A Lesson in Empowerment


By Em Shanblatt

I was fortunate enough this winter to find myself living and kayaking in Costa Rica for two whole months. After the Girls at Play trips had ended, I extended my stay through February, and had the chance to paddle one of my favorite rivers, the Chirripo Atlantico, not just once, but twice!


chirripo road

The Chirripo runs through the deepest canyon in Central America, and involves an epic mud road approach, a class IV warm up day, a camp-out in the jungle, and a highly committal 7-hour day of class IV/V whitewater. The walls encompassing the Chirripo are steep and dense, and the area surrounding the canyon is protected wilderness and indigenous land. The only way out, is downstream.


I ran the Chirripo once last year, making the most recent trip my third descent. That’s more than most Costa Ricans can claim because of the commitment level and difficult access. What made this particular expedition so memorable wasn’t just the rapids and scenery, but the group with whom I paddled. I heard about the trip through the kayaker grapevine and joined the crew knowing no one. When I showed up at the departure site, I was shocked to find out the trip would include 20 people – 12 kayakers, and two 4-person rafts. I was the only female kayaker.

What this trip ended up being for me, was a unique experience as the sole female in a sea of Costa Rican men. For most of them, it was their first time down the river. Being my third, I was fairly familiar with the lines. Many of them ended up following me, listening to my beta, and watching me run a rapid while they scouted it. Being able to hold my own among this group, and prove my competence was one of the most empowering experiences of my life.

chir w. leo crop

I could tell by the look on some of their faces when I showed up before we left town that they were skeptical about this “gringita” (little white girl) who was joining their trip. After a few class V rapids, I could tell I was gaining respect as many of them rafted up next to me and flirtatiously stated “nice lines, you’re a really good kayaker” to which I responded “Thanks, you are too” hoping to normalize my existence as a female. Still, I felt like a novelty, trying to fend off the insinuating comments and focus on the task at hand, getting through this class V gorge. My independence and self-sufficiency became my strongest allies.

chirripo boof

This trip became one of the greatest confidence builders of my kayaking career. It would’ve been easy to step back, pretend like I didn’t remember the lines, and follow along like the other boaters. But I did know the lines, and I did feel comfortable going first, and I knew I could set appropriate safety at the bottom of big rapids, so I did.

chirripo falls

Many women, myself included, also struggle with the fear of messing up or feeling judged because of a bad line or swim. This fear manifests as timidness, which results in not paddling to one’s full potential. I certainly had those thoughts at the put in, not wanting to be the only girl, and the one who crashes. I forced myself to put those thoughts aside and step up my game. The Chirripo is not the place for timidness, nor is any river that challenges you for that matter. I reminded myself time and again to paddle hard, take risks on big lines, and trust that I could make the line I had to. That personal push resulted in one of the best days I’ve ever had on the river.

chirripo crew crop

My experience wasn’t about trying to impress all the boys, or show them up on big rapids. It wasn’t about being egotistical or a feminine-macho. It was about paddling my very best, trusting my skills, and stepping up my leadership in an intimidating situation. The next day, I flew back to North Carolina with unforgettable memories of this beautiful river, a deeply empowered soul, and a new sense of my own potential.

Join us for a Girls at Play trip in Costa Rica in 2014! Dates up!