How to choose the right river, and the right outfitter, for the family trip of a lifetime
At one point during our five-day rafting trip down Oregon’s wild and impossibly scenic Rogue River, my 10-year-old daughter, Markie, became obsessed with the notion of catching a rough-skinned newt.
This was after a day during which we leapt from 15-foot-tall cliffs, swam through trains of standing waves, and negotiated scream-inducing rapids mined with boulders, huge suck holes, and raft-swamping ledge drops.
The sun slipped behind the rim of the gorge and as our party of 11 emptied a gigantic Dutch oven of its chicken-chili-cornbread contents.
We drew our camp chairs close as the conversation turned to old college stories and river stories and assorted misadventures endured in the pursuit of adventure.
But Markie wanted to catch a newt.
She plucked a reed from the riverbank, bored a hole in a hunk of jicama left over from dinner, and strung the two together in the form of a primitive fishing implement.
Could I help?
I could not have been more comfortably slumped in a camp chair.
So, of course, I got up and dangled jicama for newts with my daughter.
Within minutes, one of the bug-eyed creatures sidled up to the bait and started nibbling.
Markie slowly pulled in the reed, and I scooped the salamander up in my hands.
We have talked about that moment for months.
We will talk about it for years.
It reinforced the idea that a guided wilderness trip is one of the greatest gifts you could give your kid.
You learn plenty of lessons planning a first-time wilderness trip with your kid. Here are some of the best decisions I made:
Do your homework.
Here are a few specific questions to ask an outfitter:
Are family-oriented departures available?
Some outfitters offer itineraries, and hand-pick guides, specifically for trips where there will be kids or youth along. This way you won’t be paired with a honeymooning couple or stuck with a guide who will make a second PBJ only begrudgingly.
What is the client-to-guide ratio?
The number (and character) of the guides on our Rogue River trip was perfect: three guides to 11 clients. There are no hard-and-fast rules about this, for different trips require a varying set of helping hands. If the client-to-guide ratio creeps above 6-to-1, however, have a serious conversation with the outfitter about your expectations.
What is the daily pace of the trip?
When I first read that we’d be on the water an average of six hours a day, I was a bit concerned. What in the world would we do the rest of the time? The answer: climb trees, jump off cliffs, skip rocks and explore hidden side canyons. Take a hard look at the itinerary to make sure you’re not being pushed.
Personalize the trip
Commercial wilderness trips have to rely on a certain degree of cookie-cutter logistics. The group sleeps in similar tents, eats the same food, and wears the same color life jackets. Do what you can to individualize the experience. Early on, Markie asked if we could take our beloved yellow and purple Marmot tent; she loves waking up to the ethereal yellow glow that suffuses the tent interior when the sun rises. It seemed ridiculous given that our outfitter provided fine tents that didn’t need to be packed, checked on an airline, and fussed over. But we took it. And I’ll baby that yellow tent for as long as I can, knowing that each time we pitch it in the future, we’ll remember our clifftop campsite at Mule Creek Canyon.
Consider taking a friend
I anguished over this. My sole purpose for putting this adventure together was to spend sustained one-on-one time with Markie and allow for serendipitous, meaningful moments of connection to happen of their own accord. I didn’t want to be a chaperone. But I also was aware that the welcome mat between father and child might wear thin during five days of togetherness.
In the end, Markie and I had a good chat about what this trip was all about, and we invited George and Katie, another father and daughter, to join us. I knew George would share my desire to center the trip on the bond between father and child, and their presence added immeasurably to our experience.
But I still worked hard to maximize face-time with my daughter. When she wandered off to pick blackberries, I wandered with her. When she turned in at night, I turned in, and our time together in the tent, reading and writing in our journals, led to moments of connection that we’ll talk about for the rest of our lives. It was no easy feat to leave the riverside gathering spot when the story-swapping grew to a fevered pitch.
But I’m glad I did.