Dawn light fills the canyon of the San Juan river, a muddy tributary of the Colorado river that spans the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah and offers an easy-going and scenic float trip for boaters that’s perfect for families.The river is roaring this morning running at over 4,000 cubic feet per second. From our camp site, I can see opaque sand waves oscillate in the river, magically seeming to disappear and reappear in the fragile early morning light. I roll over to see – suspended between two trees – my daughter lying in the hammock that she spent the night in. She smiles at me. She looks alive and joyful. This marks her first night ever sleeping outside and under the stars. I hadn’t realized how meaningful it would be to reach this milestone… But I have a lot of history on this river.
Months ago I heard about the 100 Hours Unplugged challenge being put on by OARS, a whitewater rafting and adventure travel outfit. The challenge is a call to arms for families to get offline and reconnected with nature and each other this summer – for 100 hours. I loved the idea of taking my family off the grid and really wanted to try doing so for 100 contiguous hours (even though that’s not mandatory for families to take the challenge). But how to get everyone to disconnect for that long? Many campgrounds now have wifi networks and a lot of backcountry experiences such as backpacking can be challenging if the whole family isn’t into it. Multi-day whitewater rafting trips provide an unique opportunity to reach this goal: it’s a human-powered journey into remote wilderness areas where there is no cell or Internet services. Because the boats carry the rations and supplies, it is accessible for families that aren’t prepared for a multi-day backpacking trip (like ours!). I decided to take the challenge and booked a trip on the San Juan river.
The San Juan is no stranger to me. It’s etched into my memory of childhood. My brother and I grew up rafting with our father, who took us on over a dozen multi-day river trips when we were young. The very first river he took us on was the San Juan, when my brother was four and I was six.
Today, I am fortunate to live near my father in Boulder, Colorado. We hike together once a week. One day as we were walking along the spring-snow draped foothills, I told him about the trip I booked and invited him to join my wife, my daughter, and I on the river. He didn’t think long before deciding he had to make the trip! I was beyond thrilled to have my father come with us.
Our first day on the river was electric. We met our guides a few miles west of Bluff, Utah, at the Sand Island launch site. The day was spent drooling over ancient sandstone canyon walls that tower over the river, stunning petroglyph panels, and abandoned cliff dwellings. While the rock art and stone homes are spectacular, Nyla’s attention was consumed by lizards, red ants, rolly-polly’s, and bonding with the new friends met on the trip. Sitting next to my dad on the raft, we talked about how many decades ago it was when we first boated this river together. As the oars touched the rushing current, a lifetime of memories flooded into my consciousness. The warm sun graced us all day and when the last morsels of dessert were finished the stories of old rafting trips came to life.
My favorite story of the evening was my dad explaining his rule of the river for those who slept outside. “Before you can go to sleep,” he said, glancing at my daughter, “you have to see one shooting star.” I remembered the star maps he had given my brother and I, and the long bedtimes spent staring out into space… listening to the sand waves… watching for fiery streaks in the sky.
It’s morning. I’ve slept on a blue tarp on the ground right next to Nyla in the hammock. She unzips the bug fly and swings her legs out onto the sand. Then she stuffs her feet into her shoes. “Come on. Let’s go,” she says, standing. And then, “do you think Poppy is up?” I don’t know, I tell her. We stand, dust off a bit, and then walk hand-in-hand towards the river to find out.
About the Hammock
Nyla slept in the Eclipse II Backpacking Hammock from Tiny Big Adventure. As I’m sure busy parents can relate, we didn’t even have time to test the hammock in advance of the trip and instead ended up stuffing it into our dry bags just hoping it came with everything we needed. Luckily, it did! The simple to use and adjustable tree suspension design only took a couple of minutes to set up. My favorite feature of the hammock is the bug fly, which made all the difference for a good night’s sleep: it kept bugs away and gave Nyla (and mama lion, who was in the tent) a sense of security when thinking about the other residents in the canyon (namely snakes, lizards, and scorpions) that might want to join my daughter as she passed this lifetime milestone.
Jason is raising two whippersnappers in Boulder, Colorado. He founded and leads a human-powered adventure club for families and is the author of several books that help parents get their children outdoors and reconnected.
Find him on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jsperling/