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Women's Work: Shooting Rapids and Exploring the Amazon

Scientist and pro kayaker discusses her expedition down Peru’s Marañón River and what it means to be female in two male-dominated professions.

WATCH: National Geographic grantee Natalie Kramer Anderson and her team study the impact that hydroelectric dams could have on the Marañón River, a key tributary of the Amazon.

Natalie Kramer Anderson's life is defined by eddies and driftwood, white water and waterfalls—and she wouldn't have it any other way. “Rivers are the lifeblood of the planet,” says the 30-year-old professional kayaker and scientist. The Boise, Idaho-based Anderson is one of the top female kayakers on the planet, known as a fearless all-arounder who has launched off 90-foot Metlako Falls in Oregon and competed in the Whitewater Grand Prix, one of the sport’s premiere events. Over the years, she’s boated Class V rapids in Uganda’s White Nile; navigated the Cascadas de Agua Azul in Zapatista-controlled territory in Chiapas, Mexico; and notched the third female descent of the Stikine River in British Columbia, what’s considered the Mount Everest of the kayaking world. This month Canoe & Kayak announced she was a finalist for Female Paddler of the Year.

In addition to riding rivers, Anderson also studies them. As a fluvial geomorphologist, she analyzes the forces that shape rivers. But unlike many in her field, her ability to navigate white water allows her access to places that are out of reach to the average scientist. Last July, on an expedition funded by a National Geographic research grant, Anderson traveled with a team of scientists to Peru’s Rio Marañón, the principal source of the Amazon, to study the potential effects of a series of proposed hydroelectric dams. We recently caught up with Anderson by phone, just as she was about to compete in a race on Washington’s White Salmon River, to talk about the Marañón, the importance of rivers, and her experience as a woman in two traditionally male-dominated professions.

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Natalie Kramer Anderson navigates Skookumchuck Rapids in British Columbia. Her elite kayaking skills help her conduct research as a fluvial geomorphologist.

How did you get into this world of water?

It started when I was a baby. My parents would put me in a car seat on the raft and we just hung out. As a family, we went on river trips. That’s how we bonded growing up. Being on the river is a good metaphor for life. It doesn’t have to be a scary river, it can be a gentle float, but there’s a nice mix of being in control and being out of control, just like life.

Why should people pay more attention to rivers?

Most of our freshwater is routed through rivers. So, if we have healthy rivers, we’re going to be healthy ourselves.

What are the biggest threats to rivers globally?

Dams are the biggest threats to rivers globally. Agricultural pollution is also a big one. Excess fertilizer from farmlands elevates nitrogen and phosphorous in the Mississippi, one of the most polluted rivers in the country, which is causing algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico that create dead zones lacking oxygen, decimating fisheries and all life. Another threat is that we are synthesizing huge quantities of new chemicals that are getting into our water system. We have a pretty poor understanding of how they interact with each other and other life forms.

What did you learn on the Marañón trip?

The Marañón is a highly volatile system, fed by a dwindling supply of snow and ice meltwaters. Everything about this river is subject to change, which calls into question why it’s been deemed appropriate for hydropower development [by the Peruvian government]. When you put in a lot of these big hydroelectric structures, you’re changing how the river functions and you create a cascading effect that can change everything else, including people’s ability to live and survive off the river.

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"As a family, we went on river trips," says Anderson. "That’s how we bonded growing up."

What was the biggest surprise?

All the main players on the science part of the Marañón trip were women. Even though I’ve been surrounded by great women mentors in my training as a scientist, and most of my collaborations within my field have been with women, it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it still was. I think this may come from the fact that in my [sport] river experiences I have been surrounded by men and that I may have an unconscious expectation that most scientific adventure exploration is conducted by men.

Do you think there’s a double standard for women in adventure in that once they become mothers, they’re expected to tone things down, while men aren’t faced with that same presumption?

We’re thinking about having a kid, and I think if I was to keep doing some of the stuff I’ve done there would be more feelings from people that it was wrong than if my husband [pro kayaker and physics professor Leif Anderson] kept doing it. But I do think you adjust the risk you take downward when you have a kid. I also think that level is different for each person.

What does your average day look like?

This week I’m sleeping on a friend's couch in Washington on the White Salmon River. I’m spending each day working on my computer and running multiple laps on a Class V run called the Little White Salmon in preparation for a race this Saturday.

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Anderson steers over a waterfall on the south branch of California's Middle Fork Feather River.

A lot of people might see pursuing adventure as inherently selfish, but can adventure have a higher purpose?

When you’re putting yourself out there, you’re gaining insight and experience. You start developing a closer tie and deeper personal investment to the river, the mountains, to whatever kind of experience you’re having and the environment you’re having it in. In general, that can lead to better consciousness about caring and protecting the environment.

What’s your favorite river?

The Cal Salmon in California. The place just speaks to me. When I go there, I feel very relaxed. I got married there, too.

Kelley McMillan is a Boston-based freelance journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @KelleyRMcMillan or Instagram @KelleyMcMillan.