CHARLEMONT, MA / WILMINGTON, VT—Kelsey Henderson was a teenager the first time she went whitewater rafting with her father, Huckle May, at Zoar Outdoor in Western Massachusetts. Not one who was particularly familiar with nature, Henderson was nervous—especially when she got out on the rapids on the Deerfield River. She realized she wouldn’t just be floating downstream; the game was about staying in the raft and learning what to do if you fell out.
Vivian Black guided Henderson’s group that day. May says Black took control and exuded confidence as she led and mentored. “Kelsey had never done anything like that,” May says.
“There were a lot of female raft guides there. It was a good thing. It sent an important message.” Henderson is a nurse in Lansing, Michigan, now. At 21, she works hard and already owns her own home. Her father says that adventure sports helped her to understand she could be strong, successful and confident—like Black.
Striking a balance at Zoar
Bruce Lessels, the president of Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, Massachusetts, and Wilmington, Vermont, well understands that female guides make the best role models for the young girls and women who visit Zoar. After all, he has two daughters in their 20s who have worked at Zoar and were positively influenced by the many female role models they interacted with while growing up.
Likewise, Lessels understands the importance of staff diversification in general and has always worked to maintain a balanced ratio of male-to- female guides as well as a blend of ethnicities. Currently, Zoar has about 55 male guides and 45 females who lead rafting, kayaking, canoeing and zip line tours; the goal is to continue to keep things even.
“It’s important that all of our clients see themselves in our guides, which means we work hard to represent various minority groups, and, likewise, genders,” Lessels said. “We have many young girls visit with their parents. It’s important for them to see women here in leadership roles.” May said if Zoar had had all male guides on those times he and his daughter visited, it would have sent a strong but subtle message that only men can be adventurous. Instead, the outdoors experiences, “Helped to round out Kelsey’s views of the world.” Rachel Maestri Hailey, the 35-year- old canopy tour manager at Zoar, is in her third season there. She said not only is she a woman, but she is also Congolese and British, so she breaks all the stereotypes.
“Zoar is doing a great job of bringing in women to be female role models who are doing the work and bringing in people with more ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds,” she said. She’s excited about Mother’s Day on May 13, when many women come out with their children.
Smaller, but just as mighty
Black, Henderson’s guide, is 30 and lives in Shelburne Falls. A dual citizen of the United States and Bogotá, Colombia—where she visited frequently as a child—she recently offered white water instruction to business owners and guides in Bogotá, all in Spanish. She has worked with Zoar for 13 years and leads day-long rafting trips in which she might be in charge of 130 people as they travel along a 10-mile section of the Deerfield River.
Often, she said, before a group sets out on the water, she is mistaken by customers as a cashier or equipment manager. “I’m five-foot- five,” she said with a smile. “When they understand I’m their guide,” she adds, “at first they don’t know what my abilities are going to be like. Usually by the time we’re hitting the top of the first rapid, though, everyone in my boat understands exactly what I’m capable of and why I’m the one in charge.”
Hailey said many Zoar guests know that she has a daughter, and they jokingly ask her when 2-year-old Aria will be a zip line guide.
“I have a happy giggle about it,” she said. “To share this industry with her would be magical. I love that she gets to grow up at Zoar and see diverse women doing this stuff. It’s really empowering. I think she’ll become all the more amazing because of it.” Because she has some minor fear about kayaking, Hailey added that it will be poetic justice if Aria becomes a paddler. “I’ll get payback for the stress I’ve caused my mom,” she said.
How they got there
Hailey has a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University and spent 10 years in the food and beverage industry before she got into rock and ice climbing as a way to blow off steam. Then, she followed her passion.
“The adventure sports became more than a hobby,” she said. “It became something I loved to do. I started to understand also that I really love to share it with other people.”
Black got hooked on the outdoors by spending time as a child at Camp Howe in Goshen, Massachusetts. At 16, she got hooked on adventure after her brother inspired her to do a 40-day Outward Bound trek.
“Being 16 is hard, and I was really glad I had that experience. It gave me a lot of physical power and presence,” she said, noting Zoar later seemed like a great choice as a place to work.
What they give
Black is excited to have introduced her five nieces to rafting on the Deerfield River, but she said the girls live in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, on a mountain, with chickens roaming around and parents who encourage them to connect with nature.
It’s Zoar’s young female guests she feels she has the most impact on—pre-teens and teenagers who come in questioning their own capacity. “They’re apt to say, “I don’t know how to paddle. I can’t do this,” she said.
Those young women test Black the most. “They roll their eyes at you. It’s hard to direct them, but I secretly love them,” she said, noting she tends to quietly focus on the girl in the raft who she knows will experience the most growth.
Black said it’s all about teaching the girls what they need to do with their bodies to be safe; once they know this, they feel a sense of power and control, and they can achieve. On a trip, after they’ve gone down the rapids for the first time, Black has what she calls “the Jesus talk” with them.
She tells them what she needs from them and explains how they’re going to get down river. “I motivate them and remind them we’re a team, and we need to work together. I keep it fun, but serious,” she said. “I teach them how can they connect in their body and really be present. When they are present in their body, they’re less likely to react to their scared impulses.”