Surviving the Ultimate Family River Trip

The Green River just may be the ultimate fall family river trip (as long as the weather cooperates)


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We’d been at the Tag-Along Expeditions office in Moab for ten minutes, signing waivers for our river shuttle and filling out permits, when the young woman behind the counter looked up from the paperwork and said nonchalantly, “Oh, hey. We have a bit of an interesting situation going on. The road to Mineral Bottom is closed from the last storm.”

Of all the ways to begin a DIY family river expedition in a remote canyon in Utah, this is not the most reassuring. Mineral Bottom, in Canyonlands National Park, is 45 miles downstream from Ruby Ranch, where we were due to launch later that morning. We’d spend four days rafting, canoeing, and standup paddling deep in the belly of Labyrinth Canyon, camping on sandbars and hiking side canyons on our way to Mineral Bottom, where Tag-Along would pick us up and drive back to our cars in Moab. At least that was the plan. Not in the plan was spending extra days marooned with small children at Mineral Bottom, 40 miles via a serpentine, cavity-ejecting dirt road from Moab.

We exchanged baffled glances, but the woman seemed unperturbed. “Oh, don’t worry!” she said cheerfully. “The road is much better ever since they improved it six years ago. When it washed out two years ago, it was only closed for six months!”

Labyrinth Canyon is one of the finest wilderness flat water river trips in the West. My husband, Steve, and I paddled it several times a decade earlier, before we had kids, when it was just us and our chocolate Lab, Gus, drifting downstream in a canoe, playing Frisbee in the sand, and sleeping under an explosion of stars.

In the spring, the Green runs high and fast on its way to the roiling whitewater in Cataract Canyon, 50 miles downstream from Mineral Bottom, but in the fall—typically, the low water season—the river level drops, exposing wide, white sand beaches sheltered by 300-foot sandstone walls. Baked by the sun, the river temperature climbs into the mid-70s by mid-September. You could float the whole, mellow length of Labyrinth in an inner tube, or on your back, if you wanted. There’s not a single rapid in 45 miles, and you don’t need to apply for a permit months in advance. Come fall, the summer monsoon rains have usually petered out, replaced by cloudless sapphire skies and warm nights. Spending four or five days in the canyon is the closest thing to a beach vacation you can find in the desert.

This was how we’d pitched the trip to our friends Paul and Shannon and their two children; and Melissa and Mike, whose daughter was grown and off at college. Our little flotilla had arrived from Santa Fe the night before: six adults, four kids ages six to three, two rafts, one canoe, and an inflatable paddle board. Now, though, it seemed our scheme for a lazy desert float would be dashed by the rogue “megasoon” that had moved into the Southwest two days earlier, turning the road to Mineral Bottom into a sloppy, impassable mess.

“Well, hmmm, let me just check something,” the woman said, frowning slightly. She seemed surprised by our distress, as though six months were somehow a reasonable time to be stuck in the backcountry waiting for a ride. She tapped her nails on the phone on her desk and held the handset to her ear, saying nothing. An interminable amount of time dragged by, in which we began hashing out Plan B: day rafting and car camping the Colorado River? But we’d come for a sustained wilderness fix that only Labyrinth would deliver.

“Oh, OK, well it looks like you’re in business,” she said finally, putting the phone down. “The road reopened.”

Just like that the trip was a go, accompanied now by the dull thump of doubt knocking in our hearts. What if it rained the whole way down river, and the road closed again? We didn’t have a sat phone, and the likelihood of cell reception in the narrow slit between sheer canyon walls was slim. That’s part of what lures us to these riverine depths in the first place. They’re some of the last wild, truly incommunicado places in the country.

So we did the only thing we could do, and the only thing we wanted to do: We launched. With four day’s worth of food, 30 gallons of water, and the silent hope that the worst was behind us, we pushed off the rocky beach at Ruby Ranch and into the viscous Green River. Normally the color of chocolate milk, that morning it was as thick as a mocha milkshake; sticks and waterlogged pine needles and chunks of soggy debris pushed downstream.

Directly across the river, the side canyon that drains the San Rafael swell was pumping red mud, like a warning, into the narrow channel along the river bank. It was nearly 1 p.m., and the Utah sun was broiling our backs. We didn’t know it then, but our luck that morning would foretell the rest of the trip: We were behind one big storm, and just ahead of the next. Our timing would turn out to be perfect.

There’s a matrix to self-guided family river trips. For maximum safety and entertainment value, it’s preferable to go with a group. But too big a clan can feel cumbersome, both in camp and on the water. Our group of ten was a small, well-oiled machine. Steve and I have been rafting with our daughters, who are three and five, since they were babies. Shannon and Paul are former river guides and their kids, four and six, seasoned river rats; this was our second river trip with them in three months. Mike and Steve and a few of their friends do a guys’ whitewater trip each summer. Steve and I knew the river, and we trusted the group.

Still, it takes a while to gel. You need to recalibrate to the river’s pace, which at first felt intolerably slow. As we drifted past the last of the scruffy ranch country, I could tell we were all thinking the same thing, though no one wanted to say it aloud. The river was boring. The canyon—such as it was, or wasn’t, at that point—was underwhelming, a disappointment. We were going to have to row and paddle constantly, nonstop, for four days if we were to have a hope of reaching Mineral Bottom in time for our noon-sharp pickup on Sunday. And still we might arrive and find no one there.

All year I’ve been trying to figure out how to slow life down, and there’s no better place to practice than a lazy desert river. But now that we were meandering along, spinning beneath canyon walls  with nothing to do but let the current carry us, I couldn’t relax. I was restless, in a rush. We had miles to paddle before the night’s camp, before the next storm, and young kids to keep safe from all sorts of unknown perils. Why is it so hard to be exactly where you are, wanting nothing more?

I’m not going to lie. It’s stressful taking small children into a wilderness canyon without easy egress or cell phone service. No matter how many times you do it, there’s always that little frisson of fear at the beginning of every trip. What if it storms? What if someone gets bitten by a rattlesnake or bonks their head or falls in while no one’s looking? We talk to our girls about the importance of taking care of ourselves and each other in the backcountry, of being careful with their bodies and aware of their surroundings. But once you’re on the river, anything can happen.

The first 24 hours are usually the most fraught. It’s best to brace for minor glitches and cloudy moods, plan for tantrums, embrace your anxiety rather than fight it. Part of settling into the trip is accepting the unknowns, and letting go of fear. This happens gradually, without you really realizing it, as the current carries you downstream deep into the canyon. Ironically, the more remote and wilder the landscape, the easier it is to do. Natural beauty is the best distraction.

The Green began working its magic on us fast. Within half an hour, you could feel the thin film of discontent and doubt lifting. A peregrine winged overhead. Melissa spotted a herd of weird, miniature deer on a sand bar. The sandstone walls were rising around us. We were in the canyon now, there was no turning back. What a relief.

For a river with no rapids, the Green through Labyrinth Canyon chugs along at a pretty decent clip. That first afternoon we were doing about three to four miles an hour, and this was with a lot of lazing about and very little strenuous paddling. The kids hopped from one raft to the next, grazing for snacks. Mike and Melissa pulled out in front, their canoe a much more efficient vessel in the flat water than our 14-foot rafts. My Starboard SUP was sturdy enough to ferry all three girls (with a combined weight of 110 pounds), but after a while the board’s initial thrill wore off, if only because I had no sugar, and they jumped ship.

We’d covered 14 miles by the time we came to a campsite under a couple cottonwoods in a wide spot in the canyon called Slaughter Bottom. It looked like it might offer shelter from the storm clouds that had begun massing overhead, but when Mike and Melissa scouted it from the canoe, they saw three touring kayaks pulled onto shore and a couple of people lugging dry bags up the bank.

We pushed on for another two miles, through a four-year-old’s meltdown and a few minutes of spitting rain until we saw a glimmer of white downstream: one of the river’s coveted sandbar islands, wide, empty and waiting just for us. Perfect, except for one detail: It rose maybe a foot at most above the water’s edge. If the river came up in the night from upstream flash flooding, we’d be seriously screwed.

It was already after six and the kids were on the brink—we needed to make camp now. Plus, soggy patches on the edges showed us where the sandbar had flooded recently, probably in the mega storm that had hit a couple days earlier, and there was still room above that line for three tents. As long as it didn’t dump like crazy all night, we’d probably be OK. We weighed the risks and made the call to stay. 

For family river trips, sandbar islands make the perfect camps. They’re low enough so that you can control the perimeter and keep an eye on little ones at all times. There are no large rocks or boulders for kids to fall off of, or steep slopes to tumble down into the river. Except for a few small, brushy willows to discreetly shield our portable toilet from view, there was no vegetation on our little island, so the kids could romp barefoot without having to worry about snakes or prickers. As soon as we’d hammered in the sand stakes and tied off our rafts, Shannon dumped a bag of sand toys onto the middle of the beach, and that was the last we heard of the kids until dinner.

The rain never materialized, and I woke in the night to a moonless sky smeared with stars, but in the morning a thick mat of clouds was crawling in from the west. By the time we began loading the boats, it had started to drizzle, a grey wall of rain moving down canyon—strange to see so early in the day. Across the river, we could hear the gushing of what sounded like rapids: Three waterfalls shot off the cliff face, rain showering off rock and splashing into the river far below—a little bit of fleeting morning magic to brighten our spirits. We were deep in the canyon now, and the Wingate layer of smooth sandstone shot up vertically on both sides, stained black and polished to a high sheen by millennia of wind, rain, and sun.

All day we were in and out of sun and clouds as we drifted aimlessly, rowing and paddling only to steer. Slowly, we were slipping into river time, becoming as fluid as the water. Of all the rivers to run, desert rivers are perhaps the most magical. The water will always exert its calming  pull, inexorably pulling you into its own flow. But in these stark canyons, the rocks seem somehow alive, too, 100-million-year old witnesses to all that has passed and all that’s to come, slowly crumbling under their own weight, reminders that we are here and gone in just a blink of an eye.

Deeper into Labyrinth Canyon, the Green snakes and twists between 250-foot vertical walls, shrinking your field of vision to the bare essentials: rock, river, sky, family. From such depths, the sky is reduced to a narrow sliver. We could see grey clouds brooding over the western rim after lunch, but we couldn’t see how big they were, where they were coming from, or where they were going. We heard the thunder long before the deluge was upon us, rumbling over another slice of sky. We had plenty of time to dig out our rain gear and tie off the paddle board before the clouds unleashed a steady warm rain and jagged fork lightning began slicing the sky into pieces above the rim.

“Let’s get off the water!” I yelled above the crash of thunder. As a girl growing up on a lake, I was told in no uncertain terms to go to shore at the first sign of a storm, and ever since I’ve been terrified of lightning.

Far downstream, Melissa and Mike’s canoe swerved toward the right shore. Behind us, Paul had tied up their inflatable kayak and was scrambling to get out when a gust picked up the rubber ducky and flipped it in midair, flinging him and his gear into the choppy water.

We couldn’t leave them now, so we drifted next to them while Shannon, on the oars, yanked Paul aboard and helped him right the kayak. Huddled under the canvas shade cover in their rain jackets and pants, our girls didn’t look scared as much as excited.

“One, two, three…” Pippa counted as the thunder reverberated off the walls.

“Three miles!” Steve yelled back, shooting me a stern look that said, You’re the parent. Keep it together. It was impossible to tell if we were headed into the storm’s swirling, outstretched jaws, or away from it.

Only a few minutes before the skies had opened, Paul had calmly reassured me that the bottom of a canyon was one of the safer places to be in a storm. “Think about it,” he said. “Lightning wants the highest point. We’re at the bottom.” Now I was trying to channel his optimism. The river wasn’t all that wide. The upstream wind wasn’t too horrific—yet. There were trees high above us on the rim that would make far better targets. We were afloat on a rubber raft, the girls and I had our butts parked on a plastic cooler, and there was even a flimsy canvas roof over our heads. Things could be worse.

That’s when the wind shifted. Now it was at our backs. Suddenly there was a clear delineation: We were being blown downstream; the wind and lightning were upstream. If we kept going, we’d might have a shot at outrunning the storm.

“Stay on the river!” Paul yelled. Steve dug the oars into the water and pulled us, stroke by stroke, toward blue sky. Almost as quickly as the lightning had materialized, we were out from under it, below a growing hole in the ominous black clouds. We’d gotten lucky with the wind, but we’d also made the right call.

If we’d gone to shore, we’d still be there now, pinned by the wind, hammered by rain and lightning. Instead, we were idling downstream again in full sunshine to another sandbar, this one still damp from the day’s rain. While we set up camp, the kids peeled off their clothes and sprinted through the mud along the water’s edge, screeching with perverse happiness, and wallowing in it up to their necks until they were almost unrecognizable.

The next day, Saturday, we paddled downstream through the giant, looping, eight-mile Bowknot Bend toward Horseshoe Canyon, where we planned to go for a short hike. Since we’d launched, we hadn’t left the river corridor, putting in 15-mile days and camping on islands in the middle of the channel. We’d covered nearly 30 miles already, and if the weather kept cooperating, we’d have no trouble doing another three or four by the end of the day, leaving only a handful of miles for the last day. Still a big if.

On flat water, speed is illusionary. There are no rapids or rushing water to remind you that you are pulled forward by a force that is not your own. The river is silent, stealth. If you look at the water below your boat or board, it will appear as though you are barely moving. But look at the shore and you will see how quickly the current is taking you, past willows and tamarisk, side canyons and rocks etched with the historic graffiti of dozens of expeditions that have passed through Labyrinth in the past hundred years.

Horseshoe Canyon is a wide canyon distinguished by a large abandoned meander, or rincon, a prominent cliff around which the river used to flow. But sometime in the last few million years, the river took a shortcut, turning the cliff into a kind of vertical island. The canyon had clearly raged hard over the past few days, and the entrance was calf-deep in mud, so we piggybacked the kids until we got to dry sand. To the west, above the canyon, the storm clouds were building again, but we’d gotten so used to seeing ominous skies that we barely register them, except to jokily note the high, dry ground above the drainage where we might flee in case of flash flood. But we were having too much fun trying turn gooey mud puddles into quicksand and catching minnows by hand in an inch of water to worry.

After 20 minutes, we turned around and backtracked to the river. That’s when we heard the distinct, incongruous buzz of an outboard motor. Motors are allowed on the Green, but we’d never seen one, until a flat-bottomed boat appeared around a downstream bend and we could make out the words Sheriff on the side. There were two people on board, the driver a long-haired park ranger. “By any chance have you folks seen the kayakers in distress?” he hollered. “The ones who lost their boats?”

We shook our heads. We hadn’t seen them  . . . or had we? Yes, they were the group we’d passed on shore our first night but not since, a fact we had wondered over more than once, as kayaks are considerably faster than our sluggish, overstuffed rafts and it was weird that they hadn’t caught up to us by now. They looked older, maybe in their 60s, but we figured they’d must have been doing a lot of hiking. It didn’t cross our minds that they might be stranded on shore after their boats washed away in a flash flood.

“We saw them up river!” I yelled back, trying to remember where they’d camped. “Slaughter Bottom!” It had to be 17 miles from here.

“Thanks!” he shouted, the motor roaring to life again. We could hear the engine long after it disappeared, echoing off the canyon walls, leaving us with the uneasy feeling that timing was everything down here, and that our luck had held while others’ hadn’t.

That evening, we set up camp on another beach that was, according to our map, about five miles upstream from Mineral Bottom. We might have pushed on farther that afternoon just to play it safe, but we’d realized that sandbars, normally plentiful in the fall, were scarcer this year after so much freak, late-season rain. Better to take the first decent site we came across rather than chance it and find nothing downstream.

This beach was no hardship, though: fine white sand with two-foot ledge above the water, perfect for a little extra flash flood insurance—and, as it turns out, for hucking. The sun was still above the rim, but barely, casting our camp in golden light, so we all stripped down to our bathing suits, took long running starts, and hurled ourselves into the chocolatey water until the sun went down.

It was only later, while we were making chile for dinner, that we noticed the debris drifting down river, a thick dirty stripe in the water, like a painted lane line or a giant, half-submerged water snake. It kept coming and coming for over an hour, no end to the crud riding the current in the middle of the channel. Somewhere upstream, a side canyon had flash flooded and once again, we’d slipped past the worst of it.

Not long after, we saw a couple of canoes appear around an upstream bend. Gradually they got bigger until they were upon us, back paddling off our beach with a favor. “I hate to ask, and normally I wouldn’t,” said a leathery, white-haired man in the stern, “but we’re a big group, and I was out here a few weeks ago and didn’t see any more camps downstream. Would it be OK if we shared your sandbar?”

Our beach was really two beaches, separated by a boggy low point. An unspoken rule of rivers is that down in the canyon you look after one and other. Of course, we said, but we had our own favor to ask. Did they know what had happened to those kayakers?

The group, about 30 students from a university in Utah, had seen the threesome hiking up a side canyon. At some point later, they’d seen their boats floating downstream, with no one in them. They tied the kayaks to shore and called the sheriff on their satellite phone. They never saw the people again. And they had other news, too. When they’d paddled past Horseshoe Canyon that afternoon, not long after we’d walked up it, it was raging with run-off. They’d been pelted with hail, and there was so much water flowing out of it they’d had to paddle on the far shore to avoid the debris.

Later, when the kids were roasting S’mores over the fire pan and Paul was playing his ukelele, we heard the ranger’s engine again roaring toward us. Squinting into the darkening night, we could see only two people aboard. The ranger waved his hand in greeting, flashed the white beam of his spotlight back and forth from one shore to the other, and then the boat was gone. Above us, the remnants of the day’s storm had dissipated, and the Milky Way was a gleaming white banner overhead.

How had we gotten so lucky? We’d stuck with our decision to go, and made a series of good decisions: to stay on the water, to camp on sandbars when we came to them, to stick together when the storms hit, to drill our boats to the beaches with steel sand stakes. The worst of the weather tracked north, and we’d slid beneath it through an invisible portal, into clearer skies and what seemed like a different river.

But a lot of it was chance. We’d hiked Horseshoe Canyon when signs in the sky said we’d probably shouldn’t, and we’d made it out before the canyon flashed, but not by much. It was humbling, then, to sit in front of our fire after the children went to sleep, and rehash the choices that put us all together, with our bare feet in the sand on a spit of dry land surrounded by an ocean of red rock and wildness, exactly where we wanted to be.

The next morning, we woke to the cornflower blue skies for which Utah in the fall is famous. The children sat at their plastic folding picnic table and painted the canyon in watercolors; our neighbors, the university students, were just waking up, too. I could see them doing yoga, winging the Frisbee. Coffee mug in hand, I squatted on my heels in the willows and watched the river slide by.

High above me on the opposite rim, a lopsided tower wore a top hat of rock that looked like it might topple off at any moment. But it held. The river kept going; there was no stopping it. Only we had to stop. We had less than five miles to Mineral Bottom, and all I wanted to do was to stay on in this deep red canyon, all the way to the confluence with the Colorado, 50 more miles, five more days. We had enough water and food, and the worst of the weather was probably behind us. How many times had we thought this? But of course we couldn’t do it. We had jobs and school and commitments waiting for us. It was time to go home, and I had finally arrived.

When we pulled into Mineral Bottom at five minutes after noon, Tag-Along’s white school bus was waiting for us, right on schedule. So were the storm clouds, again, looming to the south like enormous bruises in the sky. “Let’s get these boats de-rigged as quick as we can,” barked Doug, the driver, who’s driven this road for 40 years, “because that road will get greasy quick and we won’t be able to get out.”

The longhaired ranger was there, too, waiting for the three kayakers. He’d found their boats right where the university group had tied them and ferried them upstream to the marooned paddlers, who miraculously hadn’t lost any of their gear. “I expect them along in, oh, about an hour,” he said. Then he could check that drama off the list of things to worry about.

As the school bus switchbacked up the precipitous side of Mineral Canyon, the river grew smaller below us. We were in that liminal zone, between backcountry and civilization, belonging to neither. On top of the rim, my cell phone began beeping with texts from worried friends back home, wondering if we’d survived the crazy weather. It had rained for four days straight in Santa Fe, and in Boulder, a thousand-year flood had practically sunk the city—all while we’d drifted along obliviously in our little donut hole of fair weather and river bliss.

Rain or shine, flat water or rapids, river trips always change you. We’d learned some important practical lessons: Don’t pull your boats up on shore at the mouth of a canyon. If the wind’s at your back, keep going, even in a storm. Be vigilant about watching the sky when hiking side canyons, even if you’re only going a short distance. When in doubt, let the kids give themselves mud baths, as long as they’re naked. And when they have river tantrums, be patient—they may look like they’re in their element, but they’re acclimating, too. But more than that, we were reminded how comforting and necessary it is to spend four days carried by something bigger than yourself, swallowed up by wildness and beauty, where, once you let go, time really does slow, if only for a little while.

The next day, after we all got back to Santa Fe, bringing with us half a sandbar worth of sand and more mud than I’ve ever seen on our gear, Paul sent us all an email. “Canyon beauty is hard to process all at once,” he wrote. “Maybe that’s why kids (and adults) have a hard time.” But how worth it it all was. Next year, we agreed, we’re going all the way to the confluence.

—Katie Arnold





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