In the second edition of our Paddler Profile series, Grand Canyon guide, kayaker, teacher, and dedicated yogi, Heather Snow shares her experiences of life on the river, and how to stay strong in the face of adversity.
Heather’s life on the water began at age 13 with her first river trip. From there, she spent her high school summers rowing boats down the Klamath river on the California-Oregon border, working for her mother’s rafting company. Heather moved on to work on various wild rivers throughout the U.S. and abroad. In 1999, she competed in the Camel Challenge international rafting competition in South Africa with the U.S. Women’s Raft Team. As a kayaker, she’s rallied the steep creeks in the Sierras to the big water jungle rivers of Ecuador.
These days, it’s common to see women paddlers working and boating all around the world. However, in 1990, Heather was one of just four women working as whitewater guides on the Pacure and Reventazon rivers in Costa Rica. Spending a few seasons myself working in Latin America, I know that the male “machismo” can sometimes make for frustrating and difficult work environments.
Heather explains, “The Costa Rican male river guides were not used to female raft guides or really females doing much other than raising children and caring for a home. It was difficult to be judged by my gender and not by my abilities. I would be required to train under male guides with less experience and ability to guide rafts…We were token trophies for the companies rather than valued guides.”
Obviously, that did not deter Heather, who returned for another season the following year. She then moved onto to other beautiful places, including the Kaituna river in New Zealand, with the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall, Tutea, vertically dropping a full seven meters.
2015 marks Heather’s 20th year as a professional guide on the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon. While working on the Canyon can be considered the apex of a guide’s career, it’s not all romantic sunsets and perfect lines through Lava Falls.
“The Canyon takes a certain mentality that can deal with adverse conditions, physical discomfort, long work days, early mornings and the ability to keep a great attitude for two weeks. This tends to toughen people up over the years. I might have been accused of being a bit hardened myself by some of the sensitive, new age guides,” explains Heather with a hint of a smile.
In addition to being a tough-as-nails boater, mountain biker and skier, Heather also knows how to fly- spending time paragliding in skies of the Sierra Foothills. In November 2013, while on a paragliding trip in Hawaii, Heather had a serious accident. She was out flying, when the winds shifted. As she began her descent, her wing collapsed. Staying cool-headed, she did exactly what she had been trained to do in this situation, and managed to get her wing to re-inflate. Unfortunately it was already too late. Heather fell out of the sky from over 50 feet up and hit the ground.
Heather explains the injuries she sustained, “I snapped the head of my femur off and crushed my right sacrum into at least five pieces. The impact burst multiple blood vessels causing me to bleed out into my thigh resulting in a giant hematoma on my right hip. The 40 minute ride in the ambulance to the hospital nearly killed me. I think I would be dead if I was not able to slow my heart rate down through the breathing practiced in yoga. I was rushed into surgery and my hip was screwed back together with three large screws.”
As terrible as her injuries were, Heather was incredibly lucky. The odds of surviving a fall from that height are a mere 50/50.
“I had to be non-weight bearing for four months forcing me to use a walker. This was followed by a couple of months learning to walk without a cane or support,” Heather goes on to describe her recovery process.
She explains how her yoga practice was an integral part of her rehabilitation, both physically and mentally. “The many times I had stood on my left foot in eagle, half moon, warrior three, standing splits, and tree pose, I had no idea how those poses would benefit me and be critical to my survival. With a broken right hip and back, having the strength, balance, will power and history of standing on my left foot gave me the needed strength and ability to be independent.”
Through her sheer strength, resiliency and determination, Heather was paddling flat water just three months after her accident. At five months, she was on Class 3+. And just a mere seven months after she fell out of the sky, she was back at work, rowing a boat on the Grand Canyon.
“Heather, your story is inspiring. Do you have anything to say to women out there who are recovering from a major injury?”
“Find something else to be passionate about. Do as much yoga as possible. Visualize your body healthy and pain free. Stay strong,” she replies without hesitation.
Heather Snow lives in Truckee, California, working as a Special Education Teacher when she’s in between her Grand Canyon seasons.
By Melissa DeMarie