When Sheri Griffith, then 30, applied for a loan to buy several vans for her eponymous rafting company back in the 1980s, a bank officer turned her down. In the process, he told her she might have better luck if she brought in her brother or her husband.
She was also told more than a few times by male competitors that she had no place in the man’s world of whitewater rafting. Worse – and this pushed her to tears, she recalls – she was harshly criticized by some men when she ran for president of the Western River Guides Association (WRGA). A few of them even quit the organization.
Griffith, who sold Sheri Griffth River Expeditions in 2011 and now focuses her attention on horses, said she also got plenty of support from men during her nearly 40-year whitewater career. When the “gentleman” banker turned her down, she ended up borrowing from a savings and loan – run by an understanding guy.
And that WRGA election? She received so much support from her male colleagues that she was chosen by acclimation, recalled Griffith, likely the only woman to run a major North American rafting company.
“I certainly faced some challenges being a woman, but overall it was a great ride,” Griffith, 66, recalled during a phone interview from Lexington, Kentucky, deep in the heart of horse country.
Griffith said she got into the rafting business with her two brothers – Ron and Mark – when they opened a Steamboat Springs-based company that operated from 1972 to 1981 and ran the Upper Colorado, North Platte and Arkansas rivers. She moved to Moab, Utah, in 1982 and started her own company.
She said she knew little about running a business, learning the ins and outs of managing a company through the “school of hard knocks” and taking classes.
At first, she said she offered the same kinds of river trips that every other outfitter was providing. But when a customer told her he chose her company because of its feminine name and that he figured his family would be safer – and the food would be better – on a trip run by a woman, she experienced an epiphany.
“I figured if that was the perception, I should go with it,” said Griffith, who went on to get her wilderness first aid instructor certification and taught those skills to her guides. She also decided to focus on custom service, offering fresh food back when some companies were serving canned food. She began taking folding chairs on trips and tables with real legs, instead of putting a piece of plywood on two rocks.
“Someone said there is always a lot of competition in the middle, but not so much at the top,” she said. “So I decided to be one of the top-flight companies and charge that way. It set my focus.”
Over the years, her company grew (it now has more than 35 guides running trips on seven Western rivers) and she spent more and more time in the office and less on the water. To keep it interesting, she served on numerous state and national tourism panels, often lobbying in Washington, D.C. on conservation issues.
During her career, she hired many women guides. She knew, from her own experience, that piloting a raft is more about finesse than brute strength. Now, even decades after Griffith ran what was likely the first and possibly the only woman-owned rafting company, it's still rare for women to lead rafting expeditions. In the Grand Canyon, only about 20 percent of guides are women, Griffith said.
“You need to work in harmony with the river because you certainly can’t overpower it,” she said. “I think guys benefited by having women guides around, too. And some of the little girls who went on our trips eventually came back and worked for us as guides."