Karen Locke: Southern Utah Adventure Program Manager, National Ability Center
Karen Locke manages the rafting program for the National Ability Center in Moab, UT (photo courtesy of National Ability Center)
By Nushin Huq
Between 2 Pines Magazine
Ever wish you could have an awesome outdoor job like a rafting guide, but wondered if there's anyway to make a long-term career out of it? Meet Karen Locke, a former rafting guide who now manages the National Ability Center's Adventure program out of Moab, Utah.
The Park City-based National Ability Center is a nonprofit organization that creates inclusive outdoor programs. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about NAC at https://discovernac.org.
Tell us about your job.
I manage the rafting program. All the other NAC programs are out of Park City. I manage the branch down here in Moab. We primarily do rafting trips. Ninety-five percent of them are with folks with adaptive needs, and the other five percent are for fundraising activities. My job is the logistics of everything. Day-to-day, I am emailing people, planning trainings, scheduling the guides, getting gear repaired, scheduling the vehicles. All the puzzle pieces fitting into a giant jigsaw puzzle.
How did you get in this career path?
I grew up in New Jersey. and I went to College at York College of Pennsylvania. I went to school for graphic design and fine art. I grew up camping, but in my teenage/college years I’d gotten out of it. I graduated but after sitting for four years in a room with a bunch of computers and no windows, there was something in me that really wanted to get back doing what I grew up doing.
I went whitewater rafting for the first time in West Virginia and loved it. My guide was amazing. They were like, hey you can do this too and I was blown away. I tried out and trained. Out of the seven of us that started out, two of us made it. I wasn’t an athletic kid, but when I started rafting, there was just something that clicked for me. I got it. It was hard. I struggled, there were times I was doing really bad, but there was something that clicked. I honestly knew, the first time I did it, that this was something I was going to do for the rest of my life.
I worked as a guide in the commercial rafting industry from 2009 to 2016/2017. I worked in West Virginia, I worked in Norway, and then I worked in Washington state. Then I came out here to NAC accepting a manager job.
Did you always want to work outdoors?
It was something I never thought about growing up. I was born in 1984. I think in the 90s, there was a stereotype of people working in the outdoors. It wasn’t something you could make a career out of. It’s something that is much more accepted today.
A lot of people get into the rafting thing in college or right after college. I’m so grateful for the National Ability Center because they really made this a job; a career for me.
Besides being outdoors, what do you like most about your job?
I love mentoring the new guides coming in, especially the females. I really want women to see themselves as powerful and leaders and equal with the guys that come into this industry. For women, it’s really empowering because men can row these big boats and they can muscle over stuff. I love seeing the women progress through a different sort of path, through finesse and through using their crew and things like that.
What are some challenges?
There’s kind of an always "on" mentality. So, things happen-unexpected things. They can be small; they can be big. You always have to be ready for those moments. It’s like risk management mitigation. You can plan for somethings but there are some things you just can’t plan for so you’re always doing this dance of waiting for the next thing to pop up that you weren’t expecting.
Is there any advice you have for people who want to get an outdoor job?
I would tell them to do their research. Once you delve into it, there are a lot of really cool jobs in the outdoors out there. Do your research online. There are a lot of non profit organizations out there. Also, get out there and see what it is that you really enjoy. You can do that by either recreating on your own, or I think a great way to get out there is by volunteering.
You can volunteer with a trail crew and if you love working on a trail crew and that kind of hard work, you could move that into a career in fire or land management, a career in the [Bureau of Land Management] BLM or [Department of Natural Resources] DNR and things like that. I think a lot of young people they see it as raft guiding for example. That is as high as it can go. Really, there are routes to continue up. You just need to do your research and really find the right job for you and the company that believes in you.
Are you seeing more diversity in the outdoor field, specifically more women?
Absolutely. The East Coast is was much more male dominated. I think that has changed a little bit. But coming out to the West Coast, there are a lot more women. There’s more women in the outdoors, and they’re staying in the outdoors longer too, which is something worth addressing. Back in West Virginia, men typically would stay longer- three, four, five years. Women would just stay a year or two. But I see that really changing. It’s interesting to be in Moab because a lot of companies here in Moab are led by strong females, which is cool.