Condé Nast Traveler - December 2002

traveller1

Role Reversal

Father-son travel puts familiar family dynamics in the hot seat. Rory O'Connor feels the heat and gets relief

Two best things I did this year were the separate vacations I took with each of my two sons. In August, the older, self-described "energetic" one and I spent a week whitewater rafting and kayaking on Idaho's Main Salmon River; in April, the youngster and I cruised the Sea of Cortéz in search of marine mammals. Both trips were terrific-informative and fun-but what was really great about them was the unparalleled opportunities they offered to rediscover the two most important people in my life…

Rafting with my older son in a wild land completely unspoiled by urban development proved profoundly, if not delightfully, disorienting. No longer could we respond to our surroundings or to each other in our typical ways. At 11, Ciaran was the only child in the group, and although the river guides employed by O.A.R.S. impressed me with their training and skill, the expedition promised to be just rigorous enough to invoke my primordial parental fears.

Through Rapids daunting enough that most of the adults never left the relative safety of the paddleboats, my intrepid boy progressed from large raft to small paddleboat to two-person kayak. Unfailingly eager and with energy to burn, he-of course-soon wanted more and pressed to pilot a one-man kayak through the rocks and rapids. Hoping both of us would live to not regret it, I assented. On a raft a hundred yards in front of him, I could only watch as, sure enough, he immediately toppled into the water. Unaware that I was looking on, he gamely swam back to the kayak, righted it, and climbed back in to challenge the river solo for several more hours.

When we finally made camp, Ciaran got kudos from our fellow rafters, but they also lauded me. How brave I was, they told me, to watch so confidently when he went into the water! I was pleased and proud, but not yet able to articulate what the river and the sea before it had taught me: As a parent, the best and maybe the only way I can hold on to my sons' childhood is to learn how to let go, because it's not about me.