Naturalist and river guide Colleen Cooley strives to inspire indigenous women to pursue guiding for its opportunities to share traditional connections to the river

Colleen Cooley prefers to live outside the box — whether it’s on a raft or in the back of her car. “I love the freedom and flexibility of living out of my car during the warmer part of the year,” Cooley said.

During winter she holes up in Flagstaff, Arizona, but laments, “I am living in a box and although I enjoy coming home to a bed and a wood-fired stove, it feels unnatural.”

Cooley’s life is anything but boxed in. Her personal interests and pursuits are varied and commendable. She volunteers for the Colorado River Days and Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival. She prioritizes time with family, especially with her niece and nephew. An avid rock climber and trail runner, Cooley pays special attention to the natural world when she is outdoors. 

“I’m working on a plant book, which will be a reference for myself, and to be shared with other people,” she said. “I am also researching how these plants are being impacted by climate change.”

When she speaks about guiding on the San Juan River, Cooley exudes an intimate passion for the water. “I enjoy that first stroke of the oar on the water, and leaving everything behind, and letting go.”

colleen cooley indigenous raft guide navajo
Colleen Cooley prefers to live outside the box.Robert A. Jonas

Originally from Shonto and Blue Gap on the Navajo Nation, she is Towering House clan born for the Reed People clan, which is the traditional Diné way of describing ancestry. Cooley did not grow up on the river, yet a river trip changed everything and pushed her to pursue guiding. 

“I participated in the Native American River Guide Training & Interpretation Program in 2008, which my older sister, Nikki, began in 2007 out of (Northern Arizona University). The training occurred on the San Juan River.”

The experience propelled her to begin guiding with Wild Expeditions in 2009.

Despite the introduction from her sister, guiding on the river still feels male-dominated to Cooley. However, she hopes to inspire other indigenous women to get into guiding. 

“I want to let other women know that we can be in this industry,” she explained. “I’ve been trying to encourage fellow indigenous women to try it out. There’s a need for that. That’s important! We as women may have a different perspective in the way we tell stories, interact with the guests and how we connect to the river.”

san juan river southeast utah landscape
Guiding on the San Juan River connects Cooley to her home landscape.Robert A. Jonas

Guiding on the San Juan helped forge her connection between the familiarity of her home landscape and its nearby waterway. 

“The San Juan River as a whole is special to me because it is home, it is sacred, it is a source of life for many, it has a rich history, it has untold stories, it is life. Before any of the state, federal and reservation boundaries, this place was, and to me is still, considered indigenous lands. There is more to this river basin than the recreational aspect. I enjoy the views atop San Juan Hill and seeing the Abajo Mountains to the north and the Mule’s Ear Diatreme to the south.”

Cooley stresses the importance of hiring indigenous guides. Wild Expeditions, the company she guides for, hires local and indigenous guides from the area. 

“I’ve gone with friends, family, and people from all over the country, including people from Germany and Italy. Being with a Diné in our homelands is important. It provides a unique experience for the guests.”

Though each trip is different, Cooley strives to share her personal connection to the river and landscape with the guests. 

“There’s so much history to be told. There’s so much knowledge about plants and wildlife along the river basin. Our ancestors migrated through this area, so I think there is a need to have our voices in this river and in this landscape.”

MORGAN SJOGREN is a free-range raconteur typically found roaming wild on the Colorado Plateau.