Braving the Rapids: A Trip Down the Lower Salmon With My Daughter

I was my daughter’s hero when she was small. She wanted to be with me all of the time. When she looked at me, her eyes lit up with adoration—and I ate it up. There’s nothing quite like seeing the best of yourself through your toddler, preschooler—and eventually—grade schooler’s eyes.

Now 16-years-old, I have spent most of the last three years navigating my kid’s shifting emotions and feelings about me: and they aren’t all good. In fact, I would say that most days she can barely stand me. She rolls her eyes when I initiate conversations at the table, and if looks could kill, I would be dead a million times over for every time I’ve told her that the makeup she painstakingly applies each morning just hides her natural beauty. She insists that I just don’t understand what life is like for teenage girls these days.

Maybe I don’t.

Braving the Rapids: A Lower Salmon River Trip With My Daughter

When I signed on to take my daughter on a whitewater rafting adventure down Idaho’s Lower Salmon River, I knew I was taking a big chance. Four days on the water without access to the digital world or creature comforts would either be a blast or turn us against each other completely.

The first leg of our adventure began with the drive from Portland to Lewiston, Idaho. The trek took approximately six hours, and though we didn’t know it yet, was the perfect prep for the rest of the trip. With temps soaring into the 90s, and a car with a broken air conditioner, we faced our first challenge.

The drive was beautiful, but tempers flared as sweat broke. A good audiobook and fast food got us to the Red Lion where we were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful accommodations and gracious service.

A couple of hours after our arrival, we met with our trip guides and co-travelers for a quick rundown on what to expect. Two women greeted us, one of whom was the lead guide. Our co-travelers included families with kids ranging in age from 12 years to 17. Half were girls and half were boys—and the kids made up about half of the total crew. My daughter, who is somewhat of an introvert, was clearly skeptical. Socializing hadn’t been on her agenda.

The next morning after packing our gear bags, we loaded into vans and headed to our put-in point where our rafts and guides—five women and two men—were waiting for us. A guide named Elise trained us on whitewater safety, and once we knew the rules and how to handle an unexpected topple into the rapids, we were ready to hit the river.

Braving the Rapids: A Lower Salmon River Trip With My Daughter

Along with large oar rafts that carried both gear and people, there was one paddle raft that a guide and guests would man, a beautiful dory, and two inflatable kayaks for the brave. My daughter and I chose to start our adventure on one of the oar rafts—the biggest and most stable option. We weren’t on the water long before we hit our first rapid. We were sitting in the back of the boat when the front rose and water splashed up and over us. Though we had both been on whitewater rafting trips in the past, this was by far the biggest rapid we had experienced.

We both audibly gasped, and for just a second, our eyes met. With a giant smile reaching from cheek to cheek, my girl’s eyes lit up with that joy-filled look I hadn’t seen in what felt like an entire lifetime. That’s when I knew taking her on the trip was the right choice.

Around noon we stopped for lunch, and though we were well taken care of, it was clear that the next couple of days were going to be fun but physically demanding. We had to stay cool and hydrated, avoid too much sun exposure, and in the evening setting up our camp spot would take some amount of effort. While I was ready for it, I wasn’t sure how my teen would do.

The evenings were the best. After rowing all day, somehow the guides managed to set up camp, which included a cooking and dining area, bathroom area, and options for entertainment. The first night, my daughter was exhausted so I set up the tent on my own. I joined the adults for a drink and swimming—she took a nap while the other kids played games.

The meals were fantastic, and though my daughter kept to herself for most of the evening, we drifted off listening to our audiobook under the stars.

The second day, we got brave and hopped in the paddle raft. We spent the entire day paddling and navigating rapids with Elise as our captain. My daughter was paired with another young girl around her age and they bonded immediately. Elise, a fun but smart and commanding guide trained them and praised them, and I could see my kid start to sit a little bit taller and try a little bit harder. At one point two teen boys hopped on the boat. Elise put the girls in the lead position at the front while she trained up the boys. Then she told the kids she’d watch to see who she wanted in the lead for the big rapids ahead.

The boys, being silly, ended up falling off the boat and missing some commands so the girls got the honor of steering us through the mother of all rapids. My head swelled with pride and heart with happiness as I watched my child.

Braving the Rapids: A Lower Salmon River Trip With My Daughter

For the rest of the trip, my daughter—tentatively at first—joined the other kids as they played volleyball and spike ball. She chatted with the other girls and we even formed a girl-boat. To my surprise, on our last night, my daughter stayed out with the other kids instead of heading to the tent with me as a guide named Sarah Mallory led them in a game after dark.

When she finally joined me I was sleeping. She hugged me and we shared loving words like we haven’t since those precious early days when I was still the best.

On the last day, my daughter unexpectedly jumped in an inflatable kayak. As I watched her navigate the rapids on her own, I realized for the first time, what was really happening: her life was becoming her own. She wanted to hold the oars, read what lay ahead and succeed or fail on her own terms. My reluctance to not only let her steer but step out of the boat altogether, was keeping us apart.

As my raft turned a corner I lost sight of her in the rapids behind the boat. My stomach clenched with fear, but I let go. She did fall out of her kayak, and all alone in the water without me, she got herself back in and caught up with everyone on shore.

I signed up for this adventure with my daughter because I hoped it would bring us closer. But what really happened is that it gave both of us a chance to grow up and become our own women: me, a mother ready to let her daughter stand on her own; and her, a strong young woman who is ready and capable of taking the lead and navigating the rapids that lie ahead.