Whatever Floats Your Boat


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Several weeks ago I posted a story here about an overnight family raft trip on the Rio Grande we took with our friends and their 10-month-old daughter. The story sparked a heated debate. Readers called me irresponsible, negligent, and stupid for taking our daughters (two and four) on whitewater. Some commented that the children were so young they would never remember these trips, and that we were doing them purely for selfish reasons. Still others said it was reckless to put non-swimming children in boats, period. Then there were the readers who praised us for exposing our kids to nature and wild rivers, something too many children miss out on these days.

The Rio Chama is a great family river for day trips and overnights. Photo: Katie Arnold

I thought a lot about the comments this past weekend, when we took what might be our final float of the season. Here in northern New Mexico the weather’s been unseasonably warm and dry, and the Rio Chama is still running high, at 1,000 cubic feet per second, so it seemed the perfect last-chance river fix before winter. As it happened, it also turned out to be a good reminder why, when you play it safe, rafting with kids ranks right up there as one of the best family adventures.

This may sound like oxymoronic, but we’re conservative when it comes to floating rivers with our children. It’s all about having a system. We’ve been rafting with our kids since our older daughter was 10 months old, and we stick to our system every time, kind of like a pilot running through his pre-flight checklist. It’s automatic.

The first thing we always do when we get to the river is put the kids in their lifejackets. This is what mother did when my sister and I were young, and we’d arrive at the landing on Stony Lake to take the water taxi over to our island. After 10 hours in the car from the States, we’d go from seat belt to lifejacket in five seconds flat. No discussion. That’s the rule on our raft, too: If there’s water, kids—swimmers and non-swimmers alike—put on their PFDs and keep them on until they’re back in the car.

When we arrived at the boat launch, 15 miles up a washboard road near Christ in the Desert Monastery, it was buzzing with action. A group of 20-somethings was getting a lesson in how to maneuver a paddle raft. Another raft was about to launch, and Steve helped an older man unload his whitewater canoe off the roof of his truck. It’s always useful to have an extra pair of adult hands and eyes on board, not to mention playmates for the kids, so our friend Charles and his daughter and son (ages six and two) had come along, too.

Once the kids were buckled into their PFDs and slathered in sunscreen, they hovered close by while we rigged the boat. The Chama is cold—58-degrees, pouring straight out of the bottom of El Vado Dam—and even the two-year-olds seemed to understand it represented a boundary they did not want to cross. Just in case, we designate one adult at all times on kid duty. You have to communicate it clearly—like the flight attendant asking you if you are willing to yank open the exit door in case of emergency. Never assume someone is watching your kids. You need a definite, verbal “yes.”

Got mud? Hard at work at Big Eddy. Photo: Katie Arnold

While we were rigging, a few young women on the paddle raft cooed at the sight of our little ones traipsing around in their lifejackets. “That's so cool you're bringing your kids!” they said, the first of a handful of such compliments we'd get that day from pretty much every raft we passed. But a couple of them looked nervously at their raft, and then over at ours. “If the little kids can do it,” one of them said, “it’s got to be pretty mellow.”

When kids are in the mix, it's essential to choose the right river. Our number one priority is to keep the kids safe, and in the boat. For this reason, with little kids and babies, we stick to Class I and II rapids. The rivers we raft are essentially long stretches of flat water punctuated by lots of little riffles and small rapids—not your typical gnarly whitewater, with foaming rapids, huge holes, and standing waves, where people are flung from their boats into the spin cycle. The Rio Chama is an exception: It has several Class III rapids, but we’ve been running this section for 16 years and the rapids are easy to walk around. We’ve portaged the little ones around Class III Government Rapid on the San Juan and Ancho Rapid on the Rio Grande and bypassed the last two rapids on the Rio Chama. Little kids don’t belong on big rapids, but this doesn’t mean they don’t belong on rivers. You just have to be smart. (Click here for a list of family-friendly rivers.)

Just before we launched, the grey-haired guy with the canoe came over to talk to us. He pointed to the kids, who were helping Steve inflate our raft with a hand pump, and shook his head with great seriousness. “I really admire what you’re doing,” he said. “It’s awesome that you can bring them out here and get them on the river. They seem like they love it. I know it’s not easy.”

Rafting with kids isn’t easy. Nor is it relaxing. In fact, it’s nothing at all like the old days when we would kayak or canoe the Rio Chama by ourselves, on our own schedule. If we wanted to be selfish about rafting, there is absolutely no question what we would do: We would get a babysitter and leave our kids at home. We would enjoy a leisurely day on the water or raft big rapids. But we don’t, or haven't yet. Why? Because we want to share the river, and its wildness, with our children. To teach them what it feels like to be carried downstream in the current, past cottonwoods fringed in gold and swallows’ nest tucked under cliffs and, for a few hours or days live in a world free of TVs, schedules, screens, and phones. Simply put, we love rivers, and we want to give our kids the chance to love them, too.

Until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me that rafting with kids could be so controversial, but now I don’t take any praise for granted. I smiled at the man. “Thank you for saying that,” I told him, thinking that he was right. It would have been easier to stay at home. But not nearly as much fun. “No,” he said gravely, as if this day on the river was the single best gift we could ever give our children, “thank you.”

We’d been floating for half an hour when we rounded a bend and drifted past a shady spot on the bank where a cliff overhangs the river. “That’s where we saw people having a picnic,” four-year-old Pippa said, pointing to the now-empty alcove where, one Sunday back in June, a group of commercial rafters had set up tables for lunch. Given the chance, she’ll also tell you about the time her river friend Henry wallowed in quicksand on the San Juan River last spring and had to be pulled out by his elbows, and the footprint-stairs worn into the slickrock above the river. When you're four, these details stick.

Even if a 10-month-old is too little to remember rafting three months from now, or next year, starting her early will help put rivers into her muscle memory, and yours. Each time you go rafting with kids, it gets easier. Not easy, but easier. By starting them young, you’re conditioning yourself for a lifetime of river adventures. Think of it like exercise—if you run frequently, you won’t get out of shape. Same goes with family rafting. The more you do it, the more used to it kids get and the more likely you will be to do it in the future. This is true for any outdoor family sport. If you only ski infrequently, the kids will be more prone to whining about their boots than if it becomes a weekly ritual. That morning, after a long summer season of rafting, we packed our gear and rigged our boat in record time. The kids didn’t have to be reminded to sit down and hold on in the small rapids. They never complain about wearing their PFDs, and they fight over who gets to put sunscreen on first. As a friend of mine once told me before I had kids, “Start off as you mean to go on.” It’s still the best parenting advice I’ve ever gotten.

And by the time they’re two years old, they will remember. They probably won’t remember individual rapids (another reason why there’s no point exposing them to big whitewater—maybe the only rapid they will remember is the one that ejects them from the boat). But they will remember bouncing through wave trains, watching ravens circle overhead, and counting bighorn sheep on the shore. Our two-year-old Maisy walks around the house almost daily, tugging a suitcase, telling us she’s “going on a river trip.”

I don’t claim to know what’s best for other people’s families or kids. I just know what works for us. We love rivers and feel comfortable on water, so we raft with our kids. But you have to do what feels right for you. If you’re uncomfortable rafting without children, it’s probably not wise to raft with them, at least not on your own. Earlier this summer, my sister mentioned sending her daughter to horseback riding camp. The idea terrified me. “How can you be afraid of horseback riding, when you take your kids rafting?” she asked, laughing. Because I’ve never done much riding, and horses sort of scare me, that’s why. Everybody has a different tolerance for risk. If you want to go rafting, but lack the experience to feel comfortable on your own, there are plenty of experienced outfitters that lead family trips on amazing rivers throughout the West, including O.A.R.S., Kokopelli Rafting Advenures, Holiday River Expeditions, and ROW Adventures.

We’d parked Charles’ truck on the side of the road near a bridge, halfway between the take-out and the put-in, just above where the rapids start to get bigger. I needed to know that if the river seemed too high, or I felt unsure about running Gauging Station or Screaming Left with kids on board, I could pull them off and let Steve and Charles float to the takeout at Big Eddy alone. By the time we got to the bridge, we’d been on the river for a couple of hours. The Chama was running high enough that many of the rocks we’d hit at lower flows were underwater. The river felt like a long, bouncy water slide rolling us gently downstream. The sky was clear, the kids were fed and happy, and though recent heavy rains had washed out some arroyos and altered several rapids, Steve was confident at the oars. We made the decision to keep going.

Gauging Station came up first, a long rapid that finishes against a rocky cliff, followed quickly by the aptly-named Screaming Left. Steve sent us straight down the middle of both. In the bow, Charles and the three older kids screeched with delight as water splashed in over the side, while I held Maisy on my lap in the stern. “Did you get wet?” I called to Pippa, once we were back in flat water. “Soaked!” she yelled happily.

Just because you feel comfortable on moving water doesn’t mean you can afford to be complacent. If you don’t ask yourself every single time, Is this a good idea? Am I being negligent? then you probably are being negligent. Just because you’ve floated the same river with the same kids before doesn’t mean you don’t have to ask the hard questions, and be willing to give honest answers: Is this the right day? Is the river too high? Too low? Are we being conservative and safe with our children?

Being conservative and prepared, doing your homework, having a system—sadly, none of this will protect any of us from freak accidents and terrible, unspeakable calamities. But they’re just as likely to happen crossing the street or driving home from gymnastics as they are on a river. All you can do is make smart choices, feel confident in your decisions, and be true to your motivations.

We pulled into Big Eddy just before 4 p.m., and I left Charles and Steve with the kids and set off on my bike to get Charles’ truck. When I returned, half an hour later, the kids were sitting in the sand at the edge of the water, smeared in slimy Rio Chama mud. They were making pancakes, and their unique baking technique involved stamping on them with bare feet, until the mud squished out between their toes. While we waited for Steve and Charles to retrieve our truck from the put-in, the boat ramp began to fill up with all the rafts we’d hopscotched all day. The older man in his canoe paddled in with a couple buddies in a kayak and another canoe. He took one look at the kids and shot us a thumbs up. “Is there anything better?” he asked. Before I could say anything, he answered his own question. “Kids were put on this earth to play outside and get dirty!”

There’s not one single answer to the question, Why take your kids on outdoor adventures? But this is a good one: to sit with them on the side of the river and watch them paint the concrete boat ramp brown with mud, methodically plastering it on handful after handful, listening to them recount their day to total strangers, and splash in the shallows with their friends.

She'd rather be rafting (so would we). Photo: Katie Arnold

One final word. If the meltdown doesn’t happen on the drive to the river or on the raft or over a shared lollipop or in the tent after too many s’mores, then it will happen in the car ride home. Be brave because it’s coming. It’s not a question of if. It’s just a matter of when. And no matter how epic the tantrum is when it finally arrives—two tear-streaked, wild-eyed girls shrieking in their car seats three miles outside Santa Fe can be pretty comical when you really think about it—don't let the mayhem scare you off. They survived, and you will too.

—Katie Arnold