Life is short and our time as parents, even shorter. It wasn’t long after my boys (now 21 and 23) learned to walk that I began thinking about taking them down rivers.
Why rivers, you might ask? Growing up with young, outdoorsy parents in the 1970s meant shared adventures were a key ritual in our family. Annual hiking, river and road trips not only turned my sister and me into lifelong travelers, they drew us all closer with bonds that only the best family vacations create. Naturally, once my own sons were old enough I hoped they could share some of the same peak experiences.
Rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon, one of America’s archetypal wilderness rivers, was at the top of my family vacations bucket list. My parents had taken us down the Middle Fork, and the journey, which involves floating through the largest chunk of contiguous wilderness in the Lower 48, still topped my Greatest Hits list of family trips ever. The other? The Grand Canyon. Again, my parents took my sister and me down the Colorado River in the 1970s, and the experience made such a huge impression, I dreamed of one day bringing my own family. To my mind, saving up for these trips was a financial goal, sort of like saving for college.
The year our boys turned 14 and 16, we signed up for the Middle Fork. As the trip neared, it hit me: why not have the boys’ grandparents come too? It would be 30 years since they’d taken my sister and me down the river when I was 15. Mom, our family’s original camper, had to decline, but my dad, then 69, jumped at the chance and met us in Stanley, Idaho.
There were a few life lessons I suspected my boys might absorb on the river. First was the luxury of simplicity: while most of us had packed a little more than Dad’s carry-on, we didn’t need much. Next was the luxury of isolation: no cell phones, no emails, no texts, no television, no video games, no schedules. In short, bliss!
When we arrived at our first night’s camp, Dad rolled out his tarp, anchored the corners with rocks, and casually strolled off to get a beer. “Don’t you think Grandpa Bart looks a little like Clint Eastwood?” my 16-year-old said, setting his tarp the same way. I had to smile. They were already getting the third and most important lesson: how to be cool when everything else is stripped away. Or simply, how to just be.
A good river trip, it turns out, is really more about the people than the rapids. Mark, our head guide, explained our game plan for the week: Wake each day for a leisurely breakfast, pack up and float, stop for a picnic lunch, hit some more rapids, make camp in time to hike and if they were biting, fish. The days eased by as we slipped into river time, the ultimate peace of mind. You know you’ve crossed over when you wake up to the smell of camp coffee and don’t have anywhere else to be but in a raft, heading downstream. It’s delicious.
Now that my boys are young men, I am incredibly grateful we managed to make those trips happen. As in my own family, the shared adventures—even the misadventures—have become the stuff of myth now. They are the stories we tell. The stories other families ask us to tell. Looking back, those are the memories that define those years for my husband and me—the year we did the Middle Fork. The year we did the Grand Canyon. Because they are shared memories, they grow stronger over time.
Here are a few things my boys learned that first week on the river:
How to tell a story.
How to play an original song on acoustic guitar for a group.
How to open a bottle of wine on a tree.
How to string a fly rod.
How to paddle a rubber ducky.
How to flip a rubber ducky.
How to make bacon for 20 people in a pot (handy trick anywhere).
By day five, drifting through Impassable Canyon, the most dramatic landscape of the week, we were all—ages 14 to 69—changed somehow. I remember it exactly, our three generations floating awestruck between walls of sheer granite and metamorphic rock that rise up thousands of feet, framing the river. Everything was silent except for the rush of the current, the wind in the pines, the occasional call of a canyon wren.
The last day, as we floated toward the take-out, we were all a little sad to be leaving.
How to remedy that? “Hey, Dad, how about meeting us to raft the Grand Canyon summer after next?” I suggested.
“You know I’d meet you two and the boys in a heartbeat,” my dad said, grinning.
And because he did, and the Colorado River is longer, we have an even more epic tale. It gets better each time we tell it, but that’s another story.