Women in Whitewater: Paddling and Perseverance


“For me, kayaking is the medium,” explained whitewater kayaker Melissa DeMarie. “It’s such a great platform to build skills and confidence.” An East Coast transplant pulled to California for the better snow and bigger mountains, Melissa discovered the joy of paddling rivers after moving to Lake Tahoe in 2004. As with most high-intensity sports, she quickly noticed there weren’t many other ladies out getting after it. She remembers getting jazzed whenever she’d meet another female paddler on the river. “I’d see one and say, ‘She’s rad!’ There’s another one! She’s rad!” Melissa laughed.

In 2015, Melissa decided to permanently expand her circle of female friends by founding the California Women’s Watersport Collective (CWWC) and share her love of paddling with more women. Based in the American River watershed of the Sierra Foothills, CWWC’s workshops are held from the Bay Area to Idaho, drawing women from up and down the West Coast. Affectionately known as the “Cali Collective,” Melissa established the organization to empower women on the water, whether they’re paddling Class V whitewater or bobbing down the river in an inflatable unicorn (an annual event). While Melissa has personally run famous rivers and big drops across the globe, all she can talk about is her thriving new community as CWWC approach their fifth anniversary.

“When you empower somebody to do something outside their comfort zone—and really face their fears—they come out with a new-found sense of confidence that translates into other parts of their lives,” said Melissa. Since founding the Cali Collective, Melissa and her team have hosted dozens of clinics ranging from “Intro to Whitewater” to “Holistic Paddling” (yoga and nutrition sessions included!) to their upcoming “Sea Kayaking and Whale Experience” in Baja. The organization has attracted women from all walks of life, from seasoned adrenaline junkies to corporate executives to young girls and teenagers.

Melissa stressed that Cali Collective is about helping women tap into their power; paddling through a white-knuckle rapid or witnessing the majestic bioluminescence in Tomales Bay are merely side perks. For Melissa, the best part of founding CWWC has been watching women take inspiration from the river—and one another—and translate their new-found mastery into their daily lives. As the Cali Collective continues to attract new participants to watersports (whitewater, stand-up paddle boarding, surfing, and sea kayaking), it’s clear their message of women building up women and holistic lifestyles is growing. “We’ve been able to create this space for women to learn and connect with other women while feeling safe and not intimated,” she added.

The Cali Collective’s ethos of moving confidently into spaces long dominated by men—with finesse and inclusivity—echoes the female leaders of today’s cannabis industry. In recent years, numerous reports have shown that women are the fastest-growing demographic in the cannabis market. Women, who have controlled household budgets and dictated consumer trends for decades, have emerged as the voice behind many of the cannabis industry’s leading brands. Products that feature therapeutic strains and high levels of CBD are designed to alleviate sore muscles, chronic pain and anxiety, directly supporting a woman’s ability to feel strong and confident on the water.

Like many serious athletes, Melissa has endured her share of injuries, including a shoulder that she repeatedly dislocated (yes, while kayaking), which eventually required surgery. The recovery has been long and arduous—and the mental recovery even tougher—but that cannabis oil has been a huge support. “Topically, cannabis oils are super-beneficial for body,” she said. Melissa likes using DIY cannabis salves made a massage therapist friend who regularly gives complimentary massages to local cancer patients. Personally, DeMarie believes that cannabis, both ingested and used topically, have been essential in her transition from major surgery to living—and kayaking—without pharmaceutical pain meds.  

While many female kayakers and CWWC participants appreciate cannabis as part of an active lifestyle, perhaps none are more important than the women at First Descents. A national non-profit organization that provides outdoor recreation experiences for young adults impacted by cancer, First Descents is dedicated to getting patients—and survivors—rock climbing, paddling and surfing. This past season, Melissa and her team partnered up with First Descents to host paddling workshops on the American River for women battling cancer. “So many patients are using cannabis to heal and cope,” she explained. “It was really powerful to be part of their traditions and hear their stories,” she added.

To keep track of the badass women of Cali Collective, follow their smiling faces at and @cwwcollective on Facebook and Instagram, or join them in Baja in 2019!


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