Family Rafting Traditions and Toxic Newts on the Rogue River

4 Min. Read
Family rafting trip on Oregon's Rogue River

In the place I now call home, I can see snow-capped peaks nearly anywhere I look in the mountains of Colorado. Yet, having grown up in a small Arizona town just a few miles away from the Mexican border, I’ll always consider myself a desert rat at heart.

Water there is a revered scarcity, and as a kid, I would rally all my bravery and rebellion to get just close enough to the rushing arroyos during the monsoon season and fling a little stick in the wash and watch it get swept away. Recreating on rivers was not on my radar, much less an aspiration.

An excited paddler on a Rogue River rafting trip in Oregon

But fast forward a few decades, adding marriage and motherhood to the mix, and a botched spring break plan, and I found myself signing up for a last-minute OARS trip down the San Juan River with my husband and 6-year-old daughter, Rose. A river trip has since become an annual event in the five years that have followed, and Rose has been making up for my lost time in arid lands by becoming the family river rat I never dreamed of spawning.

To stay just enough in my comfort zone, we’ve been doing rafting trips in desert environments; I feel perfectly at ease in the presence of petroglyphs and lizards. But to celebrate the end of elementary school, we decided to venture out a bit further to celebrate her 11th birthday weekend with a three-day Rogue River rafting trip in Oregon, one of the original Wild and Scenic Rivers designated in 1968. And wow, suddenly I understood, “wild and scenic!” I was delighted to find myself entirely out of my element, albeit a bit soggy. The Dr. Seussian flora and fauna in the lush environment had me charmed and befuddled for days, constantly haranguing our patient guides with our questions, as we had no cell phone service to query up all of our critter questions.

I wonder if what my daughter loves about rafting is both the adventure AND the reality that our parental attention is never divided by work or technology, since the world could end on a river trip, and we’d be none the wiser paddling along in our aquatic utopia.

A river guide navigates an OARS raft through a rocky canyon on the Rogue River

Imagine my delight, when on the last, always bittersweet, night of the trip, we set-up in a campsite where there were pools teeming with orange-ish newts!

Recalling the ever-elusive, and entirely alien-looking salamanders of Colorado, slippery and innocuous—and wanting to show off my expert lizard-catching skills honed by my childhood in the Sonoran Desert—I reached down and scooped one up. Cupping it in my hands, I encouraged my husband (he declined) to pet its unexpectedly rough skin before gently returning it to the pool.

My daughter bounded over a few minutes later to tell me that she had also found some sort of water lizard over yonder and caught it. Overhearing our animal adventures, our guide rushed over in horror and let us know that they were toxic. I asked her if she meant that they had salmonella, while wandering over to the soap to scrub our hands. She clarified, yes, that, but also toxic, and that I probably need not worry too much if we sang “Happy Birthday” a few times to make sure we got our hands really clean. We sang our hearts out; we scrubbed; we were unscathed.

A young girl holds a newt she found on a family rafting trip

We emerged from the river the next afternoon through a veil of fog. Sometime between shuttles and sushi, I Googled the newts, and lo and behold, the rough-skinned newt of Oregon is indeed quite toxic, though fortunately, only if ingested (definitely wasn’t on the menu).

Upon hearing my list of newt facts, my husband responded with, “You two are exactly like our bad tourists with the elk selfies . . .” And, he’s right! Why would we touch any animal, much less one we couldn’t even name? We were ‘bad’ tourists, which I’ve fondly reflected on every time I see visitors acting less than ideally in my own community. I remind myself to have a little patience and be gentler when offering advice about how to be good stewards of the places and animals that I know and love.

As Rose embarks into middle school, I hope we can keep up our family rafting tradition for many years to come, though she can already easily out-paddle me in a kayak. Admittedly, I’ve set a low bar since I sometimes use my arms more for digging in the ice chests for the perfect cold one at the end of a day of rafting than I do putting in the paddle strokes; we’ve all found our paths to relaxation on the river. I remind her that I’ve come a long way from swimming in cattle tanks on the border, and someday I’ll remind her that she’s come a long way from never having seen a newt.

Photos: Logan Bockrath, Adam Edwards, Estee Rivera Murdock

Estee Rivera Murdock

Estee Rivera Murdock, is the executive director at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. Born and raised in southern Arizona, Estee previously worked for the National Park Service for nearly a decade. She currently resides with her husband and daughter in Estes Park, CO.

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