be preyed upon with nowhere to turn, in a most vulnerable environment.
Being a river guide is powerful. Out there on the river, people who aren’t one of us look to us almost as gods, putting their trust and faith in us that we will provide safe passage. They are willing to do this, understanding that our word is command and failure to follow those commands could lead to catastrophe, even death. This may be particularly true for our women guests. Being a male guide requires even more restraint in this case. These boatmen in the Grand Canyon took advantage of this relationship, plying it for all it was worth, and in doing so I hope their actions give the rest of us pause, as we consider anew how we should be conducting ourselves. Their embarrassment of our profession will then become a true lever of change in our own behaviors going forward, and the suffering of Ms. Szydlo and the other ladies who bravely told their stories will not have been in vain.
I asked raft guide and veteran international raft racer Julie Sutton to explain her views on the subject, as a female paddler. “I find harassment, sexism and misogyny actually very difficult to grasp myself. All of those things today are so deeply ingrained in the everyday attitudes of our society that it takes me a minute to actually decide if it is or is not and what crosses the line for me. And, as you read in the Grand Canyon article, the problem seems to be exacerbated in a community that is male dominated. And that problem is not just perpetuated by men, but also by the women who don’t see it is an issue (whether they don’t really mind it, or it’s something that they’ve been socialized to not mind to feel among the crowd- would be something I would need to dwell on for a bit). And my belief is that when we allow small versions of sexist behavior that we don’t realize is sexist… and we start allowing it be acceptable- men especially- will start pushing the limits as to what’s acceptable.”
“Objectification- which is basically showing only parts of woman’s body so that you don’t think of women as human beings- paves the way for sexism and misogynistic behaviors. I raise issue with Sports illustrated’s swimsuit issues as well, or how they pose women for the covers of their magazines, with athletes that are NOT in the clothes which they need for athletic endeavors. I get it that we all want to look good and appealing.. But for me, as a viewer, as an athlete, as a woman- it’s a fine line when you start removing clothes as to what is inspiring and interesting to me. Also, the damage it does to women in terms of what they think they need to look like, be like or act like to be an accepted part of the gang in which there really are more men than women in the river world (still) is just horrible.”
“I could go into LONG detail about experiences I’ve had as the only female professor in an outdoor class, as a guide, as a trip leader, as a racer. Those things don’t define me, they cause me to really think. Once we start allowing those little things to infiltrate, it becomes regular and par for the course- and then when that becomes ok, then women start getting harassed like the Grand Canyon article. Vicious cycle.”
So I ask you, fellow boatmen of the rivers of the world. Take a moment to consider your role as river guide to your customers. Give thanks that they come to your outfitter, and provide the rich opportunity to spend a day employed on the water. Tell your female customers and coworkers about how things used to be down in the Canyon, and take a moment to apologize for the actions of our fellow river men. We can take up the slack in the rope, and provide real closure and change. This cloud covers all of our reputations, especially to the outside world that lumps us all together in ignorance. We need to dispel it with a mighty gust, issued from each of us. Other than likes clicked on posts, there has been nary a peep from us.
Show them how real men run rivers. With respect.
photo of the Colorado River by Associate Editor Taz Riggs, from the Dirt Bag Paddlers Instagram feed @dbp_4_life