There is no better way to feel the pulse of Mother Nature, connect as a family and teach your kids lifelong wilderness skills than on a raft trip. These three Colorado adventures are guaranteed to make boaters out of your littles.

Two tweenagers and a three-year-old deep into a family planning method that hadn’t worked, I agreed to join several hardcore rafting families from my neighborhood on a five-day float down the San Juan River, which starts near Durango, crosses the Colorado-Utah border, and flows southeast until it merges with the Colorado River. It should have been a joy-only experience. After all, I’d boated the scenic, mostly mellow, 57-mile-long section of the San Juan from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills twice before. But this trip would be different. My husband couldn’t join, and I’m incapable of passing up an opportunity to raft with my family. That left me to pack, drive, unpack, help rig boats, camp, parent, and make sure Scout, Hatcher and Hollis didn’t drown, on my own. Hold up—that’s inaccurate. In truth, a good friend, 30-year rafting veteran and mother of her own two river rats graciously offered to haul my brood and our gear down the river, since at the time, I was still learning the rafting ropes and I’d ride on her boat with the pre-schooler while the boys, ages 12 and 14, hopped between our flotilla’s various driftables, took turns paddling kid-friendly crafts (duckies, kayaks and standup paddleboards), and mooched other families’ Pringles and licorice before returning into my care at the end of each day to camp. 

On our first day, we rigged boats in a sweltering heat from the put-in at the edge of the river. But every so often, I’d sneak away, whispering thanks to AT&T for making it possible to clandestinely call my husband. From behind my car (where others couldn’t see), I’d break down in tears, saying how scared I was about the looming adventure. “There, there,” he’d answer. “Now get your sh*t together.” I’d hang up, still envisioning all of the things that could go wrong and how I could fail as a parent. And then it was time to go. 

I boarded the raft with Hollis, the boys and my friend, Nancy. We pushed off, and then the magic happened. As has unfolded on every river trip I’ve ever been on, the second we were unmoored and drifting on the current, I knew everything was going to be perfect. 

I say this not as some PollyAnna afterthought only preachable because that’s what happened. It’s just, that’s how it goes on any river. In many ways, the plan (beyond where you’ll camp each night and what meals everyone will cook) doesn’t matter. That’s why rafting with my family is hands-down my favorite way to travel through wilderness. On nearly every river I’ve rafted, we’ve had zero connection to civilization. When your family (or family of neighbors) is locked together, you have to work together, in real time, through good and bad situations. There’s nothing like an unexpected joy—seeing a bald eagle or petroglyphs—or surprise adversity to bring you closer together. And there is no better way to feel Mother Nature than by drifting along on one of her arteries, where sooner or later, fear is replaced by bliss.

Inside of an hour on our first day on the San Juan, I remembered that rivers are a comfort. And by daring to float without my husband but with my brood, we four became a stronger unit. Here’s how you can get your crew on the water this summer, with three different river-trip suggestions, plus tips from longtime river industry vets. (As with any river, rapids and other characteristics change at different water levels. Please do your homework and hire a guide if a river is beyond your comfort level.)

Nicole Silk, another friend on the San Juan trip, has been guiding rivers around the world for 33 years and now heads up River Network, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring rivers.  Along with her husband Juan Carlos Soto—also an accomplished boater—she’s turned her two children, Alden and Ari, into rock-solid river kids. The first time the Silk-Soto Family did the 25-mile section of the Colorado River through Ruby and Horsethief Canyons from the put-in at Loma, Colorado, near Fruita, Alden was a toddling two-year-old and Ari a five-month-old infant. “We strapped two car seats onto the raft underneath an umbrella,” says Silk, “and took off on a three-day trip.” The beauty of the Loma Boat Launch to Westwater Ranger Station stretch is that it’s mostly flat water with just one tiny rapid, above the most popular campsite at Black Rocks. “But the water is flowing,” says Brad Modesitt, owner of Mountain Whitewater and Paddlers in Fort Collins, “so you still get the sensation of being moved along and pulled into eddies and pushed back into the current.” And Silk says that when you’re on Ruby-Horsethief, “you feel a million miles away, in a desert landscape with lots of great places to hike,” including her favorite, Rattlesnake Canyon.

It’s several hours downriver from the put-in and a five-mile out-and-back with 1,100 feet uphill hiking. And it leads to the second-largest concentration of natural stone arches in the world, after Arches National Park. That might be much for the little-little kids, but Silk says she and Soto started taking their pair as grade-schoolers. Along the way, they saw kingfishers and collared lizards—and no rattlesnakes.

“There are also hidden petroglyphs,” says Silk. She won’t specify where, opting to encourage people to try and discover them on their own. But she says Ruby-Horsethief is such a good beginner family trip that her brood has now done it, “Oh, about a dozen times.”

They keep doing it, and river trips around the Western U.S., because of all of the lessons wild waterways teach their kids. “They show kids how to be comfortable in nature, because you’re out there, with nowhere to retreat to, in all kinds of weather,” she says. They also help kids get in touch with who they truly are and help build their sense of what they can accomplish physically. And they build humans who will one day have the confidence and capability to run their own rivers.

Silk encourages families new to boating to follow a few simple rules for creating good memories. “Make sure the kids know what they’re going to experience—talk them through what the whole trip is going to be like. Then, when you’re on the trip, let them know what’s coming: We’re approaching camp. We’ll pull boats to shore. And everyone is going to help. Then we’ll need your help cooking dinner—that kind of thing. When you involve them, every part of the trip becomes fun.”

For being so close to I-70, the Upper Colorado is such a scenic little section of water,” says Mariah Colton Clemons, whose mom Nancy rowed my kids and me down the San Juan River. Clemons should know. She’s been rafting with her family—all across Colorado and into Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming—for as long as she can remember. Her years of being a “river-trip kid” even led her to getting her masters degree focused on river restoration. With her husband Jake she now operates a 34-foot salmon fishing boat in Bristol Bay, Alaska. But when she’s home in Colorado, she’s either plotting river trips, doing river trips, or fishing on river trips, often with her family.

She loves the fly fishing on the “Upper C” for the same reasons she likes casting on any river.  

“It allows me to be a river ecologist in the most easygoing way possible. I think about the insects and the fish and the way the sun is shining and the turbidity of the water and how the hydraulics will play with my line. It’s a very complicated zen. And then you catch a fish after all that concentration and it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. And if you don’t catch a fish, you still feel like you’ve been meditating for hours and come back to the real world super relaxed.” 

It’s also perfect for families who want to cast while kicking their rafting up a notch. “Do a flat water trip four or five times, at different times of the year, at different water flows, and with different groups of people, because you’ll increase your skill set every time,” says Silk. Then when you feel confident that you’re ready to try some bigger water—perhaps when your kids have become great listeners and acquainted with how river trips work—graduate to an artery like the stretch from State Bridge to Dotsero Landing with a few Class II and Class III rapids. 

At the State Bridge put-in you can rig your boat. Then it’s three glorious days of floating down mostly smooth water (watch for one Class III rapid, Radio, and one Class II/III, Pinball, along the way). Use your boat time to teach kids how currents work, and eddies. But, says fishing shop owner and longtime raft and fly fishing guide Hilary Hutcheson, don’t go overboard on trying to force river love on your littles. Hutcheson’s teenage girls bring friends on their home river, the Glacier in Montana, all the time, she says. “And I let them live their regular life on the river. I let them bring music, be loud, swim, and eat all of the snacks. They get to gossiping and talking about teachers. I might interject, ‘Hey guys check out that bald eagle.’” But by letting them ease into river life, she says, they get to have their own discovery. “I let them row, bump into rocks, and eventually they start to ask questions.” They build their river relationship in their own way. 

The fishing on the Upper C is top-end, too. Put a fly on your kid’s rod and let him cast while you’re rowing the boat. Of course always make sure everyone is wearing a personal flotation device (Nancy Colton makes younger kids wear PFDs during “every waking minute”of a trip because of how quickly they could potentially fall in). As Hutcheson reminds us, don’t get too caught up on making junior’s first float-casting experience perfect. When Ari Soto was two-and-a-half, she caught a trout on the Colorado with a pink, plastic Barbie fishing rod. On the boat, keep a constant supply of snacks handy, too (Silk likes the Costco-size tubs of Goldfish and Red Vines, plus an endless supply of La Croixs and boxed juices). Though you do a lot of sitting, multiday raft trips torch calories. And for little ones, it’s even more, because they’re outdoors, in the elements, playing hard and hopefully doing a lot of in-the-water floating.

Denver-based Mile High Mamas, whose mission is “parenting with altitude,” lists the Arkansas as one of its Top 10 family-friendly rivers in Colorado. It’s also the busiest river, with thousands of private and commercial boaters launching on it each summer. Its elite status comes from its multiform beauties. According to the Colorado River Outfitters Association (CROA), it contains more stretches of whitewater than any river in Colorado. These are generally broken down into the upper reaches of the drainage—the Granite and Pine Creek sections, with Class III-plus rapids; the Numbers section—one of America’s “quintessential Class V day stretches,” and the most popular section, Browns Canyon, an “awesome introduction to scenic Class III whitewater,” says CROA.

Day trips are perfect, says Silk, because they give your kids a taste of rafting without committing them to camping—potentially stressful. “On multiday trips, you’re totally committed, and completely off-the-grid,” she says. “You have to take care of anything that happens—first aid, fix a stove, patch a boat.” You’ll also negotiate rapids you’ve only read about but have never seen. And for kids, says CROA’s executive director David Costlow, less time on the river, to a certain age and ability, is more. That’s why he recommends, as a first or second trip, a half day or full day if parents are feeling confident, capable and strong. “I think a full day can be awfully long for a kid, especially if a parent isn’t sure about what he or she is doing, or is rafting with more ego than skill.”

If you’re just starting out, call on an outfitter to paddle the 16-mile Browns stretch from the town of Buena Vista to the takeout at Hecla Junction, maneuvering iconic rapids like Pinball and Zoom Flume. Better yet, for families with a decent amount of river experience, the section from in town Salida down to the Rincon takeout is an excellent mellow day-float with just a couple of possible Class II rapids to maneuver. The Southwest Paddler says the water here is excellent and clear, though snowmelt cold. This also cools the air rising off the river, and wetsuits or dry tops are encouraged for warmth. But clear water gives kids a fish’s eye view of a world as yet undiscovered. 

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