By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services
No video games. No cell phones or Internet. No TV, swimming pools, souvenir shopping, or even a bed. And no one’s complaining. In fact, parents and kids say they don’t miss any of it.
“Great family time,” promises Josh Lewis, a dad from Westchester, N.Y., who takes more friends along every year. “There are no distractions. It’s just you and your family and nature,” adds Dr. Ken Jacobsen, a veterinarian from suburban Seattle.
“Absolutely money well spent, ” agrees Marjorie Kerr, a 71-year-old grandmother from Maine. “You make lifetime memories.”
Welcome to the vacation world of family river rafting. You can go for a day, three days or longer on the Green River in Utah, which is mild enough for a 5-year-old or on others where outfitters suggest kids should be at least 12, in order to handle the rapids. Lewis, Kerr and Dr. Jacobsen give rave reviews to the trips down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which offers the option of also hiking, fishing or simply enjoying the wilderness. There are literally hundreds of family rafting opportunities across the country says David Brown, a spokesman for America Outdoors (www.americaoutdoors.org).
The best part: “You just show up with the clothes you need,” says David Brown. “There are no meals to fix, no dishes to wash, no activities to plan.” You don’t even need to put up your own tents. “It’s pretty cushy camping,” says Ken Jacobsen, who so loves river trips that he organized a family reunion to celebrate his parents’ 50th anniversary with Solitude River Trips (www.rivertrips.com). Nor are their concerns about safety — not with top-notch equipment and guides who have been running these rivers for decades. “You are safe as you can possibly be in the middle of the wilderness,” says Dr. Jacobsen.
The outfitters do it all; they even entertain the kids. Josh Lewis, who has traveled every summer with The Canyons, Inc. (www.canyonsinc.com) said one guide took the girls to paint watercolors in a pristine spot. Another day, they turned over the rafts, lashed them together and created an instant water playground for the kids. “All of the kids are like a giant amoeba,” he says. “They lose track of the fact that at school, they might not talk to each other.”
This past month marked the 40th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects more than 11,000 miles of our country’s most spectacular rivers. At the same time, surveys, like one this month from TripAdvisor, suggests that more American travelers — nearly half of those surveyed — say they want to engage in an adventure activity and the majority plan to visit a national park in the next year. Travelocity (www.travelocity.com/nature), meanwhile, has developed a micro site to offer tips to parents who want to consider a back-to-nature vacation. Wherever I go, parents tell me they want to get their kids away from the TV, their cell phones and video games while on vacation. Kids say they want their parents to stop checking their BlackBerrys every five minutes, too.
Marjorie Kerr, who rafted with her son and grandson — said that she takes each grandchild on a special trip when they turn 10. Her grandson, Cliff Lindholm, who lives in New Jersey, was too busy fishing, playing in the inflatable kayaks and hiking to miss his video games or TV. The kids even played river bocce ball with the Idaho River Journeys (www.idahoriverjourneys.com) crew. “It was really wonderful,” she said.
Longtime river outfitters say families now are the core of their business. Jerry Hughes, who with his wife Carole runs Hughes River Expeditions in Idaho (www.hughesriver.com), says families now account for 60 percent of their business and his crew includes two of his kids who were “raised on the river.” “It’s all about remembering how to have simple fun — swimming, tossing a Frisbee on a beach, campfires,” Hughes told me. “And moms can kick back while the crew does all the work.”
I love that idea. Of course, these trips don’t necessarily come cheap. Figure $100 to $300 a day per person for multi-day trips (day trips are cheaper), according to America Outdoors. But that’s a good vacation value, says Dr. Jacobsen, when you figure that everything is included — food, lodging, entertainment and there are no extras. “There’s no place to go buy souvenirs in the middle of the wilderness,” he jokes. And you can’t put a price on that all-to-elusive quality time with the kids — and grandkids. Marjorie Kerr added she would have spent as much on a conventional vacation, but it wouldn’t have been nearly so special.
Al Burkowsky, who owns Solitude River Trips and has been guiding rafting trips for more than 30 years, notes that parents who rafted as kids often return with their kids. His advice for those thinking about a raft trip: Ask how long the outfitter has been in business, and the optimum time of year, depending on the child’s age (do you want the river to be high or low?) You can also ask for references from other families in your part of the country, suggests David Brown. You also want to choose a trip where there will be other kids. Dvorak Expeditions in Colorado (www.dvorakexpeditions.com), for example, offers special kids-raft-free trips and other family discounts, while the nonprofit ARTA River Trips (www.arta.org) also offers many family trips with significant discounts for kids. Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (www.oars.com) also offers family trips, as well as those that are multi-sport.
No worries either if you’re not in optimum shape or an avid outdoorsman. Just ask Marjorie Kerr. She’s got two artificial hips. “I’d never done anything like this before,” she said, “You can rest anytime.”
(c) 2008 EILEEN OGINTZ DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.