words by Eugene Buchanan
first appeared in Beginners Guide 2008
My wife’s eyes are boring a chasm in the back of my head that will soon rival the deep canyon the San Juan River has cut into the Utah desert. I pretend not to notice, thinking what’s the big deal? My friend Heidi, an ex-raft guide, had dished the secret beta on this trail leading to a swimming hole in this side canyon, and so far it’s panning out perfectly. The San Juan is simultaneously the most spectacular and kid-friendly multi-day float trip anywhere, and so far everyone is having a blast, even if Heidi’s directions are proving a bit vague. Don’t take the obvious trail from camp to the waterfall coming out of John’s Canyon, she’d said, because it cliffs out. Instead, hike downstream a few hundred yards, scramble up a cliff band, and then traverse a ledge back upstream to one of the best swimming holes in the Southwest.
Now we’re at the part where we scramble up a cliff band. The problem is we have 10 kids in tow, ages 4 to 12, who we’re belaying up a crack with a throw rope. That’s what got my wife’s motherly instincts flowing, manifested in her laser-like glare. This little adventure isn’t fitting her definition of kid-friendly. But only a short crack in the rock separates us from a catwalk leading to the swimming hole, and I’m sticking to my plan. Heidi had told me the hike was fine for kids, and that the cannonballing ends more than justify the means.
So I did what husbands worldwide have done for eons, at their peril—I ignored my wife. And then we helped every last kid up the crevasse, boosting rumps from the bottom and extending hands from above. Now all that remained between us and a gin-clear swimming pool was a traverse along a trail as wide as their school sidewalk.
Ever since taking our daughter Brooke down the Colorado’s Ruby/Horsethief Canyon as a 9-month-old, we’d realized that—aside from the scorpions, rattlesnakes, cactus, fire ants, poison ivy, sunburn, cliffs, and rapids—rafting with kids is one of the best things you can do as a family. We’d learned more about ourselves and each other than we had on any other activity, and made a point to take one or two such trips a year—trips that now include 7-year-old Brooke’s sister Casey, 4, as well. And we usually find other gullible saps and saplings to join us, both for our own socializing and, more importantly, the kids’.
The actual organizational part came easy. I’d led private trips for years on the Selway, Middle Fork, Grand, Green, and other rivers, and have always enjoyed the self-sufficiency it creates. You call the shots yourself, from planning meals and kitchen nooks to running shuttle and running rapids. Kids, we found, add another dimension. But beyond the additional logistics they create—packing extra snacks and clothes, cam-strapping portable cribs atop the mound of drybags on your raft—kids open your eyes to a micro-world you never paid attention to before. They chase frogs and lizards and make paint out of mud, having a blast with what you never realized was even there. And taking the floating playroom of a raft lets you bring everything you need to make the journey as hassle free as possible.
The San Juan stretch is 57 miles from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills Crossing. Most of it is easy Class I-II, save for II-plus Government Rapid, which kids can easily walk. In all, we had five families along, with 14 kids and nine adults—a ratio that broke every rule in the book. The kids had us outnumbered 1.5 to one, which in basketball terms put us in zone D instead of man-on-man coverage. Keep it to equal parts kids and grown-ups and you have a chance at maintaining sanity. Increase the ratio in favor of the kids and they gain the upper hand.
None of this overshadows the workload such a trip entails, from divvying up meals (everyone was responsible for one dinner, lunch, and breakfast) to orchestrating rides and packing. Take the typical school morning and multiply it a thousand fold. But we weren’t in school. The trip coincided with the kids’ Blues Break, a late spring vacation our educational system enjoys at the end of April. And it just so happens that that’s the perfect time to float the San Juan. We packed on a Saturday, drove down on Sunday, and put in on Monday for a six-day float.
The adventure started with the drive. Aside from errant potty breaks, we made stops at Arches National Park and Hole in the Wall near Moab, which includes a petting zoo with ostriches and a sandstone cave converted into a house. A tour shows the pioneers’ living room, kitchen, and children’s bedrooms. Then it was on past the Anasazi art at Newspaper Rock before arriving, more than eight hours and two boxes of gummy bears later, at the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah.
Nearing Bluff, a sign for the nearby Sand Island put-in helped recapture my misspent youth as well. It was here on the San Juan 20 years earlier that I organized my first-ever river trip during spring break my final year of college. Replace kids with co-eds, Barney dolls with a barrel of beer, and tuck-in time with late-night toga parties. We rented rafts, pilfered food from our campus meal plan, and played Fear and Loathing for seven, sun-drenched, debauchery-filled days. We were so Hunter S. happy that we lost our bearing on the map and floated into the take-out a full day too soon. But as we pulled into the parking lot, a fight from the back seat interrupted my reverie. This trip would be markedly different.
As soon as we opened the car doors at the motel, the kids exploded to the playground and fallen cottonwood bordering the parking lot. We used the free time to repack gear, figure out shuttle, and fill water jugs.
Rain dampened the ground the next morning, but not our moods. The kids were up before we were, eager to get to the river. To keep them out of both the rain and our already matted hair, those not rigging took them to see the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, a half-mile-long collage of Anasazi rock art that every child worth his weight in wall-desecrating crayons can relate to. More than a thousand years old, the artwork depicts everything from symbols and snakes to deer and even a bighorn sheep standing on two legs while playing a flute.
Capitalizing on this opening for parental productivity, the rest of us used the diversion to drive ahead to Mexican Hat and ready the rafts. When the kids showed up after their field trip—the lessons from which would likely appear on our own living room walls back home—the rafts were loaded and lunch laid out in the trailer out of the rain.
If you were to write a novel about our floating tribe, you’d have to call it the Grapes of Raft. Pete’s boat had a Pack n’ Play crib strapped atop an anthill of drybags in the stern, ours had a car seat for naps below the oarsman, and Crazy Creek chairs sat as inverted teepees for shade. Smaller bags harboring rain gear lay clipped about, sand buckets, squirt guns, and footballs littered the floors, and snacks found shelter in a variety of coolers and plastic boxes. Inner tubes and inflatable kayaks trailed behind the rafts, getting ready to annoy oarsmen by swinging like pendulums into their oars. Rafting with kids isn’t for Type A’s.
At least the shuttle was neat and tidy. Instead of doing it on our own, a word problem from hell involving not only how to get the requisite cars from Point A to Point B but also car seats, we hired it out. Kansas transplant Richard Neff from Valles Shuttle Service would have our rigs waiting at Clay Hills in six day’s time for $100 per vehicle.
The kids quickly settled into their new floating home. We rigged the gear in the stern, freeing up each raft’s front as a walled-in playroom. They could sit on a bench covering the thwart, or stand on the floor, waist-deep to the tubes.
Our first stop came at the neck of mile-long Mendenhall Loop, a bend where we let all the kids except 2-year-old Oliver—under adult supervision, of course—hike over a low-lying saddle and back down to the river on the other side (about 100 yards as the raven flies) while the rafts floated a leisurely mile around to the other side to pick them up. The shortcut served a lesson in geology as well as history. At the top was an abandoned stone cabin once lived in by pioneer Walter Mendenhall, spawning questions about him the rest of the day. “What did he look like?” Casey would ask later. “How did he eat?” Otis would question.
Camp came just as the sun was nodding behind the canyon rim. We pulled over at the upper of several spots we had marked on the map, but sent a scout down in an inflatable kayak to make sure we weren’t missing out on Shangri-La just downstream. Sure enough, he radioed back that the next camp was even better. So we herded the kids back into the boats and shoved off. It was a good call. A path led to a playground-sized sandbox on a bench above the beach, with a Hobbit-sized maze filled with butt-slides leading through the tamarisk from the upper veranda back down to the bank-side kitchen. You couldn’t script a better place for kids to burn pent-up energy. Spaghetti and s’mores, and a few rounds of This Land is Your Land, Baby Beluga, and Down by the Bay on guitar around the fire, soon saw everyone in their tents for the next day.
15 Tips for Kid Floating the San Juan
- -Two marshmallows, and twice as many chocolate squares, makes the best s’mores
- -Plan enough days so you can float leisurely. You’ll need plenty of time for potty breaks.
- -Bring along some 12- and 13-year-old girls. They’re worth their weight in babysitting duties.
- -Bring alternate paddling vessels (IKs, rec kayaks, canoes, etc.), as well as an assortment of tubes and alligators that kids float in behind your raft.
- -Give a last call for the groover a minimum of five times—and make sure every kid hears you—before packing it away.
- -Encourage sleepovers by letting kids tent-hop (it might even free up some private time for you and your spouse).
- -Sand will stick to the nose drool of a 2-year-old and stay there until someone wipes it off.
- -Even finicky eaters like Casey will eat most anything on a river trip. Don’t worry about preparing special meals.
- -A frog can be passed around to 14 different kids without any real adverse effects, but be prepared for a coating of frog urine on pass # 7.
- -The pools at Slickhorn rule and are well worth the tamarisk-encroaching campsite (just make sure you get a quick rotation on your back-flipping gainer), as are those at Grand Gulch (though the latter’s campsite is a bit ledgy for kids).
- -If you’re camping at Oleto, make sure all your raft captains know where it is so you don’t accidentally float by and have to bargain with an Outward Bound group for a last-minute switch.
- -Gummy bears melt into a blob if left exposed to the sun.
- -The bigger the squirt gun you can bring the better.
It was clear by the random comments made over the next few days that everyone was adapting to life on the river.
“Hey, I made the perfect sandwich,” said Kathleen at lunch.
“Anyone want to play 500?” asked Finn with a Frisbee at a rest stop on broad sandbar.
“Hey, a lizard!” announced Casey before scampering off to give chase.
“I’m firster,” said Otis, when the kids lined up to slide down a rock into the river.
They adopted pet caterpillars and frogs, chased garter snakes out of their skins, built forts of driftwood, and blasted the unsuspecting with a squirt gun. Just like each bend during the day, each camp brought a different playground. One night led to an impromptu costume contest using whatever we could find. The winners were Otis the Beer Salesman and “Huck” Finn as a bandana-suitcased hobo. The parents’ costumes paled in comparison.
We churned out our mileage in bite-sized portions, just like the mini-Snickers we broke out for snacks. We made 9, 9, 13,7,12, and 7 each of the six days, leaving plenty of time for breaks, side hikes, and obligatory mud baths. At one such mud pit, after warning them of the dangers of quicksand, I stood knee deep in front of them and then told them to shut their eyes. In a flash, I leapt out, topping the pit with my hat and sunglasses while hiding behind a nearby rock. Their jaws dropped when they turned around, thinking I had succumbed to the treacherous sand. But then Casey saw my butt sticking out from behind the boulder.
“Daaa-aad,” she said, in a tone accusing me of being a dork.
Another camp was littered with the conical depressions of ant lions, so we played Gladiator by feeding them ants and watching the predators’ claws snap the offering out of the bottom of their lairs. That same night a discussion on desert varnish streaking down the cliffs across from camp led to the girls talking about streaking their hair. Other kids built sand castles and made paintbrushes from sage. In my notebook Brooke drew a smiling picture of herself sleeping in a tent with a dream bubble showing her mom, dad, and sister in similarly peaceful slumbers by the river.
Throughout it all, the grown-ups learned as much as the kids. Perhaps the most important lesson concerned time. Don’t push schedules when you have kids along. Go with the flow. You’ll never put in when you think you will, so don’t stress out about it. Also, when it comes to food, stomachs, rather than destinations, dictate lunchtime. So what if you don’t make it to that waterfall for lunch? If your kids are hungry, have a sandwich at the nearest sandbar. We also learned that it’s okay to pee in the raft as long as it’s a self-bailer, and that if you’re telling a story in the tent, make sure your spouse doesn’t bring the baby monitor out to the campfire where everyone else can listen in.
Like any trip with kids, it wasn’t all Leave it to Beaverville. Crying, we found, creates the perfect wavelength for echoes. Kids got scrapes, tantrummed for no reason, and fought over Nerf balls. But aside from the scrapes, it didn’t happen near as much as it does back home. And in the end, these disagreements dissolved just like the sediment in the river, upstaged by an overall experience that will get remembered for life.
Safely up the cliff, we tell the kids to look straight ahead, not down the 150 feet or so to the river far below, as we traversed a trail crossing a gradual slope sandwiched above and below by vertical sandstone cliffs. “It’s just like walking on a sidewalk,” we tell them. And it is, more or less. It’s not dangerous, just a lesson in exposure. Still, I follow Casey closely, with other parents scattered about to lend helping hands. Soon we arrive at a 15-foot down-climb leading to a pristine pool dimpled into a cauldron of slickrock perched high above the river. We station parents above and below to help usher the kids down to their own natural Water World.
Wearing her lifejacket, Brooke is the first one in, cannonballing off a 10-foot cliff into the pool. Then she swims to a sandy beach marking the only break in an amphitheater of sandstone. One by one, the other kids follow suit, having a swimmingly good time. If they aren’t jumping off the cliff, they’re seeing how far they can use centrifugal force to run around the cauldron before falling in. Finn, 8, makes it the farthest, scrambling three-quarters of the way around the cauldron with his body nearly perpendicular to the water before splashing in.
“This is so cool,” says his twin sister Kathleen, a star on her swim team back home.
“Cowabunga!” shouts Casey, before arcing into a parent-cringing belly flop.
Afterwards, we make our way back down to camp, whose giant boulders, bushes, and beaches led to a sunset game of Capture the Flag. Grown-ups and kids are split up randomly, my wife and I ending up on separate teams. At one point she captures me, sending me to jail in a nook guarded by three giant boulders. It is my penance, I surmise, for dodging her glare at the cliff earlier, and I accept it willingly. Besides, it doesn’t take long for one of the kids I had helped up to the pool to run by and free me.