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Raising Kids on River Time

Somewhere in the middle of my lukewarm, “last call” coffee we pushed off the beach for Day 4 on the Green River through Desolation Canyon. We’d spent the last dozens of miles celebrating Mother’s Day on a remote beach, rolling through rapids, eating Swedish Fish, and dodging gusty windstorms. But on this morning, we purposely pushed off a few minutes early to catch some family time amid a 25-person party on water, including six kids.

My husband gently rows as my then seven- and five-year-old daughters hang off the front of the raft, twirling their fingers in the calm water. “Sun and Moon” by Michael Franti and Spearhead quietly wafts from our on-boat speaker. Our lives revolve around two full-time careers and a pair of kids whose schedules fill more frequently than they used to. But in this moment, the entire world slows to a trickle as we coast through the first rays of the morning.

There is research that explains that when children are given a chance to doddle instead of rush, to look closer instead of bypass, and to explore with all their senses instead of just indulging a passing glance—they’ll ingest and build understanding about their world. Science also tells us that the time we spend in childhood is elongated by this process. It takes more of our brains to gather and understand—we’re in a constant state of learning and discovery. I want this state of existence for my entire life … especially when it comes to the short time I have to raise my children.

Before we had kids, my husband and I always talked about adventuring with our kids. Anyone who knows the parenting path also knows that adventuring with kids is a journey that requires maximum flexibility. Not naïve to the fact our adventures would be different, our goal remained the same. We started with hiking and camping. Then, we introduced mountain biking and stand-up paddleboarding. Lyle and I did a couple of multi-day, unassisted SUP trips from Cisco to Moab and a rare trip down the Dolores, but the logistics of a family of four—including two young kids—living for three-plus days off two SUPs just didn’t jive. We started the journey to river raft life by borrowing a friend’s boat which transitioned to buying a used touring raft. In that time, our toddlers sprouted into kids, and we started the hunt for our forever boat … the Mighty Mermaid. To no one’s surprise, the cost of getting into rafting can stop a river life dream before it can start. We asked for a unicorn raft … ready to handle kid-boat life, a showstopper teal color, and not having to break our piggy bank to get our whole crew on the water. Rocky Mountain Rafts took our tall ask and delivered the perfect family dream-making machine. Even in the middle of the supply chain nightmare of 2020, the RMR team worked tirelessly to make sure we didn’t miss a trip, not even our early season Desolation Canyon trip.

Since pushing our affectionately named Mighty Mermaid from the boat launch, we’ve been treated to some Earthly wonders only reachable by boat: Native American petroglyphs, riverside beach retreats, and towering canyon walls that date back to the dinosaurs. But there’s more we gained that wasn’t in the trip report. Our little family became a crew, taking up age-appropriate tasks and relying on each other. Leaps, sometimes from a moving boat into moving water, tested and sharpened our daughters’ risk-taking skills and independence. Quiet moments riverside before dinner lent themselves for chats about bugs, eddys, and debriefing the day’s happenings. What the river has given my family far exceeds what we give back to it, but that won’t stop us from trying.

On one of our first trips of 2021 on the Moab Daily, our crew paddled into camp in the late evening just above Onion Creek. As the adults scurried around setting up camp and starting dinner, the kids explored the island. Just enough minutes ticked by without a check-in to warrant a parent trekking out to find the kid crew. Just as we headed out, we were met with three of them hauling a rotten car tire they spent the last 20 minutes digging out of a bank. They hooted and hollered for their discovery. We strapped it on the back of the boat and carted it to Takeout Beach. On the river, we rally and cheer for the closest boat to nab any river trash floating or beached (bonus if we can scoop out Styrofoam before it starts to break down.

Our family’s will to protect our rivers extends from the headwaters all the way home. The kids are eager to chase a chip bag across the playground to make sure it doesn’t end up in the river. A playmate—or adult—who isn’t mindful of their water use will likely get a sweet, gentle earful from our two budding conservationists. Our time between the banks spurs conversations about water use, knowing how local litter can land in the river or other wild places, and protecting the fragile ecosystems that impact river health including wildlife. The river teaches us that the result of each decision makes ripples. Like I said before, the river is way more generous than we can ever reciprocate.

The biggest gift the river has given me is the exact same gift our family can work hard to give back: time. When we’re on the river, “real life” time stops. Just like when we’re children, we’re given the opportunity to doddle and immerse ourselves in our environment. We watch the swirling of currents and wonder why the water moves. We listen to our kids hum to themselves as they “glass” for wildlife on the riverside behind pretend binoculars made of their fingers. This undisturbed time gifted by the river builds the core memories my family will never forget. And for that, we’ll protect our rivers for as long as we’re here.

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