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.