River rafting with a tyke in tow

How to decide if a child's too young for a family rafing trip? It depends on the river.

I think my mother would have barred our entrance to the plane if she could have. My husband feared someone would report us to the local social-service agency for child abuse. Our friends simply thought we were nuts. Each time I mentioned that my husband and I were taking our 5-year-old river rafting in Utah, the listener would gasp.

But I knew what I was doing. Our trip, a river float on the typically gentle waters of the San Juan River in the Four Corners region (where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet), was well-researched and thoroughly planned.

Though few people who were familiar with white-water trips in Maine or Colorado believed that a multiday rafting trip could be appropriate for a kindergartner, I had read the brochures, spoken to the staff, and interviewed several outfitters who ran family-friendly river programs. Based on all that, we chose to travel with OARS, Outdoor Adventure River Specialists, one of the country's largest river outfitters.

We would travel on Level II waters, compared with the Level IV or V (out of a possible six) that our friends and family were picturing.

In fact, we would see little white water. We wouldn't be expected to paddle, navigate, pack our rafts, or cook food. For three days, we would take in the majesty of the red-rock canyons from our perch on heavy-duty rubber rafts and through short hikes led by our guides.

I'd seen a similar trip on a documentary and couldn't get the image out of my mind. The awesome beauty of this trip was something I was eager to experience with my family.

Our group met at a rustic lodge in Bluff, Utah, close to Monument Valley, the night before the rafting trip. Our five families included seven kids ages 5 through 12, three grandparents, and six parents.

Scotty, the lead guide, was there to answer last-minute questions and provide waterproof sacks to protect our gear while rafting.

In the morning, a van delivered us to the nearby Sand Island Recreation Area, where, under bleak, drizzly skies, four rain-gear-wearing guides were already loading the yellow rubber rafts. They tucked tents and sleeping bags, gallons of drinking water, and a three-day supply of fresh food around and under the seats of each raft.

Gear loaded, life jackets fastened, the guides paddled 16 soggy but enthusiastic rafters into the river. Our daughter, tentative at first, burrowed in between her dad and me.

The muddy river was running fast and smooth. Within moments dramatic walls of red rock came into view, with stripes of crimson, rust, and vermilion representing layer upon layer of geologic history.

My daughter was mesmerized by the scenery, the calming motion of the raft, the novelty of the whole experience.

A few miles down the chocolate-colored river, the guides tied up the rafts at Butler Wash. There, the sandy earth is filled with reminders of the native Americans who called this land home more than a thousand years ago.

Arrowheads and shards of reddish pottery with black painted zigzags poked through the dirt. Stacey, a guide with a background in archaeology, explained a bit about the people who made and used these implements.

The children excitedly looked for shards to show Stacey.

Both kids and adults raced to the petroglyph panels just a short walk from the river. It was daunting to stand before these images of people and animals carved into the rock wall centuries ago and puzzle over the pictorial language used by the tribes.

While we reveled in the ancient history surrounding us, our guides prepared a riverside picnic. When we'd had our fill, we returned to the rafts and drifted a couple miles farther to the Anasazi cliff dwellings. Literally translated as "strange ones," the name Anasazi was first understood to refer more respectfully to the "ancient ones," tribes whose history is little known.

The group hiked briefly through flat desert terrain, past white datura flowers, until the cliff dwellings came into view. Fifty feet off the ground, an uncanny network of rooms is nestled into the rocks, protected by a cliff overhang. We climbed up to the stone rooms and peered into tiny square windows.

To the children it was an exotic playhouse, a climbing structure in the wilderness. To the adults it was a mystery. No one knows why these deftly crafted shelters were abandoned between 700 and 1,200 years ago.

Before the day was out, the rafting group had traveled past seven miles of canyons. Our stops were frequent enough that even the most active of the kids had no difficulty staying put in the rubber rafts. Once the craft were tied up, the kids chased salamanders, while guides set up the camp kitchen under the trees and adults erected tents to the music of rushing waters.

All the guides were adept with the younger crowd. A couple of guides set up inflatable kayaks as makeshift couches and entertained the kids with camp songs.

Around the campfire, we dined on chicken curry with rice, made from scratch, and a batch of brownies cooked in a charcoal pit. By dinner's end, the sky had filled with stars. Soon, the only sounds were the murmur of the river and the ruffling of a breeze through the trees.

The second day brought greater challenges. The group scaled a steep incline high atop the canyon's ridge. Smooth rock, shallow craters, and expansive views greeted the hikers. There were no trees, no animals, and no other people in sight.

Scotty pointed out the jagged Mule Ear Diatreme, a geologic formation caused by volcanic eruptions 30 million years ago.

The river was wilder the second day. Rafting started in calm waters with a few adults and older kids navigating two-person kayaks known as "duckies." Others caught a ride in the cool river, hanging onto a rope behind the buoyant rafts.

Then, suddenly the water was churning with "sand waves," stirred up by flash floods upriver. The guides paddled the heavy rafts expertly through the waves, providing an especially exhilarating ride on this usually calm river.

My daughter was relieved to hear that the guides had never had a raft overturn on the San Juan. But the duckies were not so stable, and four kayakers were dumped into the water.

Day 3 brought the return of calmer waters. We floated through the canyons on the lookout for longhorn sheep, cattle ranches amid the cliffs, and whimsical rock formations.

Throughout it all, the guides led, entertained, and educated. They shared their knowledge of the river, the climate, local history, and geology. They kept the youngest to the oldest laughing, hiking, singing, and observing.

Soon we were back on land, boarding the bus that returned us to the lodge. "Why aren't we on the raft anymore, Mommy?" asked my daughter. And I wondered, too.

For more information, contact OARS, PO Box 67, Angels Camp, CA 95222. Phone: 800-3-GO-OARS, or visit the website, www.oars.com.

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