All-Outdoors Women Leading the WayPosted March 29, 2023 by Reily Schultz
The outfitter that we now know and love as All-Outdoors California Whitewater Rafting started in a high school classroom that celebrated equal opportunities and the strength in everyone, regardless of gender. From the very beginning AO has worked to dismantle the idea that rafting is a man’s sport and made sure that whitewater rafting is an activity accessible to everyone.
Especially the girls
The founder of All-Outdoors, George Armstrong, has been inspired by the women in his life long before the inception of the whitewater rafting company. George recalls his high school vice principal, Patricia, being an early source of inspiration that would change the direction of his life. From this young age George was encouraged to “try hard” and throw himself into things that challenge him. He ran with this momentum into adulthood and used it to forge a relationship between his growing family and the outdoors. All-Outdoors can thank women, especially teachers, for much of our continued success and growth.
Years later after George settled into a life of teaching he took the opportunity to start an outdoor program called Summit Seekers for his high school students. Activities were set up to ensure that all of the students had “an equal opportunity to be involved, especially the girls.” Equity within the program was very intentional and was a large part of why George studied outdoor recreation. Inspired by the leadership of another teacher, Jean, the two worked together to create a space for kids of any gender to experience the outdoors. Jean’s presence and leadership in the club opened the door for more young women to get involved. Jean not only made the program more accessible to girls, she also helped educate George about the growing environmental issues facing them. After two successful years of this outdoor program, George and Jean took the blessing of their school principal to turn the club from an elective into an official class! One of George’s favorite students, Terry, went on to become George’s assistant and helped teach the advanced outdoor recreation class.
George’s outdoor escapades transitioned from a family and friends affair, to school sanctioned trips, to being a full fledged commercial outfitter. As interest in his trips grew, George looked to family to help steer the up-and-coming business. Several women stepped up and were accepted and trained without hesitation. Over the years, his daughter Sherri, daughter-in-law Christine, granddaughters Katie, Kristi and Laura all eagerly joined what was expected to be a predominantly male crew.
As the company grew, women were involved every step of the way.
Keeping it together
Women have also played a crucial role off of the water. Looking back to when AO was in its infancy, George’s wife Dolores was a reluctant supporter of All-Outdoors. She may not have been so happy to have dirty raft guides coming in and out of her house every day, but her support was a large reason George was able to offer outdoor activities to his students and guests. Dolores “held the whole thing together,” doing a lot of invisible work that she did not receive much credit for. She chose not to be involved with company operations but did lend a hand in trip preparation in the company’s early years- buying and packing food for all adventure trips. Reflecting on the past decades, both George and his son Scott acknowledge how impossible these ventures would have been without Dolores – how she brought a sense of calm everywhere she went. Her contributions to the company were fully acknowledged as more female guides joined the company and got an inside look at all she did.
Since the mid 80’s, women have played key roles in directing the operations staff, as well as managing the reservations office. Notably, in her over thirty year tenure as office manager Claudette was largely responsible for the improvement of AO’s reservation system and public relations as the company grew quickly in the 90’s and early 2000’s. While both men and women worked to manage the AO office over the years, the Armstong brothers realized that the best results came from having women in charge of organization and scheduling.
“I ain’t going with no dame”
All-Outdoors has been not only a pioneer in rafting, but also inclusivity. Whitewater rafting is historically a very male dominated field. Women often have to fight for recognition amongst the guide community and to win favor and trust with guests. These days, having a woman at the helm of your boat is fairly standard. Every outfitter has a handful of female guides, and likely women working behind the scenes. AO is proud to say that women have been involved since the very beginning! In the 1970s when it was common to have 2-3 female raft guides, AO ran trips with 10 or more female guides. This intense contrast continued for a few decades with AO leading local outfitters in the number of strong women employed.
Women who have guided for AO for over 15 years express that the only doubt they ever felt was from guests, leaving male guides shocked at this treatment as well. George shared an interaction that a female guide had with a guest in the 70’s- standout guide Peggy was discounted by a male guest who refused to be in a boat led by a woman. He insisted “I ain’t going with no dame,” and after some discussion between George and Peggy, the “big tough guy” was put in a raft with a male guide. This man’s prejudice ended quickly when he fell out of the raft he was in after a rapid and Peggy was there to rescue him into her boat. While perceptions are changing for the better (and more accurate), many guests still seem to take issue with having a female guide. We are thankful to have a guide staff and community of guests that recognize and accept the skill, strength, and resilience of women in whitewater.
Opportunity and camaraderie
Gender has never been a factor in determining job roles or authority positions at All-Outdoors. From the beginning, opportunities have been offered to those who have earned them and are interested in more responsibility. Prioritizing men over women for their brawn and brute force as a job skill was never the case. Whether they are in the guide seat of a boat, working in the office, or helping with operations, women have been promoted based on merit and have become essential players in the operation of the company.
The history of AO’s strides towards equality speaks for itself, but what speaks even louder are the women presently employed by the outfitter. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst women of whitewater; having each other’s back is crucial when working in a system that was historically dominated by men. Women trade tips and advice about how to play to their strengths, and encourage and reassure each other. They teach each other how to do the challenging things that may have been explained to them in a way better suited for a man or bigger person in general. This solidarity also plays a role in the culture of the rafting community. Women find each other and bond easily over their ‘otherness’ and the struggles they face on the water. The world of whitewater rafting comes with its own colorful subculture that is boisterous and competitive, and women have firmly cemented their place within it.
To the wonderful women of All-Outdoors, you know who you are. If we could, we would thank you all individually but our blog posts can only be so long… We are immeasurably grateful for you and how you have helped guide and shape our community. Our company, rivers, and spirits would not be the same without you!