When I first told my son Calvin we’d be venturing forth on Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Rogue River with a rafting operation, he had only one question: “Will there be a lot of rules?” Unlike many OARS clients arriving at the river with limited outdoors experience, Calvin is an Oregonian through and through, backpacking from the time he was two, swimming, fishing, and rafting along the Rogue since before he started school. ‘Selling’ him on a Rogue River rafting trip wasn’t a problem; selling him on a guided trip was another story.
So when, the evening before departure, our Lead Guide Laurie asked our assembled group of 11 whether anyone had concerns prior to our 5-day trip, I was unsurprised to see Calvin’s hand shoot up. He’d narrowed down his concerns to three: would he be allowed to paddle an inflatable ‘ducky’ through Class IV Mule Creek Canyon? How about through the Rainie Falls fish ladder? And this ‘coffee pot’ thing he’d heard of?
Undaunted by whitewater, bears, or even the notorious ‘Groover,’ Calvin had but one nemesis: his age. Just days shy of his 12th birthday, he lived in fear he’d be kept back from experiencing the full challenges of the Rogue. Knowing how much the chance to be his own captain meant to him, I held my breath awaiting Laurie’s answer. Calvin crossed his fingers and toes.
A consummate pro, Laurie offered the diplomatic answer of ‘we’ll see’, and Calvin began his Rogue trip nervous for all the ‘wrong’ reasons…would the trip be too tame? Boring, even? I worried right along with him. Well-versed in how tour operations typically work, I knew that as much as our guides wanted to show us a good time, group safety had to come first. Rules, however much Calvin lamented them, must be followed. I resigned myself to an enjoyable, but carefully controlled, time on the river.
And then something amazing happened. That promise of ‘we’ll see’ actually came true. As we approached our first Class IV rapid, Rainie Falls, Laurie gave a nod in Calvin’s direction. “Which ducky are you taking through the fish ladder?” she asked, and Calvin’s face lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Are you sure he’s ready?” I asked, ignoring the lethal look he shot me. He was, after all, only 11 and 360 days.
Laurie’s answer: “Absolutely.”
Turns out, Laurie had been watching Calvin’s rafting abilities all that first morning, sizing up Calvin’s confidence on the water and rafting abilities with an adeptness (and swiftness) that astounded me. He may have been surprised as well, but wasted no time hopping into his ducky faster than a silver-backed trout slips into the river shadows. I could practically read his mind: he’d take his place amid the adults, daring to ducky the falls before anyone could change their mind.
After a successful navigation of the falls’ ladder, Calvin spent the next four-and-a half days blissfully at the helm of his own ducky. Every time the river guides assembled the ‘adult ducky rafters…plus Calvin,’ he beamed ear-to-ear. It was adventure-vacation nirvana for Calvin, all because Laurie judged him by his abilities instead of solely by his age.
This distinction made his OARS trip. Ask Calvin what he loved most about our Rogue River rafting adventure and he will hold up two fingers: “Number one, the guides. And number two, the rapids. In that order, because the guides taught me how to raft them.”
Calvin’s whitewater empowerment made my trip as well. What could have been just another tour experience with yet another overly cautious operation (a.k.a. ‘there’s so many rules, it’s no fun anymore’) became an outdoor adventure with the ability to thrill even a kid completely comfortable in the mountains.
Calvin hung on every word of our guides Laurie, Noah, Alyssa, and Jenae as they taught him about currents, eddies, rafting technique, and the best jumping rocks. He took a turn or two at the helm of a heavy oar boat to experience the grueling task of rowing, asked questions about the guides’ summers on the water, and learned a few camping tricks to use on our own adventures. What this taught me: OARS will meet the needs of all their rafters…not just the novices or the casual vacationers.
Sometime on Day 3, Calvin came to me with yet another question. “How old do you have to be to get a job, Mom?” Not loving the reminder of work, I answered him without much thought. “Sixteen or so, I guess,” I told him, busy scanning the trees along the river shore for bald eagle nests.
Beside me, Calvin started counting. “Ok, then I can become a river guide in just over four years.”
I turned to look at his smiling face, lit up by the setting summer sun. “You want to work as a guide someday?”
He nodded, as though this were the most natural idea in the world. Maybe it was. “Alyssa says she’ll recommend me to the day tour company she started out with. She’s been guiding on the river since high school, you know.”
I hadn’t known, but then again, I hadn’t been grilling our guides about the river rafting lifestyle quite like Calvin had been. A few days before, I may have scoffed at the idea of Calvin, still in grade school, interested in a job. After less than a week with our OARS team however, I wasn’t so cynical. Every time I watched Calvin listen carefully during a scouting session before navigating a Class III or Class IV, I caught a glimpse of the young adult to come instead of the child I knew.
Of course, even serious guides are fun-loving at heart. Watching Calvin in camp, I was happy to see the kid return with ease. The rapport Calvin enjoyed with our guides on the water carried over on the shore. Around our evening campfire, he sat—literally—on the edge of his camp chair, drinking in every word of guide Alyssa’s stories, guessing at guide Jenae’s riddles, and singing along with guide Noah’s guitar.
During the daytime, he anticipated our rock jumping and creek hiking stops with kid-like excitement, and joined the other youth for endless rounds of Uno and campfire games each evening. Somehow, the guides matched him for energy, joining him for games of kickball, tag at the camp, or 4th of July skits.
While his hours battling the whitewater reigned, no singular moment could have given Calvin the sense of freedom and accomplishment that crowned his rafting experience, and no isolated activity or itinerary stop could have placed the permanent smile on his face. A week’s worth was required. And a week’s worth is what he got. Whenever I asked, “What’s been your favorite moment so far?” he’d reply, “Right now.”
Not bad from a kid who began his trip afraid of being held back.