Come On, Get Paddle Happy!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations Guide

Come On, Get Paddle Happy!

Whether barreling through class IV froth, gliding in a misty fiord, or floating through a sandstone canyon, immerse yourself in the waters of summer


River Rafting

When it comes to whitewater, just say row

One of my paternal responsibilities, I feel, is to feed my children's nomadic spontaneity. So it was in homage to Sawyer and Finn that I conceived of a family raft trip--what better way to instill the right spirit than to load a raft and float down an unfamiliar stretch of river? My wife, Cindy, and I hoped to replicate the intimacy of a family backpacking trip without having to crush our aging skeletons under hideous loads. Beyond that, our plan was loose.

As we drove to the river, we still hadn't decided exactly where we'd put in or take out. No worries--the details would come to us. All we knew for certain was that the gear packed tight in the back of our Subaru wagon was considerably more than we'd care to schlep: Our 12-foot Hyside raft and dry bags stuffed with sleeping bags, tent, stove, pesto, pasta, pancakes, French Roast, half-and-half, fly rods, parachute 'hoppers. Lashed atop our rig, the flat black rowing frame and canary-yellow oars hummed like killer bees.

Ten miles downstream from Livingston, Montana, we pulled into the shaded Sheep Mountain Campground on the banks of the Yellowstone, which seemed an aesthetic enough spot from which to launch. With the gear unloaded in a heaping pile, I left to configure our shuttle. Driving downriver past the towns of Pig Farm and Big Bend, I noted the odometer clicks, trying to gauge an appropriate distance for two days of floating. By Gray Bear, nearly 20 miles from our put-in, I pulled into a grassy parking spot, locked the car, and hitchhiked back upriver to hook up with my clan.

Tubes topped off, valves secured, oars cradled in their locks, we pushed off. It was then that time slowed down. As we moved at the pace of the current, only the wind and an occasional pull on the oars affected our now-fluid course. We hadn't gone far when CW, my seven-year-old, slipped over the side to cool off. With his life jacket snugged, floating on his back, feet downstream, he enjoyed the first of many "baths" our boys would take over the next couple days. They most certainly would come home cleaner than they had from any backpacking foray.

Cindy remained at the helm, while I began casting grasshopper-like ties of feather and fur up against the banks. It wasn't until Cindy took the rod for five minutes that we landed a trophy 21-inch hooked-jaw brown trout. Smugly, she took back the oars and told me she was done fishing.

Toward evening, we pulled up on an island that split the channel. I pitched the tent while Cindy started dinner and the boys gathered driftwood for a campfire. CW and five-year-old Mason arranged stones in a ceremonial circle. The next thing I knew, they were dancing naked in some sort of primal jig that made me think of Lord of the Flies.

After a night marked by star-staring, heat lightning, and the whistle of a distant train, we awakened to a lucent dawn. The temperature rose quickly, and soon we were floating again. Along the banks we saw white-tailed deer peering curiously at our craft. From the air, bald eagles eyed the same fish that I was hoping to catch. Sandbagged again--it was no contest. Around midday, we rounded a bend and were surprised by a nearly riverwide hole. Folding back on itself, the tumbling surf wave appeared keen to flip our boat. I reefed on the oars just enough so the boat kissed the edge of the hydraulic and slid by unscathed. The adrenaline surge sparked our appetites, and we pulled off onto yet another deserted beach to picnic.

Toward sundown, we spotted the rusty girder bridge that marked our takeout. Two days' worth of sun and exposure showed on my family's cheeks. For now, it was time to eddy up--and time to scheme our next peel-out.  --Mike Harrelson

For guided overnight fishing trips in rafts or dories, contact Sweet Cast Angler in Big Timber (406-932-4469) or Dean Reiner at Hatch Finders Fly Shop in Livingston (406-222-0989).




Main Salmon River
Steve Bly

Ask any water-drenched guide to name his favorite family-friendly river, and he'll rave on about Idaho's Main Salmon, its 60-degree roller-coaster waves, and the canyon's rich human history. Cutting an east-to-west swath through the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the free-flowing, Class III waters, suitable for kids as young as eight, roll through a hilly terrain of ponderosa pines and rocky cliffs.

The five- to six-day trip starts in a steep canyon near the tiny town of Salmon, climaxes on day three with the roiling Class III pool-and-drop Big Mallard and Salmon Falls rapids, then slows to a more leisurely pace that lets you soak in a natural rock hot spring before hunkering down for the night on a sandy beach the size of a soccer field. Centuries-old homestead cabins line the banks in spots, and kids will love the guides' homespun tales of the more famous residents--Polly Bemis, a Chinese indentured servant who allegedly won her freedom in a poker game, and Buckskin Bill, a hermit who hewed a cabin out of homemade tools.

ARTA's six-day family trips cost $890 for adults, $725 for kids under 17, and depart July 24, August 1, and August 25; call 800-323-2782. Orange Torpedo Trips (800-635-2925) specializes in inflatable kayak trips, but also provides rafts on every outing. Its five- or six-day trips cost $930–$1,195 with either camping or lodging (ten percent discount for kids under 12). Action Whitewater (800-453-1482) offers a seven-day trip for $1,234 for adults and $754 for kids under 16.



"There's enough whitewater there to get your ya-yas out, that's for sure," says veteran Klamath guide Bob Claypool, describing the attractions of this particular pool-and-drop, 30-mile stretch of bubbly in northern California. But Claypool's favorite feature of the Lower Klamath is California 96, a lightly trafficked highway that shadows the river from the put-in at Happy Camp to the takeout near the town of Presidio Bar, allowing families to rerun the best stretches over and over.

Lined by the 7,000-foot peaks of the Siskiyou, Marble, and Trinity ranges and interspersed with thick stands of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, the Klamath definitely qualifies as God's Country. Adventurous beginners as young as six can enjoy the exciting Class III rapids, followed by soothing stretches of slow water. Most outfitters shuttle rafters to out-of-the-way river sections--like Ikes, an eight-mile Class III roll-o-rama--and the best campsites or lodges, but if kids want a more traditional point-to-point camp-out, outfitters are happy to oblige.

Orange Torpedo Trips runs one- to three-day lodge and camping trips on the Klamath for $95–$505 per person; call 800-635-2925. Whitewater Voyages's two- and three-day camping trips cost $230–$345; contact 800-488-7238; Rogue/Klamath River Adventures offers one- and two-day camping trips for $120–$350; call 800-231-0769.



A good way for families to sample Eastern foam is to set out on North Carolina's Class II to III Nantahala River and the Class III French Broad. Kids love the steep, lush drama of the Nantahala Gorge and the almost festive atmosphere among rafters on the water. There's only one commercial put-in and takeout, so most rafters park at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, 13 miles southwest of Bryson City, take NOC's shuttle to the put-in, then raft the eight riffly miles back to their cars. Don't be surprised if you're bumper-to-bumper on calmer sections, but don't let that lull you into complacency. Right before the takeout, you'll have to maneuver Nantahala Falls, a Class III ledge-drop and big-rock rapid lined by just-off-the-river hecklers who would love nothing more than to see you flip.

Twenty-five miles north of Asheville (and 105 miles northwest of the Nantahala River takeout), the free-flowing French Broad is the Nantahala on steroids. With the same Appalachian scenery, the French Broad will give you a bit more privacy than the Nantahala and a lot more rock and roll, especially at the gnarly Class IV Frank Bells rapid. By mid-June the river mellows out substantially, and kids as young as eight can safely run it in an inflatable kayak--just beware of flash floods.

Nantahala Outdoor Center's half-day trips on the Nantahala cost $28–$33 per person; NOC's French Broad half- to full-day trips are $33–$56 per person. Call 800-232-7238.  --Stephanie Gregory


Sea Kayaking

Starfish and orcas and bears, oh my!

Any kid can watch orcas at Marine World, but to see them in the wild is, well, pretty wild. That's why Jenny and Scott Spiker decided to take their children, Nick, 15, and Jenilee, 11, to Johnstone Strait, a three-mile-wide, 60-mile-long stretch of sea between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, where orcas have been known to congregate like delegates at a Shriner's convention.

Last August, the Montana-based Spikers headed for Vancouver Island's Telegraph Cove, picking up friends Kate Moody and Greg Allen along the way for a five-night, six-day kayak tour of the strait. The adults were all experienced sea kayakers, but Nick and Jenilee were rookies, though not to the outdoors. The Spikers think of Montana's Glacier National Park as their backyard, and previous family vacations have included rock climbing, canoeing, river kayaking, and backpacking.

So when it came to paddling, Nick and Jenilee caught on quickly. "We were really sore by the end," says Jenilee, "but once you get the rhythm down, it's pretty easy." Jenilee was usually teamed with one of the adults in a two-person kayak while the others piloted singles, and paddling was limited to about three hours a day to accommodate the kids.

The kayakers launched from Telegraph Cove and followed the coast of Vancouver Island south to Kaikash Creek, where they set up camp on the banks. The next morning, they were ready to cross the strait, which is filled with ferries and commercial boat traffic. After waiting for two immense cruise ships to pass, they paddled on nearly flat water toward their destination, Growler Cove on West Cracroft Island. It was there that Jenilee made her most exciting discovery of the trip: a 20-legged starfish. The tide pools full of aquatic creatures so captivated her that she's now considering a career as a marine biologist.

Later that evening, as Jenilee was again studying the marine life, she spotted something larger: a black bear lumbering along the coast. She alerted Scott, and they coasted along the water's edge in a kayak, just watching. They'd seen grizzlies before, but this was Jenilee's first black bear.

The group planned the next day's paddle to coincide with slack tide while rounding Cracroft Point, where currents can be fierce. After turning inland into Blackfish Sound, the kayakers headed to Harbledown Island, where they were pummelled by rain. Everyone retreated to the tents--everyone but Nick, who set about placing cooking pots at the corners of the tent flies where the water drained to replenish the dwindling supply. When the weather cleared, everyone paddled to an abandoned Native American Mamaliculla village on Village Island. The eerie silence, weatherbeaten houses, and downed totem poles imparted a Blair Witch Project feel to the place, according to Jenny. Were it not for the brilliant sunshine and soaring eagles overhead, they might have been really spooked.

Crossing the strait was tougher on the way back; the wind kicked up, and the paddlers had to battle swells and choppy water. But they crossed safely, heading southwest to Vancouver Island's Blinkhorn Peninsula, just a mile south of Telegraph Cove, where they set up camp for the final night. Tallying the number of orcas they'd seen was easy--they'd seen exactly none. "It turns out that the salmon run, which draws the whales, went north toward Alaska," says Scott.

But that night, as a full moon rose, they decided it really didn't matter that they'd been denied Johnstone Strait's biggest attraction. Whales? What whales?  --Laura Hilgers

For guided trips, contact Discovery Expeditions (888-756-0099;; six-day trips: adults, $675; ages 12–15, $450; minimum age 12) or Ecosummer Expeditions (800-465-8884;; weeklong trips, $955 per person; minimum age 12).




In early summer, humpback and minke whales head for the eastern coast of Newfoundland to feed, while farther seaward, 15,000-year-old icebergs, the likes of which sank the Titanic, drift south from Greenland with the Labrador Current. A spectacular five-day paddle trip along this rugged shore of high cliffs and fishing villages begins at the harbor in Ferryland, a colonial settlement established in 1621. You paddle north, tucking into Cape Broyle Harbor to investigate the sea stacks and caves around Shipwreck Point. Freshwater Cove, a steep gravel beach with slabs of sun-warmed rock and a 66-foot waterfall, is an ideal camp.

On the second day, cross two miles to the Admiral's Cove outpost and round the foaming shores of Brigus Head toward a small beach with a grassy clifftop campsite just outside Brigus South. Day three brings open water and looming promontories before you camp at the former fishing village of La Manche in La Manche Provincial Park, where in 1966 a giant wave wiped the town off the map.

On day four, head out to Great Island in Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Wear a hat during spring's peak nesting season--this treeless island swarms with nearly 3 million seabirds, including puffins, murres, black-legged kittiwakes, and Leach's storm petrels. The mouth of Dragon's Throat Cave on Great Island's north shore is worth exploring, but ocean swells make entry a risky prospect. Paddle back to La Manche and spend a second night camping along the La Manche River, or finish up the trip at the boat ramp in the fishing village of Bauline East.

Wilderness Newfoundland Adventures (888-747-6353;; U.S.$650 per person; 15 percent discount for four or more) leads five-day trips along the eastern Avalon Peninsula.



Protected seas, plentiful beaches, and abundant campsites make a four-day circumnavigation of Shaw Island an easy step into island time. Launch from Odlin County Park on Lopez Island's western shore and camp the first night at Shaw Island's South Beach County Park, on one of the finest sandy beaches in the San Juans. The next day, paddle the 1.25 miles across San Juan Channel to Turn Island State Park. Currents are swift in the channel, so cross at slack tide, keeping watch for ferry and boat traffic. Turn Island is designated both a state park and a wildlife refuge, and campsites front the southwestern shore, where low tide bares broad tidal flats teeming with clams and mussels.

On day three, return to Shaw's rolling shores and paddle north, skirting Tift Rocks, where seals often bask in the sun. Nearby Wasp Islands's intimate channels and spooling eddies are fun detours en route to the crescent beaches of Jones Island State Park. The best camp is on Jones's southern shore. At sunset, you can paddle off the southern beach, where you're likely to be joined by resident porpoises.

From Jones, ride the ebb past sweeping pebble beaches all the way to Blind Island State Park, a lone three-acre rock dome with a handful of primitive campsites. Views of Mount Baker's alpenglow, the ferries, and the surrounding islands are worth the extra exposure on your final night. From Blind, it's an easy 3.5-mile paddle back to Odlin.

Bring plenty of water, as many parks have no water source, and reach campsites early during summer weekends. Shearwater Kayaks (360-376-4699;; $290 per person; minimum age 15) runs three-day trips near Shaw and the San Juan Islands.



Misty Fiords
Buddy Mays/Travel Stock

It's been at least 10,000 years since glaciers carved out Misty Fiords National Monument, but the massive contours of this lesser-known wilderness look as if they were just recently formed by the great ice.

Rudyerd Bay is a slender fjord walled by towering sea cliffs and old-growth forest. Camp the first couple of nights in Rudyerd Bay on a rocky beach at the head of Punchbowl Cove. Then climb a mile or so of switchbacks just behind camp past thundering Punchbowl Falls to the solace of Punchbowl Lake and its surrounding granite massifs.

When you're ready, paddle four miles south, stopping in quiet Checats Cove to camp and hike to Lower Checats Lake. On day four, head five miles farther south to a camp near Winstanley Creek, where there's just enough cobbled beach to pitch a few tents above high tide.

A 2.3-mile trail fords rivers and ascends through spruce forest and muskeg to reach Winstanley Lakes--and a frigid afternoon swim. From Winstanley Creek, it's a good day's paddle to return to Rudyerd Bay.

For $200, Alaska Cruises (800-228-1905) takes paddler and kayak round trip from Ketchikan to Rudyerd Bay. Wilderness Inquiry (800-728-0719;; $1,095 per person; minimum weight 90 pounds) offers nine-day kayak trips in Misty Fiords that cater to paddlers of varying abilities.  --Byron Ricks


Canoe Camping

Turn your kids on to some current events

The entire 300-mile drive north across Montana to the put-in on the Marias River, rain bounced off the pavement with the force of hail. But by the time the packs had been lashed into the canoes and our three kids (Eli, six; Sawyer, five; and Ruby, three) and their two grandparents zipped into life jackets, a banner of blue sky was arriving from the west.

Feeling cocky about our righteous timing, we clambered into the boats and slid around the first willowy bend. The mood of the river immediately started to erode the lingering highway hum. Current sluiced around corners under steep banks the color of badlands, while the kids climbed over the packs with that alarming, vehicle-induced energy. Ahead of us lay 60 miles of quiet, uncoiling flow. Five miles along, we settled into a first camp on a cottonwood bottom and prepared dinner. Afterward, the boys ran off to climb in a nearby grove of trees.

Suddenly, Sawyer pierced the tranquil air with one of those panicked screams that freezes a parent's heart. He came stumbling out of some brush, clutching his throat. Blood oozed between his small fingers. I scooped him up and ran back to camp, eyeing the nasty puncture under his chin.

"He fell out of the tree!" blurted Eli. "He landed right on a sharp stick!" In near-darkness, five miles against the current to the nearest road, we had to cope. My wife, Marypat, cradled Sawyer while I swabbed and bandaged the wound by flashlight. The bleeding stopped and his windpipe wasn't affected, but it was a deep slice into muscle.

At dawn the next morning we were poised to evacuate, but Sawyer cheerfully downed his breakfast and let us change the dressing. His cut had closed nicely. Pretty soon the boys were off messing with an anthill and throwing rocks in the river as if nothing had happened.

Trip-ending crisis narrowly averted, we paddled on. Flocks of swallows daubed mud nests onto sheer sandstone walls that rose out of the current. Mazelike rock formations and cliffs over which the Blackfeet once stampeded buffalo lured us off on scrambling explorations.

It's the Missouri River that gets all the press, but the Marias has every bit of the Missouri's arid beauty and that same roadless spaciousness, but on a more intimate, less populated scale. The current is easy, Class I water, but with enough push to coast canoes. Our camps alternated between shaded cottonwood groves and small sandy islands dotted with goose nests.

Feet slapping the river, the kids straddled the bows of the canoes like hood ornaments, or trolled along behind, hanging onto the stern ropes in their bright life vests. Except for his bulky bandage, you'd never know Sawyer had survived serious injury just two days earlier.

On what was meant to be our final afternoon, the legendary headwinds of the Marias sprang up. We fought around every bend, hats flying off, canoes skittering against the banks, paddlers muttering. A couple of miles before the takeout, it occurred to us that there was actually no reason to leave that evening. We had enough food for dinner and time to drive home tomorrow. So, the tents went up in a meadow of wildflowers. By dawn, the air was dead calm, and the canoes sliced quietly through the final misty bends.  --Alan Kesselheim

The route covers 60 miles (three to four days) between Circle Bridge on County Road 223 and the takeout at Loma Bridge on U.S. 87. For shuttles, call John Lulf Shuttle at 406-622-3652.




Smack in the heart of the transition zone between Colorado's west slope and Utah's big-wall deserts, the White River escapes the gauntlet of oil and gas lands to carve its unique version of desert spectacle. For 100 miles downstream of the highway bridge in Rangely, Colorado, the White provides ideal remote canoeing water through canyon and desert.

Smooth river gradient and good current help the miles go by, but rapids are mostly small (Class II) and of the standing-wave variety. The best wilderness camps are in cottonwood groves, and side canyons let you explore craggy cliffs and narrow washes while glimpsing wild horses, eagles, and mule deer.

The most straightforward float, which includes Cowboy Canyon, runs 38 miles between Rangely and the Bonanza Bridge, and can be completed in two days. Below Bonanza Bridge, the scenery gets more spectacular still, and the White serves up some fun, bouncy rapids. Downed trees are the most formidable hazard; hug the insides of river bends to avoid snags.

Don't miss the understated wooden sign marking the hike into Goblin City, Utah, along the lower stretch. It's worth a layover there to let the kids scramble in the fairyland of eroded sandstone. To avoid the hassle of restrictions and permits on reservation land, take out right at the BLM jeep access road just before reaching the Unita/Ouray Reservation boundary sign, a three-day paddle below Bonanza Bridge. Plan five or six days to complete the full 75-mile float.

For shuttle service, inquire at Rangely Chamber of Commerce (970-675-5290). A good resource is The River Runner's Guide to Utah and Adjacent Areas, by Gary C. Nichols (University of Utah Press, $15).



Paddling the Rio Grande's Big Bend country is as much a cultural reality check as an exotic float through sheer-walled limestone canyons and open Chihuahuan desert. On the north bank is Big Bend National Park, with campgrounds full of behemoth recreational vehicles and birders intent on life lists; to the south are tiny, remote Mexican villages like Santa Elena and Boquillas, candelilla wax camps, and scrub ranches with free-ranging cattle.

By the time it hits El Paso, the Rio Grande is largely sucked dry; Big Bend river volume consists mostly of Mexican water from the Rio Conchos. Canoes do best at low to moderate flows. Rapids like the Rock Slide (Class IV) in Santa Elena Canyon and the Rockpile and Tight Squeeze (Class III) in Mariscal Canyon may require portages at any water level.

The canyons offer cool and shaded oases against the blistering summer sun, punctuated with slot canyons, water pockets draped with maidenhair fern, and towering walls that turn the sky into an alley of stars at night. You'll find spring and fall temperatures less daunting. To cover the entire National Park border, put in at Lajitas, above Santa Elena Canyon, and take out at La Linda Bridge. The 130-mile float takes ten to 12 days; arrange two- to seven-day trips by paddling any or all of the canyon stretches and shuttling between them.

Contact Big Bend Shuttle Service at 800-729-2860; for maps, outfitters, and park information, call Big Bend Natural History Association (915-477-2236).



The 50-mile Rangeley Lakes water trail on the Maine/New Hampshire border was dedicated last spring as the first fully functional leg of the 700-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail (which runs from the Adirondacks in upstate New York to Maine's Canadian border). Just east of the White Mountains, the Rangeley Lakes section is one of the most scenic paddles in New England.

From the put-in at Lakeside Park in Rangeley, much of the route follows lakes connected by small streams (not runnable; portages required). Open water and sudden winds can slow your itinerary, so keep your schedule flexible. All of the rapids are portageable, and shuttle service is available for longer carries, such as the five-mile tote around Rapid River (several Class III to IV rapids), between Lower Richardson and Umbagog lakes.

Campsites on beaches and bedrock outcroppings line the entire route, and you'll frequently see moose, foxes, loons, and bears. The easiest takeout is roughly 44 miles into the route, just above Errol Dam on the Androscoggin River, a three- to four-day trip. Below the Errol Dam portage, paddlers must navigate several Class II rapids before the next takeout.

For shuttle service, call Northern Waters (603-447-2177) or Lakewood Camps (207-243-2959). Get maps from Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce (207-864-5571).  --Alan Kesselheim



We talked with Lena Conlan, a NOLS instructor and owner of Crossing Latitudes International Expeditions:

As an expedition leader, what is your main concern when you're paddling with kids?

"Conservative is the name of the game when it comes to kids and water. If conditions are bad, get off the water--it's that simple. It's better to be onshore wishing you could paddle than to be on the water wishing you were onshore."

What can parents do to prepare their kids for a sea-kayaking expedition?

"I live by the seven Ps: prior proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. Know your sport, your destination, and your limitations. If an outfitter in town runs pool sessions, take a class. It will help you get an idea of what to expect on the water. Otherwise, just rent gear yourself and goof around at the local Y. In terms of fitness, kids tend to be prepared for lots of activity--it's the parents who always seem to need the extra training. Also, to get excited about your trip, study up on the maps, history, geography, and famous people of the area you're about to visit."

How old should kids be to go sea kayaking?

"Last year our youngest client was a ten-year-old, and she did great! Kids younger than ten can always sit in the front seat of a double kayak, with an experienced adult in the back. The tiny ones can even sit in your lap."

What do you do if a sea kayak capsizes?

"We immediately yell, 'boat over!' and blow our whistles. One leader paddles to the capsized boat, while the other one corrals the group and heads for shore. Actually, capsizing is quite rare; during our four years of operating Crossing Latitudes, it's only happened twice, both close to shore while a paddler was getting in or out of the boat or adjusting gear."  --P.D.A.

Illustration by Calef Brown


Pleeeeease MOM!  . . .I WANT IT.


More like a water megaphone than a walkie-talkie, these devices from Wild Planet Toys ($13) make sound travel better underwater. According to the directions, it's best to talk slowly and loudly and use simple words. "I actually couldn't understand very much of what Robbie was saying underwater," says Mary Bessone, age ten. "But anytime you can scream your head off without a parent telling you to knock it off, because no one could hear us underwater, that to me is fun." Call 800-247-6570.  --L.T.B.


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