Don't Spare the Bubbly

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, Family Vacation Guide

Don't Spare the Bubbly
When it comes to rafting, take all the wet you can get


Seven Rivers
From wimpy to wild

Gear to Go:
All the right stuff for whitewater

Way to Go
Trip tips for first-time rafters

Not 20 seconds into our first family rafting trip, four members of our group of 19 — including my six-year-old son's best friend, Jebb, and Jebb's grandfather — were standing on a boulder, stranded in the middle of the surprisingly fast and pushy Chama River in northern New Mexico. This, the first raft to launch of our small flotilla of three rafts and four inflatable duckies, had hung up on a huge rock less than 15 feet from our put-in. So much for our warm and fuzzy Rockwellian adventure.

The force of the current wrapped the raft around the boulder (we started calling this phenomenon a taco). When whitewater began spilling over the pontoons and swamping the raft, its four passengers wisely decided to jump ship and take their chances on the rock. From the river's bank, the rest of us watched in utter disbelief. This was the no-brainer float trip we had all been told to expect?

The Chama is allegedly a Class II-III river. We were warned about a few patches of PG-rated rapids, but for the most part this trip was billed as a barge haul. As tame as a walk down the produce aisle. So when our friends, an experienced family of rafters, invited two similarly river-savvy families and two families of river bozos — one of which was us — to piggyback onto their permit and see the Chama, we leapt at the chance. I reminded them that our level of whitewater experience amounted to cranking up the Jacuzzi jets in the bathtub, but I was told, "No problem. The Chama is a good beginner river."

But what no one possibly could have foreseen was that there would be a lead-foot at the dam-release controls the weekend we put in. The true river rats were visibly psyched at this hydraulic gift from upstream, an unexpectedly huge volume of water running through the canyon. Personally, I felt a full-scale mutiny was in order.

But first, back to those people on the rock in midstream. The more experienced in our group snapped into action. Jim hopped into a duckie and snatched first Jebb, then his grandfather. Meanwhile, our duckie-turned-rescue-boat continued to pluck the others off the boulder, while the pilot of the crippled raft rigged a line from the boat to land. The lot of us then heave-hoed for a good hour before finally wresting the craft free. About this time I began to fully appreciate those outfitted river trips that provide guides to do all the work for you.

Call it perseverance, determination, or just plain stupidity, but we agreed to push on. We found a quieter place to put in, after which the river cooperated nicely. The rest of that day was a happy montage of water fights in slow stretches, our PFD-swaddled kids towed laughing and screaming behind bobbing rafts. The day ended with a series of rollicking rapids, through which I piloted my eight-year-old daughter, Mary, in a duckie quite competently.

The second day was more of the same but with longer stretches of calm water. While Mary, a competitive swimmer, seemed to be happily digging deeper into the river's groove, son Peter was growing bored and restless. There was simply too much sitting going on here. So it just figures that Peter is the one the river would choose to terrorize.

The last three series of Class III rapids before the take-out were the trip's biggest. Class III, my PFD! This water was big and scary, and Peter hated the size of the standing waves, their ugly brown color caused by the river's churn, and his total lack of control over the situation. We were in a raft with Buzz, a superb rafter, but he was quickly tiring. Peter and I ducked down behind the front pontoon and huddled on the floor of the raft as the river raged beneath us. I held him close and worked mightily to generate some much-needed enthusiasm for this adventure. Peter simply shot me a withering look. Then the unthinkable happened: Buzz missed his line through a roiling boulder field, and we bumped a rock with enough force to hurl Peter out of the raft. Before he could hit the water, I lunged and blindly grabbed, miraculously catching the collar of his PFD. But Peter knew full well how close he had come to going into the river, and he sobbed hysterically the remaining 20 minutes of the trip. I quivered like an aspen tree.

Maybe Peter was simply too young. In any case, I doubt we'll take another family rafting trip anytime soon. Mary and I talk about making a mother-daughter trip; she's up for pushing off into a river again right away. But count Peter out, at least for now. He'll pack his hobo stick and leave home if rafting plans ever involve him again.
— Twyman Bessone

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