Breaking Raft Guide Stereotypes

Author: Ashley Manning

When you think “whitewater raft guide” I know the kind of person you’re thinking of: Strong white male with an unkempt beard and wild eyes. Maybe he smells a little strange and he has an impossible tan. He carries himself as confidently as he carries his sticker-covered Nalgene. He’s yelling out loud and smiling from ear to ear, eager to begin his day. This is the guy you came for, this is your idea of what a whitewater raft guide should be. However, he’s not the only person who should be on your radar.

Beside him stands a chubby girl with braided hair and thick thighs. Beside her stands a man with dark skin, holding his own paddle. Next to him is a small trans man with the same beaming smile as our original raft guide. In the outdoor industry, there’s a certain belief on who should occupy those spaces like guide jobs. Some claim it’s “old school”, but it’s an outdated way of looking at things. I am here to help end the era of an industry dominated by men and to give you a fresh, new look at the way different bodies should be viewed as well.

Meet Ashley Manning.

I’ve been a whitewater raft guide on the Chattooga River since 2015, a zip line guide since 2014. I’ve hiked over 900 miles of the Appalachian Trail, explored every trail in North Georgia, been featured as a 2018 influencer in Blue Ridge Outdoor Magazine, and rowed the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. I’m also a plus-size woman, who is proud of her accomplishments in the outdoor industry. However, this hasn’t come easy for me. Not only is being a woman in these communities a challenge but being a woman, in general, comes with many setbacks. There are always those that will doubt you because you’re something different in their eyes.

During a winter trip down the Grand Canyon, we were doing a hike to the granaries. As everyone arrived at the top before me, I took my time and would catch my breath here and there. I felt no pressure, as we were to be there all day long. Unknown to me, one of my fellow oarsmen was at the granaries, looking down on me, talking about how I would never make it to the top in a million years. Twenty minutes later I was standing beside him.

Time for a change.

There is a deep and engrained idea of what an outdoorsman is supposed to be and do and look like. This typically discourages different people to enter a new sport. Why are plus-size people, especially plus-size women, so often deterred from being a part of the outdoors? I’ve proved myself time and time again that I am more than capable of guiding different class rapids, and yet I have received plenty of unsolicited opinions about my body from various people. The assumption is made that I don’t know what I’m doing, most of the time, as well. There is so much backlash towards plus-size people on the water and on trails but what people don’t realize is that it will help with so many wonderful things.

The more people that aren’t shunned from the outdoors, the more knowledge of LNT and conservation will be attained. People will begin to care more. As we allow plus-size bodies and others into these communities, the healthier they, as individuals, become. We are living in a time where it is easy to spend our time inside and never feel the sun on our skin. Which is fine if that’s what you’re into, but I love sharing my outdoor lifestyle with my friends. Speaking of friendships, when we shy away from people who differ from the perfect outdoor stereotype, we deny ourselves the chance to get to know some bewildering folks.

There aren’t many places that I feel welcomed with open arms and comfortable about sharing with what I struggle with in these rugged sports. It took a long time for me to even feel comfortable asking for help or assistance in my own river community. There have been movements, blogs and pages that have been created to make some of us feel more at home. One of my personal favorites is Jenny Bruso’s Unlikely Hikers. Jenny has helped create a world in which people of all shapes, sizes, shades, backgrounds, and abilities are able to participate in the hiking world. Based on Jenny’s movement, I asked if I could base a small campaign off Unlikely Hikers, called Unlikely PaddlersFat Girls Hiking is another body positive community that I’ve found to be helpful as well. For a more diversity-focused group, Melanin Base Camp has really taken climbing, biking, surfing, hiking, and paddling by storm. The Trek has also been working on becoming more inclusive. However, I’m sure this still leaves you wondering what outfitters and retailers do support diversity and specifically, plus size people. Luckily, brands like Astral, REI and Columbia have begun to open their eyes and realize that we’re here. Shoutouts to the Layla PFD built for curvy bodies.

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