Women of AO: Kelsey Helfrich

Photo of Kelsey Helfrich

Name: Kelsey Helfrich

Company: Helfrich River Outfitters 

Location: Salmon, Idaho


Tell me about how Helfrich River Outfitters was started.

My family started guiding and outfitting back in 1922 with my great-great granddad, who did some guiding, then his son really ran with it and created an outfitting company. They got started on the McKenzie River over in Oregon. My great-great grandparents had a lodge on the banks of the McKenzie where people could stay if they were going to drive between Eugene and Bend, over the Cascades, which is now a 2-hour drive but back then it was more of a 2-day trip. So how they got started was convincing people to stay an extra day at the lodge to go out fishing for the day.


And how did you get involved?

I’ve been tagging along with my dad since I was a little kid. I was about 5 when I started going on big overnight river trips without my mom. I started running a boat shortly after. I ran the Wild & Scenic Rogue when I was 12 and kept moving up from there. I primarily run a wooden handcrafted drift boat… I got to be first woman to guide in a drift boat on the Middle Fork [of the Salmon]. My great- granddad was the first outfitter on the Middle Fork so it’s pretty fun that I have my own “first.”


What was it like to grow up in the outfitter world?

Really neat. I think guides are a unique group of people. You don’t find many other groups that are that hard-working and sociable. It takes a unique personality to be a guide- I relate it to being a veteran in some ways- you have dealt with a lot of things that most people don’t understand, like dealing with the shit cans- you can be the most sophisticated person but you’re still hauling other people’s shit around and you’re fine with it…


Growing up in the community- my granddad, my dad, all my uncles, all my cousins- they’re all guides, so every family holiday we’re talking about running different rivers, different rapids, and boat designs- that’s just the topic of most family get-togethers- river stuff. But all our holidays are also packed full of our guides as well. We have guides over for Thanksgiving and Christmas. For us, most of our guides come back every year, so we try to make it a family-feel more than a business-feel even though we’ve grown to be a good-sized business now.


Tell me about your experience being a woman in the outdoor industry.

Well I am glad I didn’t have brothers, because I may not have gotten the opportunity. There were no other women in my family that had become guides. I think it was one of those things- because there were so many boys in the family the girls weren’t really included in the guiding side of things. But my dad just knew that I could do it. It wasn’t something that was expected of me, but … he was willing to help me and encourage me.

There were no other women who had ever worked on any of our crews before I came along. There was an adjustment period. I dealt with a lot of harassment – looking back I realize it. At the time I just thought it was part of the game, and it never really bothered me that much. But every once in a while, I’d run into someone who would tell me “you just have to realize this is man’s profession, and you’ll never succeed here.” And I was just like “screw you; watch me.” And it was fun to work my way up in the company and fire those people.

Now we have a few other women who work on our crew. It’s fun to finally have other gals out there who I can work alongside and encourage. There are some who I am really working with because we don’t have any other women who are running drift boats yet, and they are kind of intimidating… if you flip it, it’s going to sink. It’s high consequence. But I think drift boats are perfect for women to run. Running a drift boat is so much about finesse, which is what women excel at in boating.


What advice do you have for young women or girls who want to be involved with an outfitter?

I think women are more likely to doubt themselves or be cautious and hesitant, and I think you’ve just got to go for it… I think boys growing up are taught to not be scared and to do things and girls are taught to be more cautious… You just gotta get out there. The more time you spend out there the better you will be at it. Don’t listen to the critics. You have to be your own support system and your own cheerleader.


On motherhood:

A lot of women are realizing I love this lifestyle. I love being a guide. I love being on the water or being in the mountains. I can own my own business, raise my family and still get to go do those things. And maybe you don’t get to be in the field as much, but you can still be a part of it. You just have to find that balance. It’s a neat thing to watch change over the last decade.

I definitely went through the holy shit what am I doing phase when I was pregnant. It was like I love being on the river. I love my life. I love how things are going right now. Everything is going to change. And you know, the first summer was hard. I love being with my daughter. But it was like if I’m not on the water who am I?  I’ll never forget the first trip of the year- watching my husband rowing my wooden drift boat. I’m holding on to my daughter- she would have been like 5 months old at the time- and I’m standing on the banks, and I watched him push away down the river with my crew in my boat with my company and it was like you stole my life!

Now we do a lot of trade-outs where I fly in, bringing our little one with me, and I pass her off on the air strip and kiss them good-bye and he gets on the plane and flies back home. We split trips a lot and make it work that way neither of us is away from the river or away from our family for too long.  It’s all about finding a balance… Everyone should have the right to make their own decisions for themselves and their families.


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Spell Check

Steven Heinitz
Saratoga, WY
3/21/2019 07:42 AM

  Kelsey, I think it’s great you stuck with it...to persevere in a man’s world. Takes a strong will. Go girl!