River Dance

Families bond on the West's famous waterways.

From Alaska Beyond, June 2015.

LIFE IS BUSY but rivers are long, which makes them ideal for friends and family bonding. But five minutes into our 12-day journey through the Grand Canyon my husband and sons were fretting. “Are you sure we need to be down here two weeks?”

We’d just pushed off down the Colorado River in a 17-foot dory. Our super-fit guide, Kerstin (“KJ”), manning the oars, was explaining how, as passengers, we’d need to shift our weight with a quick high-side “punch,” at each wave. We were here because I’d been casually plotting for about 33 years to transport my clan to the ancientness of the Grand Canyon. My parents had taken my sister and me down the river in the 1970s, and the experience made such a lasting impression I’d wanted to bring my own family ever since.

Soon we heard out first rapid, Badger, rumbling downstream. “Sit straight!” KJ commanded, while holes and haystacks exploded all around. A wave rose up like a hand and hit me flat in the chest. Cold!

“This is sick!” my 16 and 18-year-old boys yelled, officially baptized and actually impressed. Thank heaven, I breathed to myself. They were in for the trip of a lifetime and just beginning to get it.

It wasn’t long after my sons learned to swim in fact, that my husband and I began thinking about taking them down rivers. Why rivers? Growing up with young, outdoorsy parents meant these kinds of shared adventures were a key ritual in our family. Annual hiking, river, and road trips not only turned my sister and me into lifelong adventurers, they drew us all closer with bonds that only the best family vacations create. Once my own sons were old enough I hoped we could share some of the same kinds of experiences.

I ALSO KNEW THAT RIVERS ARE ONE OF THOSE PLACES that awaken a sense of wonder. “Their free-flowing quality is absolutely fundamental to experiencing that feeling of awe in the natural world,” says George Wendt, president and founder of O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists.)

In addition to the Grand Canyon, rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon, one of America’s archetypal wilderness rivers, was also at the top of my family bucket list. My parents had also taken us down the Middle Fork, and the journey, which involves floating through the largest chunk of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48, still topped my Greatest Hits List of trips ever. To my mind, saving up for these trips was a financial goal for my husband and me, like saving for college.

The year our boys turned 14 and 16, we signed up for the Middle Fork and their grandfather came too. Among the life lessons I suspected my boys might absorb, first was the luxury of simplicity: Though most of us packed a bit more than Dad’s carry-on, we actually didn’t need much. Next was the luxury of isolation: no cell phones, no emails, no texts, no television, no video games, no schedules. Bliss!

WHEN WE ARRIVED at our first night's camp my father rolled out his tarp, anchored the corners with rocks, and casually strolled off to grab a beer from the cooler. “Don’t you think Grandpa Bart looks a little like Clint Eastwood?” my 16-year-old said, setting his tarp the same way. I had to smile. They were already getting the third and most important lesson: how to be cool when everything else is stripped away. Or simply, how to just be.

A good river trip, it turns out, is really more about the people than the rapids. Mark, our head guide, explained our game plan for the week: Wake each day for a leisurely breakfast, pack up and float, stop for a picnic lunch, hit some more rapids, make camp in time to hike and if they were biting, fish. The days eased by as we slipped into river time, the ultimate peace of mind. You know you’ve crossed over when you wake up to the smell of camp coffee and don’t have anywhere else to be but in a raft, heading downstream.

Now that my boys are young men, I am incredibly grateful we managed to make those trips happen. As in my own family, the shared adventures—even the misadventures—have become the stuff of myth. They are the stories we tell. The stories other families ask us to tell. Looking back, those are the memories that define those years for my husband and me – the year we did the Middle Fork. The year we did the Grand Canyon. And because they’re shared memories, they grow stronger over time. 

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.