The Paddling Life!

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The Paddling Life
20 Things to Remember When Floating the San Juan with Kids

Plus: A Fun 1.5 Mother’s Day Personal First Descent

You hard-guy purists might want to stop reading right now because this month’s installment is sort of family oriented. Not that’s it’s entirely G-rated…I wore a makeshift one, in fact, late night after the kids were in bed on the San Juan (but that’s another story). It’s just that with spring break, Mother’s Day and age seeming to catch up with me (I’m still not sure why it never does so for EJ), that’s where the past month has gone.

It started with the San Juan for my daughter Brooke’s spring break. While I got nuked for my permit (big surprise), I called in a week beforehand and nailed a cancellation. Put-in date: April 23, with six days to get from Mexican Hat to Clay Hills crossing. Then I started rounding up other gullible saps—and their respective saplings– to join us. By the time we departed Steamboat, we had 24 in all. Not bad numbers when considered in aggregate, but dissect them down–and realize that 15 of them were kids—and a Class I-II canyon float quickly gets upped a couple of notches.

It’s not so much that there were 15 of them and nine of us, leaving us outnumbered by six, and it’s not so much that I had to trip-lead the whole thing, meaning ensuring everything from ample snacks to my own daughter’s camel and blankie. It’s just that a trip of this sort is markedly different from one with all adults. Luckily, the other parents were of the same happy-hour, kid-numbing ilk, and everyone got along fine. Which (parents take note) brings up the following cardinal rules of running the San Juan with kids:

1) Plan enough days so you can float leisurely. We had to make 57 miles in six days, for an average of slightly less than 10 miles per day. Read: plenty of time for potty breaks.

2) Stay at the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah. While not five star, the kids can take a side venture to the pictographs at Sand Wash just three miles away; they can hike though the tammies to glimpse the river; and it has a soft hot tub, primitive playground and deadfall cottonwood for climbing on. Fill your water jugs there, but pass on the pizza from the gas station next door.

3) If possible, bring along some 12- and 13-year-old girls. They’re worth their weight in Pabst Blue Ribbon in babysitting duties.

4) Have the gals and kids come down to the put-in at Mexican Hat (about a 20-minute drive) a few hours after you do so you can rig in peace and quiet. Get as much done as humanly possible before they show up, because from then on it’s mayhem.

5) Bring plenty of alternate paddling vessels (inflatable kayaks, rec kayaks and canoes), as well as an assortment of tubes and alligators that kids can tow behind your raft.

6) Pull over 2.8 miles downstream and drop everyone off to hike over a small pass while you row the boats around a three-mile loop and pick them up. There’s a cabin at top they can explore, it’s a great lesson in geology, and a few might even stick out their thumbs in the universal hitchhike signal when you row by.

7) The swimming pool up John’s Canyon is a must. It’s a bit technical to get to, and spouses might whine as you rope your kids up and down a small cliff, but the cannonballs into gin-clear waters are worth every chastise. Plus, the camp at the side canyon’s mouth is as good a Capture the Flag terrain as you’ll find anywhere.

8) Give a last call for the groover a minimum of five times—and make sure every kid hears you–before taking it down and opacking it away in the morning. Regardless, Murphy’s Law will still ensure some stragglers.

9) Encourage sleep overs while on a sleep over. Letting kids tent-hop is all part of the fun, and might even free up some private time for you and your spouse.

10) Sand will stick to the nose drool of a 2-year-old, and stay there until someone wipes it off.

11) Even historically finicky eaters like our daughter Casey will eat most anything on a river trip. Don’t worry about preparing special meals (unless, of course, someone’s allergic to nuts).

12) A frog can be passed around to 15 different kids without any real adverse effects. But be prepared for a coating of frog urine on pass # 7.

13) Travesty that it is, Lake Powell’s sediment pile-up has created the perfect knee-deep playing field on the river’s lower reaches. Kids can walk alongside your raft, play games, and pee at will.

14) The pools at Slickhorn rule and well worth the tamarisk-encroaching campsite.

15) You can only stick a full gainer from the pool’s lefthand perch if you rotate very quickly. Otherwise, be prepared for the three-quarters face-plant.

16) The pools at Grand Gulch are worth the hike as well, but don’t offer quite the cannonball atmosphere.

17) Make sure all your raft captains know where the Oleto Camp is so they don’t accidentally float by, leaving you bargaining with an Outward Bound group for a last-minute camp switch.

18) Kids love water fights, and the bigger gun you can bring the better.

19) Gummy bears melt into a blob if left exposed to the sun.

20) Hit the petting zoo and cave-house at Hole in the Rock outside Moab on the way home. When’s the last time your kids were able to feed an ostrich?

Special Bonus: Mother’s Day Foot Massacre!

I never thought I’d fit my 165 lbs. into a Jackson Fun 1.5 for a creek run, but on Mother’s Day sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.

It all started on Mother’s Day this year, when, with my wife working, I dutifully took both of my daughters, Brooke, 8, and Casey, 4, on a family raft trip with 24 others from Rancho del Rio to State Bridge on the Colorado River. Knowing I didn’t stand a chance of kayaking while watching the kids, I happily rowed a raft until we eddied out at Piney Creek and saw it nearly jumping its banks. Knowing it was a seldom-run 19-mile Class V wilderness classic, I encouraged my friend Chris, who had his creek boat, to hike up to paddle its lower section while we fed the kids lunch.

I was content to let him have all the glory until the light bulb hit. The only other hardshell was his daughter, Katie’s, kayak, a pink Fun 1.5. If I could fit in her boat, skirt and helmet, grab a touring paddle from one of the duckies, and convince another mom to watch my kids for a spell, I could snag a coveted personal first descent with him.

I’m not stupid. Before hiking all the way up there, I hopped in Katie’s boat to see if I’d fit. Hop is actually the wrong term. Shoehorn is more like it. But after taking out the hip pads and wiggling back and forth, and back and forth again, I was in. Then I tried on the helmet. Not a perfect fit, and pink like Katie’s boat, but good enough for government work. Gear assessed, I grabbed everything I needed and set off after Chris.

I caught him about two miles up the trail. The only piece of equipment I didn’t try on first was Katie’s spray skirt. When they saw I was having trouble, Chris and my friend Cam gladly helped pull it up over my thighs by reefing on both sides. The only problem was I still had my shorts on, which quickly coalesced onto the most available appendage. Suffice it to day that I’m glad the mothers weren’t around as it gave me the package-squeezing wedgy of the century (picture the zipper scene in “There’s Something About Mary.”).

But high voice and all, it was on. Then it was two miles of rollicking Class III down to the confluence, the whole time praying my boat wouldn’t nudge a rock and further torture my Chinese princess-bound feet (and just as tightly squished groin). Ten minutes later we emerged at the confluence to cheers from the kids—not so much for our paddling prowess, but for the first Fun 1.5 descent of lower Piney.