Magazine article Sunset

Family Fun on Western Rivers

Magazine article Sunset

Family Fun on Western Rivers

Article excerpt


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. …

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