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Family fun on Western rivers.


After Katie McCausland went rafting in Wyoming last August, big rapids were not among her most vivid memories. What this 6-year-old remembers best is toasting sticky marshmallows under jillions of stars, wading up side streams at long lunch stops, watching ospreys and eagles diving for their dinner, and snuggling between her mom and dad in the double sleeping bag, watching the rising sun color the tent walls.

"How scared can I get?" is one sort of question outfitters hear from many prospective river-runners. And for adrenaline addicts, the West offers plenty of thrill-a-minute options, such as the boat-swallowing waves of the Colorado or the technical mazes of the Salmon River's Middle Fork at high water.

But these days, many outfitters report they're getting more requests for less whitewater from people who want to be on the river but not in it. While some callers are people for whom a river trip is a vehicle into wilderness rather than a wet roller-coaster ride, they're more likely to be parents eager to share the magic of a wilderness float trip with their young children.

Some outfitters are responding with trips designed especially with the interests and needs of young children or family groups in mind. These trips offer families many of the rewards of wilderness backpacking with few of the hassles. With some research, you should be able to find a float trip that fits your own family's combination of ages and interests and that will leave them with only good memories to take home.


No hard-and-fast rules dictate how old a child must be to go on a rafting trip. The emotional maturity and physical size and strength of the individual child must be taken into account. But most outfitters recommend a minimum age of 4 or 5 for a float trip on even the gentlest of rivers. For trips with substantial whitewater (say, up to class 3, on the standard scale of 1 to 6), 7 or 8 is usually considered the minimum age.

For paddle trips, where you actually help power the boat instead of letting the guide do all the maneuvering, 7- to 8-year-olds are generally the youngest children allowed.

Though swimming ability is only one factor in deciding whether a child is ready for river-running, being comfortable in and around water will definitely enhance his or her enjoyment. More important, perhaps, is the child's attention span and ability (and willingness) to sit relatively still while floating on the water and to follow directions.

Consider the river-running routine. Your child will be sitting in a raft, possibly for a few hours at a stretch. On multiday trips, you'll probably be camping alongside the river, which requires maturity enough to avoid obvious dangers, unless you want to spend every waking minute on maximum alert. Your child will also be served food prepared by someone other than his or her parents. Still want to take that 3-year-old?

But some 4-year-olds, and many 5- and 6-year-olds, are quite ready for river-running's rewards. The camping experience alone is a pleasure for many young ones, and most outfitters make sure everyone is as comfortable as possible. Then there are fish to catch, creeks to explore, paths to follow, animals to watch, and water fights to wage.


Diane Christiansen, a former river guide who's now a spokesperson for California's rafting industry, urges families to ask outfitters pointed questions when shopping around for a float trip. "Don't assume that all companies are the same," she says. "Do your homework." She suggests that families with young children seek out trips with the following characteristics:

* The river floated is relatively gentle--from flat water to class 3.

* The number of river miles covered is purposefully low, so children don't have to sit still for long periods, and have plenty of time for onland exploration.

* The environment offers lots to do besides floating, such as hiking, fishing, wildlife-watching, and visiting historical or archaeological sites.

In general, look for trips with outfitters who have really thought about the specific needs of children and designed family trips accordingly. For example, O.A.R.S., of Angels Camp, California, plans simple menus for broad appeal (and always lays in a good stock of peanut butter and jelly). Guides for Middle Fork River Company, in Sun Valley, Idaho, work parental time-outs into the day's schedule by leading nature excursions for kids after camp has been set up. Mariah Wilderness Expeditions takes along professional storytellers to enliven campfire sessions.

Think also about the number of children going on the trip. Experience suggests that one river party can't comfortably accommodate more than one or two 4-year-olds. On the other hand, if yours is the only 7-year-old in the group, consider bringing a friend along, so they can keep each other entertained. If your family includes teenagers, look for a trip that allows them to negotiate rapids themselves in an inflatable kayak or in a small raft.

The best family float trips do more than get you from put-in to takeout in one piece. On a well-thought-out trip, parents get a chance to loosen up and be playful, while kids get to try out some new responsibilities: paddling, perhaps, or helping to make Dutch-oven biscuits for supper. A rafting trip can also be a chance to renew relationships in an unstructured, unhurried environment. Christiansen, whose 9-year-old son is already a veteran rafter, says, "It really can move you forward, as a family and as individuals."


EACH OF THE MULTIDAY RIVER trips shown on the map is run by outfitters (listed below) offering family-oriented trips. Seven are appropriate for children ages 7 or 8 and above (class 2-3 or 3, shown in blue on map); four are runnable with children as young as 4 or 5 (class 1 or 2, shown in red).

Prices vary considerably but expect to pay $90 to $280 per day for adults and only slightly less for children, depending upon the remoteness of the river and the trip's amenities.

ECHO: The Wilderness Company, (800) 652-3246. Rogue.

Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, (800) 462-7424. South Fork American.

Middle Fork River Company, (800) 232-8588. Middle Fork Salmon.

O.A.R.S., (800) 346-6277. South Fork American, Lodore Canyon, Rogue, Lower and Main Salmon, San Juan, Snake.

Outdoor Adventures, (800) 323-4234. Main and Middle Fork Salmon.

Sheri Griffith Expeditions, (800) 332-2439. Desolation Canyon.

Texas River Expeditions, (800) 775-7238. Rio Grande.

Turtle River Rafting Company, (800) 726-3223. Klamath.

Whitewater Voyages, (800) 488-7238. Klamath.

For additional help with trip planning and reservations, telephone the River Travel Center at (800) 882-7238.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Henderson, Bonnie
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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