Exploring Wild Rivers with my Children
A parent’s first hand experience to family river adventures.
Big smiles, curious eyes, warm hugs, constant chatter mixed with giggles – I used to be my kids’ hero when they were young. They wanted to be with me all the time. From grocery shopping and hiking our local trails to baking chocolate chip cookies and gathering around the dinner table, they looked up to me with their full attention. There’s no other feeling like being adored by my children, but I knew it wouldn’t last long.
Now 21, 17 and 16-years-old, I have spent most of the last decade on a pilgrimage with my kids’ ever-changing emotions and feelings about life. I think most days, we get along well. In fact, I would say that we have a respectful relationship with each other. Yes, he hesitates when I give him a hug in front of his peers, she rolls her eyes when I give my two cents of wisdom, and he is more like a lousy roommate who doesn’t clean up after himself. And yes, sometimes I get looks-that-can-kill from all three because they think I just don’t understand what it’s like to be a teenager these days.
I agree. I don’t!
Although I’ve tried, I can’t imagine with all the novel distractions of modernity how my teenage self would manage it all. Knowing what I now know, it wouldn’t have been good. Thankfully because of my painful experiences, I want to help my children better navigate the complexities and challenges of teenagehood.
Days in the wilderness, or on the water, without access to the digital world or the creature comforts of modern life, were introduced at a young age for my kids as it was for myself. Some of my most treasured memories are of my childhood summers spent primitive camping in the high-elevations of the Sierras. I didn’t appreciate it then as much then as I do now, the wondrous opportunities and experiences that helped shape who I am today. Despite some kicking and screaming – mostly coming from myself – I wanted to provide my children with the same opportunity to become themselves with the help of nature.
Thankfully living in the Rocky Mountains has provided us with many memorable outdoor experiences. But it was the introduction to multi-night river running with my girlfriends that set the line.
I was hooked! And, for the most part, so were my kids!
A Memorable Family River Adventure
One of my most memorable trips, with my kids, took place on an early Fall-like weekend in September on the Blackfoot River, Montana. My girlfriend wanted to overnight camp on a multi-day river float down the Recreational Corridor. Camping is not allowed in the Corridor without a special permit that allows you to stay at a specific site. Oh, and, the Float-in camps only allow for up to 10 people. With three adult-females, who each brought in-tow three children ranging in age from 12 years old and under, we were over the limit. My girlfriend, who has a somewhat Alice-in-Wonderland view of life, didn’t think we needed a permit since it was the weekend after Labor Day Weekend.
Flows on the Blackfoot, at this time, were barely floatable in a 14-foot weighted down fully outfitted oar raft. And, due to there only being us three adult ladies, choosing a Put-in and Take-out that didn’t require a winch or the help from more muscular help, limited us. There we were diligently loading two rafts with coolers, dry boxes and bags of gear and food for the whole lot of us while the gaggle of kids, albeit wearing their PFDs, entertained themselves by playing along the river. Thankfully, the flat-grade gravel Put-in was unusually quiet on that partly cloudy Saturday in September. As we continued to load our rafts and air up two inflatable kayaks, another raft with a single dude pulled in.
“Looks like you’re going camping,” he stated; or was he asking. “Yes, we are!”, my girlfriend yelled out as she was slinging dry bags into the raft.
Not wearing my glasses, I couldn’t tell that the noticeable pin on the front of his PFD was a Montana Fish and Wildlife Ranger badge.
We kept loading.
“Where do you plan on camping?”, he asked.
“Oh, we’re not sure yet. It depends on how far we get down river,” she cautiously responded.
“Well, you can’t,” he said. “Because I’m here.”
We kept loading as he explained “The Rules of the Corridor.”
At some point the Ranger must have taken pity on us. He called some landowners to work out a deal. Little did we know until recently that this place we were allowed to camp that night would become one of the eight permit only Float-in campsites. The days were already getting noticeably shorter in daylight. Not yet deciding how we were going to run our shuttle, as we typically run our own, the Ranger suggested a company to use. It was late. With money in the visor and keys in the gas cap, after talking with the Shuttle company, we were set to launch.
The clouds parted and the sun warmed us as the slow moving current floated us south. Kids were laughing as they splashed their paddles into the water piloting their crafts downriver as they played pinball in the boulder-littered water. We ate a quick late lunch just before the Bear Creek Rapids on an amazing gravel bar we wished we could have camped at as it is on BLM Public Land. But, according to The Corridor Rules, we were not allowed. Now that area is also a permit only Float-in Campsite.
Not yet well marked, the kind and generous elderly landowners tied flagging ribbon to the willows to help us not miss our home for the night. The area we were allowed to camp is hidden by willows on river left just after the confluence of the Clearwater River. The usual line through this section of river is right of center because of the additional water. This couple, who graciously allowed us to camp on their land, were so amazed that we were taking our children on such an adventure, that they eagerly waited for us to pass by so they could tell us about the ribbon.
We found it!
After rowing all day, somehow we manage to set up camp, which includes a cooking and dining area, a bathroom area, and our sleeping areas. The campsite was small so it was a cozy fit. Late-afternoon and evenings at camp are always the best. It was time to celebrate! Tantalizing cocktails in fancy cups as we three ladies sat in the rafts, now tied to the sand stakes, with drinks in hand we relaxed as the kids continued to play in the river.
Our meals are always fantastic, even on the river. Our typical meals on the river are some take on Mexican. My girlfriend brought her iPad and our campsite had the perfect naturally built amphitheater for a spectacular showing of Disney’s Brave. This allowed us three ladies to enjoy another cocktail down by the river. After our nighttime entertainment it was off to bed.
When I awoke to a cloudy morning, I thought to myself, “Yep, the weather report was correct. It’s gonna be a wet weekend.” Soon after breakfast it started to rain. We quickly packed up camp and loaded our rafts as the only way out was to continue downriver. Thankfully, it was light rain and the kids didn’t seem to mind as they continued to be full of laughter and big smiles through the Clearwater rapids.
And then….the sunshine appeared!
We continued our journey warmed by rays of goodness. I thought to myself, “Well…it’s turning out better than I expected.” River adventures with my girlfriend are ALWAYS that – an adventure!
I like being the sweeper raft. My girlfriend was leading as we sandwiched the kids on kayaks between us when we approached Roundup Rapids. I had never run this rapid before. It’s a long flat section of water before the rapid. With the low flows I could see, as we approached, that the line was river left. For some reason, she was river-right. Although she had the only other adult with her, she also had the baby and two toddlers. I was left to manage the other children including the two in kayaks, one of whom was a first time paddler. I decided to pull to shore to watch her work through her line.
My girlfriend got stuck!
Her Pinball-Wizard-Skills were not enough to keep her from landing on a sleeper rock that held her in place. I watched her and my other girlfriend work that raft trying to free themselves. I couldn’t help. If I rafted over then I too would become stuck. Not something I wanted to do with a boat full of kids while also managing two Duckies. After what seemed like forever, the raft was free, but not in the correct position to work through the rapid. My daughter, who was 6, lost a tooth during that fiasco. And the two boys who were in the inflatable kayaks, one being my son – the eldest and most experienced kayaker of the group of kids – successfully led the novice kayaker through Roundup Rapid without incident. They waited in the big eddy below the rapid across from the Highway 200 Take-out.
We rallied in the big eddy after we all successfully cleared the rapid, celebrating in the sunshine. By this time it was getting really warm, most likely from the adrenaline from the whole ordeal. But, we couldn’t take-out at Highway 200. Our vehicle was, supposedly, 8 more miles downriver at Corrick’s. If we only knew at that time that the shuttle company didn’t run our shuttle!?! But we didn’t, so we continued on thus abandoning our relatively “easy” chance to hitchhike back to the Put-in. That’s when our adventure really went South!
‘Thunder rolls and the lightnin’ strikes another love grows cold on a sleepless night. As the storm blows on, out of control, deep in [MY] heart the thunder rolls.’
That famous Garth Brooks song was stuck in my head as the novice kayaker continued to get stuck on every boulder in the river. The rain was coming down hard and the lightning seemed to be right over us. When we finally reached the Take-out we looked like drowned cats. It was getting dark quickly, it was still raining, the campground was empty and our vehicle was nowhere to be found. And, there was no cell service!
We quickly set up a tent for the kids, gave them what little food was left, and let them watch the iPad movie while we devised a plan. As my girlfriend and I decided to hike the long dirt road out to the Highway while leaving our Alice-in-Wonderland girlfriend to manage the kids, an archery hunter came driving down the road. We talked with him explaining our situation, but he continued on in search of his elusive deer. So we continued on in the opposite direction hoping to get cell service as we walked closer to the Highway. It wasn’t too long before the hunter pulled up behind us in his little ol’ Ford Ranger single cab pickup. I sat on my girlfriend’s lap as he proceeded to drive us to the Take-out. Thankfully he lived in the town further past where our vehicles happened to be. It was a sketchy ride but at least it was a ride 20 miles back to our only way home.
Did we forget to leave the keys?
Nope! The keys were in the gas cap and the cash was still in the visor. We got hung out to dry! Scratch that…we were too wet. After loading our rafts and gear, and piling sleepy cold children into the vehicles, we safely arrived back home sometime just after midnight. The kids had school that day. Although they were late to class, I made my kids go as I had to go to work.
Fast forward a decade…
We love Family River Adventures
I am amazed. My kids still like to adventure on the river with me! We’ve had many more amazing adventurous river trips, including more trips with my Alice-in-Wonderland girlfriend. I wonder if what my children love about river running is both the adventure AND the reality that my parental attention is never divided by work or technology.
Although my eldest son’s passion in the outdoors revolves around hunting, he still joins me on a float or two every summer. My cautiously reserved daughter decided last year that she wants to be a river guide! And my youngest son, who is incredibly athletic, learned how to hardshell kayak, with a skirt!
Although I have a love-hate relationship with social media, my mom saw an ad on Facebook for the Salmon River Adventure Company and shared it with me. Immediately upon seeing it, I loved their logo. And after reviewing their website, I was impressed. My daughter signed up to attend SRAC’s Learn to Row and Rig Camp. Upon talking with the owner about her desire to become a whitewater guide, she was offered an opportunity to apply for an Internship with the Salmon River Adventure Company. She got it! And, she had the most amazing summer ever. In fact, she’s moving to Salmon, Idaho this summer after she turns 18 in May. When she returned at the end of last season, she told me Helena was no longer “home” – Home IS the Salmon River.
While helping Salmon River Adventure Company at last summer’s Teen Kayak Camp as a cook, my youngest learned to hardshell kayak in whitewater. He loves it! And, thanks to the exceptional coaching by the SRAC staff, he picked it up quickly. Later that summer, we were blessed with the opportunity to join the Hilleke Family for an adventure on the Main Salmon River where my son paddle the entire river in a kayak! After, we journeyed on other trips including the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork River where he continued to grow in his kayaking abilities despite his momma’s desire to continue to raft.
I am so proud that my children now inspire others. With their love of the outdoors, my eldest guides others hunting, my daughter guides others on the river, and my youngest is often requested by younger children for playdates. Their confidence in their ability wherever they are, whether it is out on the water or communicating with other adults, amazes me and those around them. Growing up on the river and spending most of their time outside set them up for success individual to their own lifestyles.
As my children embark into young adulthood, he can already easily out-paddle me in a kayak, and she can out row me in the Big Rapids. I strongly believe we need to be in nature to have true connection with our world and others. I hope we can keep up our family river running tradition for many years and generations to come.
Would you like to create family tradition of an annual river adventure?
As owners of the Salmon River Adventure Company and parents of exceptional outdoor and river running children, I trust the Hilleke Family (Tommy, Polly and their 4 sons) to inspire and coach other parents and children to become river runners for life. SRAC’s Family Camps – Kayak or Whitewater – offer you and your children an adventure like no other! When you choose Family Camp, I believe you will experience true connection with nature and each other that will last a lifetime.
To steep yourself in the world of river running, book your Family Kayak Camp or Family Whitewater Camp now!
For a limited time only, get your 10% discount on Family Camp. At check out, just use the code: whitewater2023. Offer ends at midnight on February 28th, 2023.
Would you like to create family tradition of an annual river adventure?
Let Salmon River Adventure Company be your guide to your memorable family river adventure tradition.