Gravett, Amron. “Raising River Rats.” Colorado Country Life, June 2014. cover, 16-19. Photographs by Monica Reichmuth.
While observing nature from the front of a blue raft in the wild remoteness of northwestern Colorado, it occurs to me that this is what my son has come to know as summer vacation. He was inducted into the River Rat Clan before his second birthday, floating a wide, slow stretch of the Colorado River with his parents and grandpa. The following summer he floated an eight-day trip with a group of 20 boaters, including his other grandpa.
River running can be the most extraordinary experiential learning experience for children. After three summers, 30 river days and 11 successful trips around the Four Corners, I am no longer a novice and have learned how to adapt our family adventures for everyone’s safety and enjoyment.
Last summer, we floated the lower stretch of the Green River through the Desolation and Gray canyons. Our trip had superb wildlife, shady beach camps and day hikes that made for a memorable voyage with my father, husband and son. This summer, we ran the upper stretch beginning at the Gates of Lodore.
This region contains prehistoric evidence that arouses any budding paleontologist. It has a storied cultural history to titillate any history buff, including Wild West chases by Butch Cassidy running from the law among the canyons. It has a unicorn quality to it: rarely seen, difficult to imagine.
We lucked out and won a permit through the tight lottery system and started canvassing people and setting plans during the dead of winter. We assembled a crew of eight adults and five kids (ages 4-10), three rafts, two “duckies” (which seat one to two people) and a stand-up paddleboard.
When the time came, our faithful crew drove from coastal California and flew from the Midwest to the put-in campsites beneath the looming Gates of Lodore in remote Dinosaur National Monument.
At the outset of his journey along a similar route in 1869, John Wesley Powell noted, “This morning we are ready to enter the mysterious cañon and start with some anxiety.” Indeed, his anxiety was manifest at the Disaster Falls rapid when his group’s boat, the No Name, split on a rock tossing three men and a third of their supplies including barometers, downstream. In 1825, Disaster Falls capsized Gen. William H. Ashley’s boat. We hoped to avoid the same fate, yet our anxiety rivaled these men of history. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s get in the water first.
The put-in of any river trip is an equally exciting and drudging time. The adults loaded gear for hours while the children enjoyed the cool, wet sand along the shoreline. The trip leader, stewing in anxiety, fell back on his military training and medical provider skills while preparing, stocking and organizing. The ranger checked the required stash and lined the children up in a row to swear them in. “Repeat after me: I will observe wildlife from a distance, listen to the adults, carry my trash out, pee in the river and have a blast!”
We had a gentle but auspicious beginning. Within the first mile, we saw a juvenile black bear lapping up water along the edge while momma bear watched over us from across the river’s edge. We enjoyed slow, rolling water and wide beaches for breaks.
Setting up camp was uneventful. Everyone divided the tasks of gear, tents, kids and cooking in a natural and egalitarian way. Although the fire ban restricted us from having a campfire, we gathered around the coals cooking carne asada wearing sandy clothes and smiles. The kids were well on their way to becoming true river rats. As the sun fell behind the walls, we relaxed to the sounds of the rushing river vibrating off the canyon walls.
The river proved surprisingly uneventful even with class II and III rapids. Developing that river confidence early that second day was an important element to everyone enjoying themselves for the rest of the trip. The children learned how to read the river, where to look for bighorn sheep and petroglyphs, how to paddle duckies and how to lie still on the bow of the paddleboard through light ripples.
Most of the group was not familiar with the July afternoon monsoons but were soon to experience their full wrath. At day’s end, not 20 minutes after we reached the campsite, the children heard thunder behind the high walls. They saw the flashes of light and the worry in our faces. We quickly unloaded the gear and set up tents in loose sand. The winds picked up, and the adults raced down the beach catching rolling tents and chairs. A runaway ducky headed upstream with a frantic paddler fast on its tail.
The winds were fierce enough to pull out the raft stake and untether all the boats. Thankfully, it moved slow enough for us to catch them before the floating barge reached deep water. Meanwhile, back on land two of the kids were curled up on the sand wrapped tightly in tarps to keep them from blowing away. We herded the kids into one tent and switched off holding it down while rescuing the other little ones from all corners of the campsite. They were scared and frantic but also slightly exhilarated at the adventure of it all. Finally, the winds died down and we came together to tell stories, cook dinner and find comfort in the calm after the storm.
The third day’s stretch through the canyon held many challenges for adults and kids alike. Some of the rapids required scouting and encouraged the little ones and mothers to walk the river’s edge rather than chance the float. My father endured a humbling, rapid tumble that separated him from his “fits like a glove” ducky. Alongside this rapid, people were scattered on the shoreline with rescue throw bags at the ready. He was safely pulled to the beach having only lost his shoes, a moment’s breath and a bit of his confidence.
On another rapid, our raft lost the main channel and wound up stranded against an island with fierce currents pushing us farther and farther from a safe passage. We quickly unloaded the little ones and sent them to the lower end of the island over slippery rocks with one adult, and two of us managed to pull the thousand-pound raft against the raging current to meet them there. The courage and strength of our group tested yet again.
The monsoons were not done with us yet. We made it to camp with nary a moment’s pause before the dark sky glowered. We threw gear under low trees and fashioned sleeping pads into a respectable kid bunker. With tarp overhead, they waited out this storm giggling. They were already learning how to navigate this wilderness with confidence.
During all of our river trips, we plan a dress-up night for the last night of the trip. It’s a way to celebrate the success of the trip and party under the stars. The kids never need an excuse to dress up, but it’s always interesting to see how flamboyant the adults will get. We ended up with a team of lucha libres wrestlers, a hippie, a super heroine and even Julius Caesar came out that night along the banks of the Green River.
The other planned event of the evening was the induction ceremony. As dusk came, the adults lined up along the riverbank with glow sticks in hand. In a procession of costumes and with anticipation, the children walked down to the river’s edge and received a river nickname and a river rat patch. They became the newest members of our clan. Then, they went on a proper star walk to learn about the constellations under the deep, black night sky. The children were floating on air as they went to bed that night. This was an adventure that would stay with them always.
As morning came, we awoke slowly, feeling sad and excited to begin the last day of our trip. The river allowed us to wander in a daydream state for the first hour through the wide-open flatlands. Approaching Split Mountain the river started to pick up speed and we could see that rapids were upon us.
The kids were now confident with what to expect. You could see the anticipation in their eyes as we hit rapid after rapid with barely time to glance at the map to see what we were approaching next. This is one of the steepest stretches of the Green River dropping 20 feet per mile. It had rapids big enough to be exciting and small enough to feel safe.
We rounded a corner and saw a juvenile bald eagle hop off a cliff on river right, swoop down to the water’s crest, pick up lunch with his talons and soar up to the low cliff on river left. We slowly coasted by watching the fish flopping over his branch while he ripped it apart — immersive education at its finest.
We couldn’t seem to orient ourselves on the map for the last few miles of the winding goosenecks but we knew there was no way to go but down river, so we relaxed and swam alongside the boat on the calm stretches. The striated canyon walls leading up to the Echo Park takeout were spectacular. It was clear that dinosaur country was upon us. Here, the rocky slopes look like the backs of ancient, spiny reptiles. I imagine when Earl Douglass and his fellow paleontologists entered this region they were not surprised to find the eight tail bones of the Apatosaurus, nor the 350-ton fossil quarry now housed within a new building at the visitor’s center of the Dinosaur National Monument. We approached the takeout with sad but satisfied hearts and minds. All of us.
It is so important to share wilderness like this with our children. They bring home stories of conquering wild danger, yes, but they also bring home a stronger sense of our world and why we need to protect it. We are doing our part to cultivate biologists, ecologists, and environmentalists, one child, one trip at a time. We refuse to allow nature deficit disorder to spread within our community. Our children need to experience this. They need us to guide them with confidence and knowledge, but also with an exhibited sense of wonder and curiosity.
My son will indeed learn some things in school, but he will learn how to investigate, explore, understand and ask questions about the natural world from these experiences. On the river he will learn the art of navigation and negotiation. He will succeed in life not because he is a good test taker but because he has developed a curious mind, a confidence in solving problems and a sense of peace and preservation of our world.
Amron Gravett is a freelance indexer and librarian in Durango. Her recent publications include a book titled Chimney Rock National Monument (ISBN 978-1467131612) and A Literary Map of Colorado (ISBN 978-0983671107).