By Brooke Burkel, Glacier Raft Company River Guide
Much of my experience in the outdoor industry is marred with gender biases. I always felt like there was not equal representation in the outdoor community. More times than I can count, I have been told things like “You are so strong… for a girl.” That is until I moved to West Glacier, Montana, to work as a river guide at Glacier Raft Company.
When I’m out enjoying the great outdoors, I am often the only woman on the chairlift or the trailhead before sunrise, setting out for a summit. I am often the only woman strapping on crampons to climb higher or rigging up a kayak to the roof of an SUV. I am often the only woman navigating potholes on backcountry gravel roads or clicking together my ski poles while dropping into a powdery void. I have simply never had a community in the outdoors where I felt there was equal representation of fiery, intelligent and capable women like me.
Glacier Raft Company is the place I met women exactly like me, who live for days filled with activities that result in sticky skin, grimy toes and crunchy river hair. From my perspective, it seems the women at this company view themselves as amazing women, but more importantly, as awesome guides.
The Flathead River provides a unique dynamic — a place where there is little room to take into consideration someone's gender, age, race, sexual orientation or financial status. The things that matter on the river are one's ability to read water and communicate. The river does not care who you are or who you are into. It will provide humbling and exciting experiences just the same. You either have what it takes to be a guide or you do not. There is no gray area.
Initially, I didn’t think I had what it took to be a confident and capable guide, and the river was anything but welcoming. I remember the first time I floated down the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Led by experienced guides, I was overwhelmed and in awe of the waters that I would soon become deeply connected with. Flying through rapids in the fog, imagining myself in the back of the boat barking commands with confidence and precision seemed worlds away. My head swam with negative thoughts: How would I make it? Am I cut out for this? What did I get myself into?
I've always been book-smart but performing on the river is an entirely different game. Throughout the long days that followed, I started to clumsily learn the commands and strokes that the veteran guides so effortlessly demonstrated. I began taking my turn at barking commands that sometimes landed us entirely out of the current. But I was doing it. I was guiding rapids.
After the rookie overnight, I was one of the few who had yet to tackle the most technical rapid on the Middle Fork — “Screaming Right.” When it came time to announce what rapid we wanted for the day, I forced myself to say, “I’ll take Screaming Right.” “Hell yeah, Brooke!” my colleague Allison replied in support.
I could not eat that morning. My stomach was filled with butterflies. My chest was filled with anxiety as we moved through the now-familiar rapids — Tunnel, Bonecrusher, Washboard and Big Squeeze. “All right Brooke, come on back for Screaming Right,” Allison called. I moved reluctantly to the guide seat and gripped the heavier guide stick with trembling hands.
“You ready?” Allison asked.
“No,” I replied. “But I’m doing it anyways.”
I blacked out for the entire rapid, but somehow my arms held my pry and my voice confidently instructed an “all forward,” pushing our raft up onto the pillow. The boat erupted with cheers of support. The other rookies were beaming with excitement. There was only one thing left to do — line up our raft to ride the lower jaws hit that the raft guides have affectionately named the “420 wave.” I scrambled to adjust my angle and reached into my gut to call an assertive “All forward.”
The rookies paddled with everything they had, and we plunged into the middle of the roaring wave below us. We hit it hard. So hard that the screams of excitement became muffled by sheets of water playfully pouring onto our heads. We emerged from the whitewater rollercoaster, and it became clear that I had successfully run the rapid. Not only did I run it, but I styled it. I tossed my guide stick down, threw my head back and let out a holler that can only be described as pure stoke. I was on top of the world, and I will keep chasing rapids that challenge me as long as my body will let me.
After a few more weeks of training, I had my first boat of clients by myself. I got to share the stoke with others. Since that first boat, I have heard many kids shriek and adults let out laughs — the kind that comes from your gut and makes your eyes crinkle. I have surprised myself with strength I never knew my upper body had and have logged close to one thousand miles on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
I know where to spot a trout rising for a fly and where to look for perched eagles. I know how the local flora and fauna contribute to our ecosystem and I have a plethora of local history knowledge. I can tie dozens of knots, cook a meal on the side of the river and rig up campsites in the backcountry. I have learned how to organize and pack for clients, back up a trailer and filet a fish. I even have a river nickname — Trout. What started as a nickname to minimize confusion with another Brooke at Glacier Raft Company blossomed into something much deeper for me.
Being “Trout” has allowed me to step into the magical world that Montana summers offer and gain skills I never saw myself with along the way. Being “Trout” has given me a platform to be a capable and confident river guide. So much so that I do not notice when I am the only female guide on a bus anymore, because I am just that — a guide like everybody else.
I am eternally grateful to Glacier Raft Company. I will always remember the laughs and comradery built on the boats in training, and the stories shared during the rookie overnight. I will remember my first summit in the park, live music at Gunsight, Chaco sandal tan lines and foraging for huckleberries. I will remember laughing at Little Mexico late into the evening, rowing clients through the whitewater after my first overnight and watching Logans Pass erupt in wildflowers.
I will continue to chuckle at the memories of my first guide swim, ducky mission and broken paddle. I will continue to say “all forward” to things in life and I cannot wait for more summers to come.