“No, it’s fine. We’re only leaving forty-five minutes later than we planned.”
I huffed back into the passenger seat of our mini-van with extra huff, only to unclip my seatbelt seconds later to turn around and distribute a second breakfast to my three kids who had not wanted the first breakfast I made at 5:30 AM, of course. It was now 6:45. My little sister, Kristen, a PhD candidate who was bravely joining us for our first rafting trip of the season, was in charge of her own snacks. She sipped her coffee, purposefully watching the scenery go by.
As soon as we merged onto I-70 West, I realized I had left the day’s lunch and snacks in the soft-sided cooler fully packed in the fridge. So many bad words.
Meet the DeFrates: I’m Lindsay. Casey (Dad) and I are two thirty-somethings attempting to seamlessly blend our dirtbag-pasts with our river-loving-family present. Our three kids: Hunter (6), Malcolm (3), and Cady (21 months) love to be outside, mostly listen on the river, meltdown occasionally, but noticeably grow with each trip. Casey and I both have hundreds of river trips under our belts as former guides, but they don’t teach you how to handle three toddlers in guide school.
(Left: Hunter age 6; Middle: Malcolm age 3; Right: Cady age 21 months)
We’ve learned a lot since our first kid float in 2014. And we’re 100% still learning—graduation is nowhere in sight—but let me introduce you to your first course in Family Rafting 101.
1. Never scare yourself out of a trip before it starts.
Up until a week before our trip this March, we were sure that this might definitely, maybe be a terrible idea. We felt tired, the weather was shit, and all of our summer gear was still buried under ski boots and crippling seasonal depression. In fact, until I threw the boys’ underwear in a drybag, I wasn’t sure we’d actually go.
I’ve learned to listen to the Me From a Quieter Time. In December, we decided to plan this trip, knowing how difficult the end of winter can be, and how much we need an adventure then. We knew it would give us that healthy dose of river life to keep our spirits up until summer really arrived.
And as I looked around at the gray world on the Western Slope of Colorado, and bitterly lamented that perfectly packed cooler sitting next to the orange juice back home, I couldn’t help but think back at what was being called ‘an historical’ winter season.
Snowstorm after snowstorm with frigid temperatures had pinned me and the kids indoors since before Christmas. In order for us to leave the house at any time during the last three months, it required a sum total of six gloves, six boots, two coats and snowpants, one snowsuit, all applied over warm socks and layers with a side of tantrum. It was the winter we needed and the slopes were rejoicing (and I knew the rivers would be soon), but like every parent of young children during a long winter, by the end I was hanging on by a thread made of coffee and denial.
This trip was happening because the river was calling, and if I didn’t answer it, I was going to lose my damn mind. We knew we could do it because we’ve done it before.
In fact, going on a trip that scares us just a little is the same for family rafting as it is with learning to guide bigger water. Jumping from Class III to IV and then again from IVs to Vs always left me with that ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ taste of bile in the back of my throat. But those times I was (mostly) sure I was ready for the challenge, and I never regretted going for it, even if the first few times were a bit messy.
With kids, it’s the same, although replace the rapid grade with the number of nights spent out of the house.
For example, taking three little kids on a four-night trip last summer down Labyrinth Canyon gave me a benchmark for what we are really capable of, but it would have been impossible without our first few years of muddled family adventures. On that trip we had two kids in diapers, one still taking a bottle, and a five year old who loves all the attention. This meant that my husband and I took turns rowing into a brutal flatwater headwind as a break from managing the kiddos. But was it worth it? Hell yes!
So forgotten lunch aside, we were heading to the river under the first sunshine of the year to spend the weekend with our beautiful, healthy family in one of our favorite places in the world. We had a working vehicle, good enough gear, and maybe enough patience.
2. Remember your partner is your ally. Always.
Casey’s response to the forgotten lunch: “Well, if that’s all we forgot, it’s not that bad. We’ve forgotten worse.” I replied with a snarky comment about his extra long shower that morning. We wouldn’t have been scrambling if he had just jumped in and jumped out.
Showers were scarce and precious in a world with three kids under six, and I felt righteously wronged that Casey squandered one that morning. We were meeting another family at the put-in near Moab, where they had camped the night before, and there was no cell phone reception to tell them we were running almost an hour behind. It was just one more thing after all the other one-more-things which went into packing a three-day trip for the whole family.
“I fell asleep,” said Casey, staring straight ahead as we left Glenwood Springs behind.
I paused to appreciate the exquisite flavor of guilt I was beginning to taste. “You fell asleep in the shower for twenty minutes.”
“Yup. The water got cold and woke me up.”
I sighed. It made sense. We had been packing until midnight-thirty. And before the packing marathon, Casey had worked another ten-hour day on ski patrol at Snowmass. Add to it that the week before, the flu had knocked us all on our asses and we were still feeling drained. In fact, that itchy, grainy feeling which I have learned to identify as extreme parental exhaustion was draining my own euphoria at finally leaving the house.
A slight amount of marital tension was, therefore, to be expected, and fortunately, after twelve years and countless rafting trips together, Casey and I have learned to give each other a little grace and move on. I apologized.
3. Banish the word ‘easy.’
I used to be afraid of taking our family rafting because I couldn’t see how I would ever be able to relax. Unable to recreate those chill moments from our dirtbag years frustrated me. My husband and I bickered over whose turn it was to sit with the other grown-ups because it seemed important that we relax, damnit.
Yet, once we took the word ‘easy’ out of how we measured success, we both began to enjoy ourselves a lot more. Frustration and disappointment come from expecting something that is not realistic. And the reality is that rafting with kids is never easy. An accurate, but rather depressing, rule of thumb is to add an hour to every task for every child under six. Packing/snacking/sleeping/rigging, all of it.
Because it was our first outing this year, both for camping and rafting, we had set very achievable goals. The trip was structured more like a float-in camping trip, with a layover day and a few riffles thrown in on either side for flair.
We would be launching in Castle Valley, Utah, aiming to snag a popular and incredible campsite on the Moab Daily section of the Colorado River. By taking the trip early in the season, we hoped to avoid the usual cutthroat level of competition for this site.
We reached the put-in and greeted our friends who never questioned our tardiness. Leia and her husband Chris, and their daughter had had a chilly night at the campground and were just finishing the last bits of rigging. A special education teacher from the Gunnison School district, former dirtbag paddle guide, international hitchhiker and all-around river badass, Leia was the kind of person you want on a river trip.
“I can’t get over how beautiful it is, so much water in the desert!” she effused, gesturing to the vista.
I looked around to soak it all in, too. Silver streaks seeped down the famed red cliffs of Castle Valley, and the iconic features of Fisher Towers, the Cathedral, the Priest and the Nuns, were all topped with a sugary layer of snow. The La Sals slumbered in the background, still snuggled under a high country winter to remember. The view was stunning in its rarity and deeply cathartic after the brutally dry conditions of the year previous.
By the time we had finished lyricising the scenery, of course, all four of our children had covered themselves in mud.
The mayhem that is rigging confused Cady, making her fussy. So, I wore her in the backpack while rigging. This would actually be her second overnight float (her first being that Labyrinth Canyon trip last summer when she was ten months old), and her fifth camping trip. She loved being outside, but was still mastering walking without snowboots. Fortunately, flat-water rigging is a bit more like piling things in the garage and much less like rigging-to-flip, so it didn’t take long before we were floating on the beautiful silt of the Colorado River.
At that moment, the trip became perhaps the best family float we have ever had.
There was not a soul on the water. No one had even looked at the campsite we coveted. And, expecting more mud, we were wonderfully surprised to beach the boats on sand and a few river rocks. As soon as the sun had fully risen, the air warmed, the sand dried and about eighty joyful toes were freed from their winter confinement.
The goal is not to have an ‘easy’ time. The goal is to enjoy spending time with your family outdoors, teaching them to love the land and the rivers, making lasting memories and helping your children put down roots in the best places in the world. Honestly, it is constant hard work, but it’s just hard work, and the reward pays back 1000 percent.
4. Start young.
There’s an age-old (no pun) question of how young is too young. Or when are my kids old enough to raft. I’m still working on that answer but Hunter, my six-year-old has a comfort level in the outdoors akin to what I had achieved by 23. Watching him move so confidently and independently made this trip feel like a bit of a victory lap for us.
His first river trip at 13 months old had involved three out the four adults getting food poisoning and the mosquitoes had been the only real winners. But we went back again and again, and little by little, we began to see the growth.
On this trip, that layover day may have been the best decision we ever made. Without a set itinerary, the next morning was quite pleasant, allowing everyone to hide in the tent until the sun was fully up, and the thick frost had melted. A relaxed breakfast led into a side hike up the wash. A few potty accidents and some light tantrums occurred but snacks cure-all and we let the green and moist conditions of a world usually scorched in heat distract us from anything negative.
Hunter led the hike for much of the way. His self-confidence in an outdoor adventure setting and even the leadership role he would take with kids at different camps was all we needed to get through another round of outfit changes and midnight bottles for his brother and sister. The younger two were learning even more quickly with him as an example.
For some, it might make more sense to wait until the kids are out of diapers, but the first few trips/seasons will always be a challenge regardless of age. By starting so young, their norm becomes the rhythm of outdoor camping life, and through repetition, we have finally started to find our family norm and work out the balances which are necessary between adult partners.
Because we started so young, we made plenty of mistakes, originally setting unrealistic goals for both ourselves and our children. On this trip, we lowered our standards for what we ‘must do,’ and we completely let go of mandated naps and bedtimes.
(I’m a proponent of releasing the nap.
We never expect our children, their shoes or clothes to stay clean, so we aren’t bothered when they inevitably don’t. My middle child, Malcolm, spent half of the trip sprawling in the soft, fine sand, often rubbing his face against it and plowing it with his forehead. He walked around in socks, covered his shoes in mud, probably brought a pound of sand home in his underwear and pockets, but he started using the groover and mastered sleeping in his mummy bag at three years old.
5. Find your tribe.
Rafting with kids is not the same as the non-stop party barge/adrenaline thrill ride of many adult trips. Our childless friends are always very welcoming, and try to be accommodating, but the whole theme of the trip is different for families with young children. Finding other rafting families to get out on the water with means I have a tribe of adults surrounding me who are walking the same path and have wisdom and experience to offer.
They aren’t afraid to step in and lend a hand or gently correct one of my offspring who may be acting like a bit of a little shit. I’ve had a mom friend of mine feed me cheese sticks wrapped in ham when it became apparent to everyone but me that I had eaten no protein all day. Emergency pee breaks, diaper changes and the need to pick up every other rock in the desert are accepted as the norm and do not require further explanation.
This trip was no different, and I deeply appreciated both laughing and commiserating with Leia and Chris. Other parents just get it. Also, depending on how many kids you have, balancing the adult to child-under-six ratio at 1:1 is ideal. It is possible with less, but you won’t sit down or finish a cup of coffee the whole trip.
Case-in-point, we knew Cady, who just learned to walk, would basically require a 1:1 hands-on ratio by herself, and she did not disappoint. She stayed on the move once she learned to trust the sand. We were lucky to have a helping hand on this trip with my little sister, Kristen, who really bonded with her niece after following her around for hours throwing rocks in the river. Completely relaxing may not have been in the cards, but we got damn close.
The evenings afforded us the rare opportunity to sit around a campfire and talk with other grown-ups. We had a fire, I drank a whole beer, and just watched the stars come out. This doesn’t sound like a lot to some, but those moments of peace, soaking in the beauty of the world with the cold sand under your toes are powerful restoratives in a life which feels like you’re living every moment for someone else.
The final day brought a few splashes. Then us moms hitchhiked the shuttle run and we set off on the long drive home.
6. Don’t Forget the De-Rig.
Our rule of thumb, which we know, but have trouble applying, is to always take a full day off after a trip. Having that space to transition back to the real world makes clean-up, de-rig and catch-up activities more palatable. Yet, after a recent bout with the flu, and the resulting sick days used, we simply didn’t have that option.
Reality was waiting for us after the trip with a nice slap to the face and an endless pile of laundry. Casey was back to twelve hour days at ski patrol the next day, and I was taking a tired Kindergartner to school for two more days before his spring break started. Because we didn’t have a chunk of time in which to do them fully, the de-rig chores dragged on for days, long after the glow of the trip had worn off. We f’ed this one up even though we knew better.
The takeaway? Family rafting is constant work, but I’ve realized that parenting is constant work, no matter where you are, so you might as well be outside while you’re doing it. At first, it seems, (and it is), overwhelming. Packing for kids is nuts. Keeping one kid alive on moving water (let alone multiple kids) is nuts. It ain’t easy, but it gets easier and it is, however, always worth it.