Six great family rivers, from tame to tumultuous

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1997

Wet as You Wanna Be
Six great family rivers, from tame to tumultuous
by Peter Shelton

Inflatable Journeys

The Fun File: What to do when the water's calm
By Lisa Twyman Bessone

It's Time for Whitewater Class
By Stephanie Gregory

Gear: All the Right Stuff for Rafting
By Steve Shimek

Going down the river with the family is like playing house: Cooking, cleaning, bedding down, and packing up--even plumbing--become playlike in a house with no ceilings and no clocks, just sandstone walls. The family, swept along by the flow of days, becomes a more attentive and imaginative version of itself.

The sun blazes down on the desert rivers near where we live: the San Juan, the Dolores, the Colorado. We insist that the girls wear light cotton pants and long-sleeved shirts and white, floppy hats. We slather them with sunscreen, and only then, like skiers ready for a storm, do we put in.

We also insist that the girls understand the importance of wearing their life jackets whenever they're in the raft, and even on shore when they're near the water. "What are the rules?" we chant. "Remember the rules."

Mostly, the rules are simple. One: Everybody helps. Loading and unloading the raft, setting up tents, pumping drinking water, preparing meals, and washing up. The kids love the responsibility of finding the most beautiful spot for the groover, the self-contained toilet; it might be up a sandy draw, or under a mineral-streaked overhang. They've embraced with childlike fanaticism the notion of leaving no trace, not even a burrito crumb that might lure ants to the beach.

Rule number two: Everybody plays. Make drip sand castles. Carve your own cliff dwellings into sandbanks. Hunt for scorpions and pot shards. Dream about being an Anasazi living off the land. Paddle the kayak all by yourself in the big, safe, horseshoe eddy beside the camp.

When the water is flat, sometimes the girls drift behind the raft in inner tubes. When the water runs wild, we like to have them with us in the boat. I've watched them progress from trepidation at the approach of roaring whitewater to pure eagerness, the two of them in the bow, riding the haystacks like cowboys on a saddle bronc. At the take-out, nobody wants to leave. We've adjusted to the river's pace, grown simple ourselves in response to the game's few ineluctable demands.

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