This piece was previously published in Inside Outside Magazine, Summer 2004, as "River Socks"
While recently discussing logistics for an upcoming river trip, a friend asked me, “Is there any environment better for kids than the river?”
A river trip has all of the necessary elements for an ideal kid-trip: sand, mud, water, motion, adventure, excitement, exploration, sun (hopefully) and good friends: the same things that I crave for a good adventure.
For my first river experience with child, I was 7 ½ months pregnant with E and as part of my job, we ran a guided trip down the San Juan. Trying to prove that I was cool, competent, and as river savvy as any of the guides, when we got to camp, I volunteered to jump to shore and drag the boat up onto the beach. My graceful leap ended with landing headfirst in the deep mud, a foot shy of shore.
A couple of years later, we decided to try it again. I thought that things might be a bit easier with children on the outside, not the inside. The boys were then 1 and 3. I planned a three-day trip when the weather was sure to be good and went with other friends who also had small children. It was a raging success. After figuring out how to keep the wee ones cool and hydrated, in addition to bribing them to keep their PFD’s on all day, we had an amazing time. My boys loved everything about it. They loved the sound of the water and they loved splashing in it. They played in the sand, crawled after lizards, slid in the mud and threw rocks for hours on end. Taking the boys on the river became my new favorite pastime.
After getting really comfortable on shorter trips, we decided to venture out: new river, longer trip, bigger water and most importantly, more remote. The remoteness became a driving force behind my decision to explore new territory.
I missed being truly “out there.” My days of spending thirty days at a time in the wilderness had been cut short with my first pregnancy, but my cravings had yet to abate. I also wanted my children to experience real wilderness. They loved stories about adventures in the wild, and I wanted them to have their own tales to tell.
Now, I know that 10 days on a river in the middle of absolutely nowhere is not that appealing to many people, especially those with small children. I have to admit, that as we got closer to going on our first big trip, I began having visions of rattlesnakes, broken bones, allergic reactions and drownings:– all happening 50 miles from any sort of help. I did have moments of panic, but once we got to the put-in, I was overwhelmed with excitement and forgot most of my fears.
Over the ensuing years, we went on this stretch of river in big water and almost no water. We have had party members wrap boats, flip duckies, and swim rapids. We have had 16-hour days in 100-degree heat, and 4-hour days of rapid after rapid. We have dragged boats over sandbars, walked children around whitewater, and lost oars. We have had bear walk through our camp, seen baby birds hatch from their eggs, and watched a snake eat an insect bigger than my hand. Yes, we have also encountered rattlesnakes, scorpions, and very large kitty tracks. E and B have a basic understanding of the high desert and riparian areas. My kids have experienced true wildlife. This is a trip full of adventure, excitement, wonderment and learning.
I come from the background of Outward Bound and experiential education. I have seen the value of being a part of a group in a foreign, demanding, at-times-unforgiving environment. Every river trip that we embark on is like an Outward Bound course for my kids, and for me. The bonds that my children have formed through shared adventures and reliance upon the families that we travel with will last for years to come. There is nothing like a mutual wilderness experience to create community.
Part of that community experience is the entertainment factor. My children don’t need toys or T.V; they are just too busy to get bored. There’s always something new to see or explore or try with a friend.
E and B have also become completely self-sufficient. They know how to entertain themselves when they need to. They know how to rig and row a boat. They can read water; understand what creates currents, eddies and rapids. They have a healthy respect for the hazards of water, sun and dehydration. They help unload, set up the kitchen, do dishes and set up their tents. (Yes, my boys even sleep in their own tent.)
Within themselves, E and B have developed self-reliance and self confidence. They trust their instincts and are learning important skills. They know to pee in the water, not to litter, and that dipping a hat in the river before putting it on your head will keep you from getting over-heated when the temperature reaches the triple digits. They know to eat on a regular basis, sleep in a warm hat, and get out of wet clothes when the sun goes down. They help stake out the tent when the wind is blowing, put the fly on if the sky gets cloudy, and keep the tent zipped to keep out the scorpions.
They can’t add 2+2 but that’s not that important, is it?
It’s not that I think my kids are any better than the next (although I really do). It’s that I see the effect that being on the river has had on my boys and I think that it’s invaluable. My children have learned so much by doing and being rather than having me or a teacher yakking at them.
Most of all, when we are on the river, my boys are happy. What kid doesn’t love playing in water, building sandcastles, and having an entire pack of friends at their disposal? No time constraints, no cleaning up their room, no baths, just one fun day after another. The same friend that I was talking to earlier said last weekend as we watched our kids joyously play in a pothole in Canyonlands, “Splashing in the water and playing in the mud, that’s what rafting is all about. Day in and day out.”
It’s nothing but fun.
Admittedly, we’ve had some rough times on the river too. Inclement weather (including snow, sleet, hail, rain, wind and freezing temperatures - all at the same time), sibling battles, lost hats, and biting black flies, to name a few. But the good times always outweigh the bad. You know kids, if something makes them miserable, they won’t do it again. So, even when reminded of the days of sunburn, fighting, and head to toe bug bites, the boys still count the days until the next trip.
During the non-river months of the year, the boys talk incessantly of trips past and trips to come.
Recently, I really got how valuable these experiences are for my children. E was having trouble in school. One day he refused to wear his favorite fleece socks to school because they were purple, and the other boys were teasing him. I mentioned that they were his river socks and that perked him up instantly. Then, very compassionately, he said, “Mom, those guys have probably never been on a river trip. That makes me sad for them.”
After that, off he went to school, purple socks sticking out from the toes of his Chacos.
The Salmon River, which runs through the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness is one of the longest, free-flowing rivers in our country. 425 miles of fast, clear, mountain water runs across Idaho without a functioning dam in sight.
No dams means bigger whitewater. No dams means more fish.
But "Why is it called the River of No Return?" one might ask.
When Lewis and Clark and their Shoshone guide, Swooping Eagle, got to the banks of the Salmon, they took one look at the raging class IV waters cutting through the mountains creating gorges deeper in places than Grand Canyon, and said, "No thanks," and went elsewhere.
Then, in the 1860's, miners and lumberjacks came to the area in droves looking for gold, silver, and...trees. More determined than their predecessors, they built heavy "sweep boats" to take them, and their wares, downstream to sell.
A sweep boat is like an enormous wooden bathtub with one long oar off the back used for steering. They took serious skill to run. Many of the miners developed those boating skills but there was still one problem: after getting downstream, the water was too turbulent and the landscape too rugged to get back to the starting point.
Humbled, the miners would instead float downstream, then take apart their boats board by board, which they then used or sold as lumber.
And they called this tumultuous river, the River of No Return.
The Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness was established in 1980, and at well over 2,000,000 acres, is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower forty-eight.
The miles of wilderness surrounding the River of No Return has been inhabited since at least 8,000 - 11,000 years ago. Some recently discovered artifacts may be as old as 16,000 years. The Nez Perce People are some of the descendants of these ancient residents.
It is sacred land to the Nez Perce tribe as well as home to deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, black bears, moose, river otters, mink, bobcats, and maybe even wolves. Chukar, grouse, and partridge line the shores while cutthroat, steelhead, sockeye salmon, and whitefish swim in water so clear you can see their individual scales.
Rafting through a wilderness this big on water this pristine is an adventure and a privilege. Not many people can say they have done it. Those who have will surely say that it is the trip of a lifetime and to do it without hesitation.
Let Idaho Adventures take you down the River of No Return.
You won't regret it.
“Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything.”- Henry David Thoreau
It is June, 2021. I have just arrived in Salmon for a break from the stress of my job, Colorado wildfires, a global pandemic, and the hatred and divisiveness tearing through my hometown that began with Covid.
I need a break.
I came here with the hope of escaping the heat of the southwest, yet, it is hotter here than at home. The temperatures in the northwest are pushing the hundreds, shining a glaring and disheartening light on global warming.
My heart is heavy with the weight of the world.
When I pull into town, I stand on the bank of the river, feet immersed, letting the cool water swirl around my ankles, swirl through my brain. My body relaxes after 16 hours of driving. My breathing slows.
I dunk my head, feeling a momentary brain freeze that wakes me out of my haze of anger, grief, frustration, fear, exhaustion.
The river says to me, Let it go...let it all go.
I sleep that night with the river's voice in my dreams telling me that this too shall pass.
The next day, I arrive at Idaho Adventures along with 6 other people who I have never met but with whom I have one important thing in common; we are here to commune with the natural world and maybe share laughter with new friends.
Our guides place paddles in our hands and our bodies on a cheery yellow boat. One moment the boat is holding still on a sandy beach, then, with a little push, I feel the water swim under the raft, lift it off the ground, and pull it into the current. We are afloat.
The water is clear enough to see fish swim among the multi-hued rocks decorating the bottom of the river. I want to fill my pockets with beautiful Idaho stones so different from the sandstone of my home. Turns out my guide wants to do the same.
As we splash through rapids and drift lazily in the flatwater, we see an osprey flying from a tree to the shore and back again. He is building a nest for his new family. He passes directly in front of the boat, close enough to see his yellow eye and the small ponderosa branch in his talons.
He has not given up on the world.
Within minutes we see a juvenile bald eagle, curious about our craft, about humans. He stares as we pass by. We stare back in awe.
The big horn sheep and deer that line the shore are not afraid. Instead they are as curious about us as we are about them.
Suddenly, we hit a big rapid. Paddling as hard as we can, we splash through the waves and grab a man by the foot as he threatens to bounce out. In the disconcerting 100 degree heat, we welcome the cold water.
We spend several hours on the river and the take out comes too soon. It has been a perfect day and no one is ready for it to end. We have made new friends and had a grand adventure.
More importantly, in the midst of all that is beautiful, encouraged by the osprey and the bighorn, we have put aside the fear and angst and despair of what life has felt like for these last months. We have shared a few hours of lightness and joy and normalcy.
On the bus drive back to town, our charming guide turns on the radio and Kenny Rogers' melodic voice gives us advice, not only on gambling, but on life itself.
"You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold, 'em..."
We all join in, singing joyfully out of key, celebrating the freedom that we each felt on the river and reminding ourselves that the world is a good place and we are so very fortunate to be surrounded by the beauty and resilience of the natural world.
Mr. Thoreau was right - when you are on the river, there is no room for despair.
And that's why we do it.