A Raft of Fun

A trip down the wild and scenic Green River is an adventure the entire family can enjoy.


July 28, 2002|By Michael K. Burns | By Michael K. Burns,SUN STAFF

Campfire songs. Water fights. Horseshoes. Face painting. Building sand castles. Raging rapids. Indian petroglyphs. Desert hikes. Sandstone cliffs higher than Grand Canyon.

On this four-day rafting trip down the Green River, the emphasis was on family and kids exploring the scenic wilds of southeastern Utah -- and on (guaranteed) getting wet.

With some 60 rapids and uncounted riffles along the winding 90-mile course of nature's painted rock and open, sunny skies, the Green River affords an adventurous camping trip and a relaxing wilderness playground.

"The canyon is very tortuous, the river very rapid and many lateral canyons enter on either side. Crags and tower-shaped peaks are seen everywhere, and above them long lines of broken cliffs. ... We are minded to call this the Canyon of Desolation."

So wrote John Wesley Powell, the scientist-pioneer who explored the uncharted Green and Colorado rivers more than 130 years ago.

The desert wilderness and uncertain waters that challenged the limits of Powell and his nine-man crew on their 1869 voyage now endow this rugged country with a primitive beauty and serene majesty that is cherished by thousands of visitors each year, an increasing number of them children.

Our group of 21 on this Western River Expeditions rafting trip included eight children from ages 8 to 13, including my daughter Ellie.

Long seen as adventures for adults and older kids, whitewater rafting and wilderness camping is becoming more family friendly. At least a half-dozen outfitters on the Green and Colorado rivers (from Flaming Gorge, Wyo., to the Grand Canyon) are promoting multiday rafting trips for children and families, with discounted youngsters' rates about 10 percent to 25 percent below adult tariffs.

Dams and lakes (and occasional drought) have somewhat tempered the Green's churning power, but the landscape remains as it was in Powell's day. To preserve the unspoiled character of the area, access is limited to those with federal permits, and strict rules require that everything taken in by travelers must be taken out, from food scraps to human waste.

Along the snaking river's route are signs of failed efforts to tame the wild canyon: relics of a moonshiner's cave, outlaw hideouts, a dam-builder's crumbling shack, abandoned ranches. Lands of the Uintah and Ouray Indian reservation, also without sign of habitation, stretch along one portion of the river.

Getting all wet

Heron and eagle, raven and swallow are the denizens most easily seen. An occasional flock of mountain sheep ventures to the river to drink, wild mustangs peer over the top of a soaring butte one afternoon.

But then along these sun-drenched canyon walls echo the rousing choruses of God Bless America and The Court of King Caractacus, sung by a band of pint-sized pirates aboard the Kids' Boat. Far from being overwhelmed -- none had been on a rafting trip before -- the youngsters quickly took charge of their craft (rowed by a different adult guide each day).

A couple of hours with their parents the first day was enough for them to get their feet -- and everything else -- wet. Then they found each other, and their individual capacity for river running, for the rest of the journey.

Visions of Lord of the Flies popped into the heads of their parents, who were soon forced to fight back with bucket and water cannon against the aqueous assaults of their spirited offspring.

Later, the two-person inflatable kayaks brought everyone together for invigorating runs through the tumbling white water and for some placid paddling on the Green's still waters. Nighttime camping in small tents or on cots reunited families.

"Did you hear us screaming at Steer's Ridge [rapid] today?" Ellie asked one night as we looked up through the tent's mesh window on a star-covered ceiling. "We just did that to make you think we were scared."

It was a shared confidence that drew us closer, something that seemed to happen daily on the river. Our individual experiences flowed together like the sidestreams that rippled into the Green, singular yet joined in common understanding of the journey.

"I wanted to do this with [11-year-old] Justin while I had a chance," says Laura King, who also has an 18-month-old baby at home in San Antonio. "This is what he wanted to do, and it's really been a great experience for both of us to be together out here."

For Jamie Grant, a New York investment banker, the trip with James, 11, was about bonding, apart from the rest of the family. "James cares more for the outdoors than his brother does," Jamie says, "so this is our trip."

Bill and Kathy Schmelder, from St. Louis, found that the wilderness rafting trip appealed to all of their three girls. "Each one is different, but we all agreed this would be a fantastic thing to do, and it has been," Bill says.

Youthful exuberance

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