How one all-female kayaking collective in California is propelling women’s leadership both on and off the water.

Melissa DeMarie grew up dancing ballet. Anyone watching her maneuver up, down, and across rapids in a whitewater kayak can easily spot the markings of a dancer: every stroke is powerful yet precise and controlled. She can move fast through big waves and chaos while never compromising grace. Said another way, she makes it look way too easy.

This year, Melissa along with another phenomenal athlete, Tracy Tate, launched the California Women’s Watersports Collective, or Cali Collective for short (not to be confused with the medical marijuana dispensary of the same name — California FTW). The nonprofit collective is a community and hub for women paddlers.

One of the first official gatherings in August was a two-day whitewater paddling clinic on the South Fork of the American river just outside of Sacramento. During the day, an experienced, all-female coaching staff led over 50 women of varying skill levels and ages down three sections of the class II-III river. As the sun went down, we all gathered for yoga, massage, and potlucking by the river at our campsite in Coloma. I have never in my life paddled with that many skilled women at the same time on the same river. It was like a dream.

Every year, I seem to have less time to paddle as my job demands more time. Despite this, the Cali Collective has quickly become a beacon for me and a lot of local lady paddlers since its creation. That Sunday evening after the clinic, I drove home to San Francisco realizing my whitewater skills had progressed faster in those two days than they had in the past two years.

cali collective kayak women

(Instructor Sara James punching through a hole Photo: Melissa DeMarie)

The power of women leading women

Like many outdoor sports, in kayaking you’re more often than not the only woman in the group. This isn’t a bad thing at all — some of my favorite people to kayak with are male. But this trend does tend to inhibit women’s skills development, especially among beginners. “Generally, being the girl in the group meant being the weak link or the one that the boys had to look out for. The guys were often the ones making decisions and leading down the river,” shares Melissa.

Cali Collective seeks to reverse this trend: “One of our goals is to encourage women to be active leaders — not passive participants — in their paddling group: doing things like getting out front in the rapids, making decisions on the river and assisting in rescues. When women paddle together they have more opportunities do all these things, which gives them more experience and confidence,” Melissa explains.

cali collective pres kayak(Cali Collective co-founder, Melissa DeMarie, straight stunnin’)

She also points out, “women tend to be more honest about their skill set, with both themselves and others. Therefore, I think there’s a lot less ‘oh you’ll be fine’ in stepping up to a more challenging run when they may or may not be ready. There’s a bit less ego on the water with women and they are often times more supportive and so other women feel less intimidated when learning new skills.”

The formation of Cali Collective comes as the confidence gap in women’s outdoor leadership gains attention (and corporate leadership too, for that matter). As Misadventures’ own Jessica Malordy reports in her brilliant article on “Closing the Confidence Gap” in outdoor sports, a Backpacker Magazine study surveying over 3,000 readers discovered, “women of any outdoor experience level were, on average, less confident in their skills and less likely to see themselves as leaders than men with the equivalent experience.”

Confidence that’s contagious

There’s a certain feeling a lot of people, both male and female, get when they successfully run their first challenging rapid. For me, it was this contradictory feeling of both physical invincibility and unbounding awe for the power of water. You’re not just going with the flow, you’re channeling the massive power of the flow. Kayaking has become a source of physical and emotional strength because of this exact feeling and the way it transcends into nearly all aspects of my life. I see the influence of many female kayaking friends and instructors as pivotal to realizing this strength.

As Melissa puts it best, “If you can inspire women to be confident on the water, that will translate into other areas of their lives. In turn, if they feel good about something that they’re doing, they’ll want to pass that on to someone else.”

Learn more

To learn more about the California Women’s Watersports Collective and get involved check out their website and Facebook group. She Jumps is another awesome organization forwarding women’s leadership in outdoor sports. For East Coast paddlers, the amazing Anna Levesque heads up the all-women paddling group Girls At Play based in North Carolina with frequent international trips.
Also worth reading is sea kayaking instructor Cate Hawthorne’s awesome kayaking blog which inspired the title of this piece.

kayak river california(The group launching on day two Photo: Melissa DeMarie)