Inflatable Journeys

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Wet as You Wanna Be

Inflatable Journeys

The Hysterical Parent
Falling out of the raft
Never go out on the water without a personal flotation device (PFD), helmet, and sports sandals or tennis shoes. Your guide will school you on how to ride the rapids sans boat: Float on your back feet first; the PFD will hold your head well above the water. (Hitting a rock with your feet is preferable to hitting one with your head.)

Get off the water at the first signs of a storm. Lightning usually strikes the highest object or landmass in its path, so stay out of open areas and never take cover under an isolated tree or at the base of a cliff. You'll be least vulnerable away from the shoreline, at the bottom of a valley or among trees of uniform height. Sit on your mattress pad to keep yourself from being grounded.

Snakes don't coil undercover, eagerly awaiting the chance to leap out and strike. They avoid humans and only bite when threatened, so stay on the trail. When scrambling over rocks, don't put your hands or feet in nooks or on outcroppings that you can't see. (You might surprise a dozing herp.) Finally, if you come across a snake, give it wide berth. Don't prod it or try to pick it up.

--Lisa Twyman Bessone

Chilko, Chilcotin, Fraser River System, British Columbia
Class II-IV+
Many people consider the Chilko, Chilcotin, and Fraser River system in southwestern British Columbia to be the most spectacular whitewater trip in North America. Starting at 4,000-foot-high Chilko Lake, a 45-minute charter flight from Vancouver, you'll begin the 130-mile, six-day raft trip in a stunning valley ringed with forests and snowcapped peaks. But it's the narrow lava gorges of the upper Chilko River that lure adventurous, wave-hunting families; from the outset, the milky-green Chilko cuts deep into the Chilcotin Plateau, which bristles with lodgepole pines. Lava Canyon looms ahead, 14 miles of Class III-V excitement with heart-stopping hydraulics and towering haystacks.

By the third day you'll reach the "Gap," a 20-foot-wide chute that squirts you into the Chilcotin River, an equally powerful waterway of massive wave trains that roller-coaster for miles. Interspersed with the big stuff are stretches of relaxing flatwater and smaller but still respectable rapids, perfect for running in self-bailing, inflatable "ducky" kayaks. In camp there's plenty of time to hike, fish, or scout for wildlife--grizzlies, black bears, moose, eagles, and more.

On the fifth day, a dull roar and dancing spray announce the arrival of Farwell and Big John canyons, each with their scream-yourself-silly, knock-down rapids. Then, after gradually dropping more than 3,000 vertical feet in elevation, the countryside becomes a semi-desert of sprawling grasslands, granite canyons, and towering "hoodoos" as the Chilcotin merges into the mighty volume of the Fraser River. At the confluence is the Junction Sheep Reserve, home to the world's largest population of California bighorn sheep.

Upon leaving your sandy beach camp on the Fraser River, you'll board a train for the 210-mile journey back to Vancouver, in which every turn of the tracks unveils dramatic vistas of lakes and valleys.

Rivers and Oceans Unlimited Expeditions (800-360-7238) offers eight departures in July and August. Cost is $1,495, including airfare from Vancouver, meals, and equipment. Minimum age is 12. For kids six and up, the Resort and Raft trip (same price) includes a stay at a guest ranch.

Desolation Canyon, Green River, Utah
Class II-III
For 84 miles, from Sand Wash Boat Ramp near Roosevelt, Utah, to Swasey's Beach, the Green River slices southward into the broad uplift of northeastern Utah's Tavaputs Plateau. A few miles downstream of your launch site is the entrance to Desolation Canyon, the deepest canyon in Utah; in places the river lies more than 5,000 feet below the canyon rim. The ensuing run is one of Canyon Country's premier wilderness floats, with easy to moderate whitewater, superb side hikes, cushy sandbar campsites, and abundant wildlife ranging from bighorn sheep to golden eagles. There are some 60 moderate rapids and many smaller riffles on this five- to six-day trip suitable for kids as young as five.

Between runs, short hikes lead you to abandoned homesteads, shadow-filled grottoes, and Fremont Indian pictographs etched on rock walls some 1,000 years ago. Longer hikes take you into stark chasms virtually untouched by civilization, or up towering mesas.

After about 60 miles, Desolation's towering red walls abruptly end, giving way to a short, open valley followed by lower cliffs of gray, brown, yellow, and white sandstone. This is Gray Canyon, which Butch Cassidy and his bunch used as their hideout around the turn of the century.

Bill Dvorak's Kayak & Rafting Expeditions, Inc. (800-824-3795) offers five trips for families. In June and July, each adult guardian signing up for the Green River six-day trip and paying full price ($935) can bring a child under 13 for free. Minimum age for kids is five (the standard kid's rate is $855). For general information on running Desolation and Gray Canyons, contact the Bureau of Land Management at 801-637-4591.
--Larry Rice

The Klamath River, California
Class III-IV
The Klamath is California's biggest and longest whitewater river, with some of the best stretches for family rafting in the state.

The minimum age for most outfitted trips is only seven; warm water, sandy beaches, and side creeks keep the little rafters happy, and because it's a classic pool-and-drop river, even in a worst-case scenario--a flip--everyone washes out into the calm water below.

It's possible to run more than 180 miles of the Klamath, but some of the best family whitewater action happens along the 26-mile stretch of the lower Klamath between Happy Camp and Presidio Bar.

The first three miles below the put-in at Indian Creek in Happy Camp begin gently, on bouncy Class II water perfect for practicing your paddling before reaching the first major rapid. Scary-looking Class III Rattlesnake will get your pulse going, but there's a straight-as-an-arrow sneak route along the left that lets you avoid all the major hazards.

Below here the river narrows through a 20-foot-wide squeeze, known alternately as The Slot, The Wall, or The Trough, before opening back up into a long series of pools, side creeks, and sandy beaches. Along the way you'll get to see plenty of turtles, osprey, eagles, deer, herons, river otters, and probably even some bears.

Many more Class III rapids stretch out for miles downstream, culminating with a hair-raising ride through Class III Dragon's Tooth, named for a jagged rock in the middle of the river. (If you don't feel comfortable running it, there's an easy hiking trail around it).

A mile and a half downstream, try the easy hike three- quarters of a mile up Ukonom Creek through a beautiful old-growth forest to the twin Ukonom Falls--a Klamath rafting tradition.

Turtle River Rafting Company (916-926-3223) out of Mt. Shasta and Whitewater Voyages from El Sobrante (800-488-7238) run one- to five-day trips on the Klamath from $86 to $610 per person depending on age and the length of the trip (minimum age is six for Turtle River; seven for Whitewater Voyages); most go through the steep canyon below Happy Camp. Everything is included in the price except for tents and sleeping bags.
--Andrew Rice

Snake River, Idaho
Class III
Forming the Oregon/Idaho border, the clear, green Snake River has, over time, carved Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. In spite of the canyon's intimidating name, the portion of the river that runs through it is exciting without being threatening, making for a heavenly three- to five-day family camping trip. Encompassing steep slopes covered with cheatgrass, primrose, Ponderosa pine, and prickly pear cactus, and occasionally closed in by towering black basalt cliffs, Hells Canyon epitomizes the word BIG. The river through here carries twice the volume of water as the Colorado River, though in gentler style. First visited by Lewis and Clark in 1805 and more fully explored by fur traders a few years later, the gorgeous, sometimes foreboding canyon still exudes a pure and wild feel.

Just downstream of the put-in below Hells Canyon Dam (about a five-hour drive northwest from Boise), the Snake drops steeply into Wild Sheep Rapid. Granite, a Class IV rapid not much further along, is ranked as one of the ten biggest drops in North America (the fearful can hike around it). But following these initial challenges, the rapids calm; the water becomes perfect for swimming and piloting a two-person inflatable kayak. Side hikes to Indian petroglyphs and old homesteads, great fishing for trout and bass, such potential visitors as elk, bear, and bighorn sheep, and the mostly tranquil pace make Hells Canyon an ideal family outing.

O.A.R.S. (800-346-6277) and Holiday Expeditions (800-624-6323) run three- and five-day trips for about $630-$935 per adult, $577-$861 per child. Children should be at least seven years old (eight for the O.A.R.S. trip) ; during the high water in May to early June, 12 is the suggested minimum age.
--Jeff Wallach

Colorado River, Arizona
Class I-X on its own scale
Hundreds of rapids, including Lava Falls and Crystal--among the biggest whitewater in the world--draw seasoned river rats to the Colorado from around the globe. The Colorado's rapids are so big (though not always technically difficult) that it's the only river to be rated on a scale of I-X; kids should be at least 12 to run this one (for the section below Whitmore Wash the minimum age is seven).

D O N ' T   F O R G E T
   polypropylene socks
   lip balm
waterproof sunscreen
Ziploc bags
water filter
baseball cap

But the trip also includes long stretches of serene floating between canyon walls that range in color from chocolate to violet to yellow, and that may be as old as half a billion years. Side trips take you past enormous stone amphitheaters, rock spires, and hanging gardens of columbine and cardinal monkey flower, as well as to ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings. Other highlights include splashing beneath dramatic Havasu Falls, and soaking in the warm blue Little Colorado, a tributary.

Families can run one of a handful of sections, or the entire 279 miles, on outfitted trips ranging from five to 19 days. And if you travel with Grand Canyon Dories, you can emulate the river's first explorers by experiencing the mother-of-all-river-trips in hand-crafted boats.

Most trips begin at four major access points: Lees Ferry (mile 0, just below the Utah border in Arizona), Phantom Ranch (mile 88), Whitmore Wash (mile 188, accessible only by helicopter) and Diamond Point (mile 226); they end at Pierce Ferry (mile 280, the terminus at Lake Mead). The first section, known as Marble Canyon, features fun rapids that shouldn't frighten the adults too badly. The scariest whitewater--including Lava and Crystal, both rated as X, and a handful of others rated as high as IX--roils in the stretch below Phantom Ranch. The best time to float the Colorado is in spring or fall; summer visitors should bring along light-colored clothing, sunscreen and big hats, and drink plenty of water; temperatures can reach three digits.

Grand Canyon Dories (800-877-3679) runs seven trips from five to 19 days for $1,124 to $3,256 (minimum age is 12). Outdoors Unlimited River Trips (520-526-4546) runs five-, eight-, and twelve-day trips for $1,025, $1,575, and $2,075 (minimum age ten). Grand Canyon Dories also offers a 94-mile, five-day lower Colorado trip suitable for children as young as seven ($1,124 per person). Passengers beginning or ending at Phantom Ranch should be fit enough to endure the nine-mile, 5,000-foot hike in or out (that's up or down) on the Bright Angel Trail.
--Jeff Wallach

Middle Fork of the Salmon River, Idaho
Class III-IV
The Middle Fork's popularity among families is due as much to its intriguing history and abundant wildlife as its rapids. You'll see where nineteenth-century homesteaders and miners set up shop and catch glimpses of elk, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep as you barrel through the 100 miles or so between Boundary Creek and Cache Bar.

The high water of the early season--spring through mid-July--is most suitable for kids 12 or older. As the water warms up and calms down, outfitters accept kids as young as six (although nine is probably more common).

The Middle Fork starts out as a tight alpine stream flowing between narrow canyon walls covered with pines, then barrels over the Class IV rapids at Velvet Falls and Pistol Creek before becoming wider and gentler around Indian Creek. The best whitewater of the trip is indisputably that of Impassable Canyon, with scenery to match: towering granite spires and barren cliffs. July through September is peak season for fly-fishing.

Western River Expeditions (800-453-7450) leads a six-day/five-night trip with departures from May through mid-September. The price is $1,029 per adult; $829 per kid under 16 traveling with a parent.
--Maria Stern

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