Family Vacations, Summer 1996
Staying Safe | Essential Gear
Dr. Laverne Currie and his son, Christopher, have been conquering rivers together for years: Idaho's Salmon, known as The River of No Return; the Kongakut in northern Alaska; and the Magpie in Quebec, one of the most remote rivers in North America. Of course, some rivers aren't suitable for children (or even some parents--Christopher's mother, Evelyn, has no desire to challenge whitewater); other rivers may be appropriate for older, more adventurous kids but too much for the young or meek. The best way to choose a river for your family is to understand the river classification system.
The ratings are on a scale of Class I (easy) to Class VI (unrunnable). Class I water is moving with riffles (small waves). The few outfitters who offer trips on water this tame usually set a minimum age of five. This has more to do with a toddler's ability to disrupt group dynamics than any paddling considerations. A five-year-old would be thrilled with a float on a Class II (novice) river and its bursts of bouncing rapids to break up the stretches of calm. You're not likely to fall out of a raft bobbing on these waters, but passengers who do are at very little risk.
For most outfitters, Class III (intermediate) is actually considered a good beginner river, though kids are usually required to be at least seven. Most kids that age know how to swim and they have enough height and weight for the required Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices to fit as they were intended. Class III waves can be big and powerful, providing a satisfying rush, but there are several routes through the rapids that offer the option of a quieter ride, and injuries to swimmers who have fallen in are extremely rare. With Class IV, however, the stakes rise. These rapids are intense, loud, and long--and the river may feature trickier obstacles such as holes (swirling vortices of water) or strainers (obstacles, such as fallen trees, that can trap swimmers and flip rafts), with only one route through the rapids (making some waves unavoidable). Outfitters won't take anyone under 12 on these waters. As for Class V (expert) and Class VI, forget it: These rivers are violent.
Once a river is chosen with these basic age guidelines in mind, parents shouldn't worry whether their son or daughter can handle the rapids. "Generally, kids do better than adults," says Marty McDonnell, who owns Sierra Mac River Trips. And rafting is renowned as a great family activity. Christopher Currie, 15, and his father have a river-carved rapport deeper than anything they would have developed on dry land. "We sit and talk on these trips," the elder Currie says. "We're far away from our hectic daily routines and take the time to get to know each other."
Copyright 1996, Outside Magazine