The Next Chapter: Dirtbag Parenting

Published on NRS Duct Tape Diaries, September 12, 2017

“Do you think we should still go?”

I paused in my frantic food prep and looked around the house. Every corner, couch space and countertop was covered with a staggering amount of carefully vetted gear, dry bags, grocery bags, ziploc bags, layers, nutrition and safety precautions. Outside, on our townhome’s shared sidewalk, the sprawl continued with dry boxes, oars, coolers, throw bags, ammo cans, and all the standard hard-good accoutrements of only the most epic rafting trips. Two trailered rafts hopefully awaited another six hours of pre-rigging and, as Jennifer would say, ‘jicky-jacking.’ 

To turn back now would be to admit failure. To turn back now would acquiesce to the nay-sayers and the eye-rollers who had heard of our plan, doubted, muttered, or attempted to cajole us out of it.

I looked at Jen, then back at her phone. According to NOAA’s ‘Hazardous Weather Outlook’ there was 35% chance of cloud-to-ground lightning during the second night of our upcoming trip.

I knew she didn’t really want an out. She was too tough, and entirely too stubborn, to actually quit, so I muttered my obligatory dismissal of, “Oh we’ll be fine,” and returned my focus to cutting up individual blueberries.

Jen and I were about to embark on a two night, flat water float down Ruby Horsethief Canyons. Doesn’t sound epic yet, right? Between our two families, we had four kids under four, one very responsible eleven year old, a seven-month-pregnant idealist (yours truly), and two helpful husbands. Two childless adventure hounds, Emily and Evan, and their brown dog, Quinn would join us. And then there was Nan and Jules, the family we all aspired to be one day after pulling off more epic flatwater trips.Their two awesome river kiddos were a mere two years older than our own and just got after it no matter what. The amazing parents were the type of people who took everything in stride, still had a sense of humor, and managed to maintain their patience while our hot messes—meaning Jen and I—got our families together.

We knew what we were getting ourselves into. We had undertaken a similar endeavor two years prior, eking out success from the jaws of disaster (which looked like food poisoning and ravening hordes of mosquitoes), and even though the stakes were significantly higher this time around, our resolve was only hardened. We knew how crazy it looked. But with twelve years of friendship, hundreds of river miles, and two cans of bear spray behind us, we knew we could pull it off. And it was going to be awesome. Dammit.

Although the lightning would actually come into play later.

Getting there was the only daunting part. In fact, the ‘getting there’ is what keeps so many young families from the river in the first place.

Imagine you’re the sole logistics coordinator for a multi-day guided trip where you will be outnumbered by helpless, unprepared, severely bi-polar customers. Your packing list, which you must write yourself after years of Gitmo-grade sleep deprivation, is about as lengthy as those used for an Everest attempt. Then imagine, dear reader, that all of these items must find their way into organized, accessible locations. But you will not be allowed to work quietly in the warehouse with your jams cranking, sinking into that satisfying rhythm of Tetris packing mode. No, no, you must complete this Herculean task with a near endless stream of life and death interruptions, varying in severity from, “It’s my turn!” to epic diaper blowouts and bleeding toddlers.

Then picture the drive. Usually a cool two and a half hours rocking some sweet tunes from Europe and Audioslave. But add a few bathroom breaks, the mandatory re-rig stop twenty minutes on the road and you’re looking at over three hours with nursery rhymes and Disney theme songs.

Just wait, it gets harder. At the put-in, remove one competent adult from the rigging process for each boat. With young children, someone is on ‘keeping our kids alive duty.’ Depending on the put-in, ‘keeping our kids alive duty’ may include, but is not limited to, sunscreen and water management, snack distribution, lifeguard duties, defensively responding to all attempted trailer backing, panicking every two minutes when one sunhat drops from view, and forgetting to eat lunch yourself. Also repeatedly brokering negotiations and conflicting demands as complex as our international nuclear arms treaties.

Instead of ‘rig to flip,’ gear arrangement on the raft must be controlled by the ‘rig to accessible’ mentality. You might need anything at any time of day with a fifteen second window of success before total meltdown.

At seven months pregnant I could still do all kinds of useful things like keep our kids alive, run shuttle, tie a few fancy (and arguably unnecessary) knots on our grocery store umbrella shade structure, row, slather on endless layers of sunscreen and stuff sleeping bags. The only things I couldn’t do were carry heavy shit, stay in the sun for extended periods of time, or walk across boats and frames with any reasonable hope of success. Which meant that literally every other river task associated with this trip fell to my husband.

Groover up, groover down, did he complain? Goodness, no! He is, fortunately, as crazy as I am when it comes to the river.

It helps that we met on the river during a five-day guide training stint on Desolation Canyon. After two seasons of work, friendship, and epic adventures, we went on our first date. It only took one morning and one brown trout pulled from the Colorado to cement our trust in each other and love of the river.

 We played together for years. I highly recommend it—blowing off adulting for weekend, weeknight, and weekday boating trips. Day trips. High water. Epic flips. Rescues. Sleeping by the river. Ultra-competitive bocce tournaments. We loved the shit out of that season of our lives.

And just as they always do, seasons change. We had a kid. And river time slipped downstream from our reality. Our biggest challenge was that we were river rats first, and parents second. And quite frankly, listening to parents who proclaim they only found true joy in life after they had kids makes me want to know what exactly was going on in their lives up to that point.

No one who has slept beside the Green River, choked on the adrenaline of running Westwater Canyon clean, or watched the sun creep down the red rocks of Echo Park can make a statement like that. And although I’m told by society and by mom blogs on a regular basis that children are the only best thing you can have in life, I just can’t quite agree. 

After our first year of parenting we found ourselves ready to claw our way back into the currents again. So we eked out a few days and a few nights on the water with our firstborn that season. And my version of the ‘best thing you can have in life’ materialized: It can’t get any better than getting my children on the river.

Baby number two arrived within the next two years. And two children are ten times more than one. Life seemed unmanageable between the cost of childcare for two boys and the demands of full-time teaching. Every now and then I would show up at the rafting company my husband manages just to remind a few people there that I used to run all that shit.

And this is where I think every parent can relate. Whether your passion was rock-climbing or classic car restoration; whether you were a poet, a jet-setter, or a crossfit junkie, kids have a way of re-writing your everything.

Children are the sudden high water flood; they reshape the familiar banks of your reality overnight. Suddenly all the channels you once knew, the sleeper rocks and must-make moves you had memorized are gone. The small obstacles are made huge, and what you once considered impossibly big is now completely washed out, barely a riffle. And there are no eddies; no way to scout the future.

But along with the challenge of the unknowable, there is also the excitement of realizing that now this river, this life you thought you had completely mapped out is once again, and forever, new. Every day of the year, you are freaking John Wesley Powell rushing into the unknown without a map, and ready to take your pants off to save the day. So put on your sturdy jeans, hit the center of the current around every blind turn, and trust your instincts.

Many older boating families have also assured me, from across the decades, that it gets easier. It has to…

And actually, as soon as we launched, it did. Contained now, sedated by the rhythm of the river and copious snacks, small bodies in big pfds opened their eyes wide to take it all in. The canyons, the blue herons, the ‘upside down nests’ of cliff swallows. We looked for fish. We looked for mermaids. We looked for bears. And then, they napped. Dear sweet blessed Universe, they nap on the boats. And suddenly, an incredible parenting survival adaption snaps into place, and all the stress of the last 24 hours melts away when you realize that all your most precious things are here, and life is simple and slow for a little while.

Our first camp was Cottonwood 5, and the euphoria continued. I cannot emphasize enough the joy that comes from watching your children playing happily by the water. We cordoned off a ‘swim beach’ between two boats and the SUP and rocks, sand and water were all they needed for hours.

Of course, parenting is nothing but ups and downs, instantaneous and unexpected oscillations between the extremes of human emotion, and all too soon, the evening started to rise.

“Lindsay! I just got an email from the BLM. Someone had a bear in their camp at Mee Corner last night!”
“That’s four miles and two major canyons up river, Jen. And don’t you have the bearspray?”
“No, I forgot it!”
“Good. The bear is not going to swim down river and climb into your tent.”
“Huh. Well, the weather is saying 40% chance of cloud to ground lightning now.”

Dinner was a scattered symphony of ‘bite, chew, slap, scratch’ punctuated by the occasional wail of a starving child demanding his third serving of honeydew melon. A fire ban had removed the warm beating heart of the camp for the evening, and also any line of defense against the bloodsuckers who rose from the bushes by the millions with the cooling of the day.

Families fled to their tents. Too hot to close the doors, but too itchy not to, we sweltered through storybooks read to glazed over eyes and flushed faces. The little ones shifted restlessly to the whining hum of the slathering hordes that covered our tent like a veil. Dad went to sit on the boat, it was his night off.

Every entrance and exit from the tent was planned as carefully as the Tet Offensive—unzip, dive, zip—and still, our perimeter was compromised.

In the morning, our casualties numbered in the hundreds, or all the kids had contracted chickenpox overnight.

On the second night, the children slept like rocks, and the adults huddled together under a makeshift haven. A mosquito net, propped up by a break-down kayak paddle provided a glorious refuge in the rising dark for seven grown-ups starved for conversation. 

Thirty minutes of complete sentences and adult level humor. I think there was only one fart joke. Well, maybe two. Then it started to thunder, and rain, and of course, cloud to ground lightning.

After we all rushed to our tents, and I absconded with the entirety of Emily’s anti-acid stash, the wind really picked up and the lightning rolled in. My boys—the toddler in the pack and play, four-year-old sprawling in blissful unconsciousness, perpendicular to our attempted arrangement of sleeping bags—didn’t budge throughout loud thunder peels and clattering rain.

When the evening had begun, our tent was close to Jen’s on the ledge perhaps twenty feet higher than the beach where there was more space. As the storm really kicked up, her kiddos had been asleep for about an hour. Along with the lightning flashes, in the middle of the rain, I started to detect a lot of headlamp activity, but couldn’t make sense of any of the sounds that rushed over the torn wind. I had my suspicions, but was too beat to pursue it.

The next morning, our last on the river for this summer, as the sun rose clean over the towering sandstone, I discovered that we were now the only tent on the ledge. Jennifer, by sheer force of will, had somehow gotten everyone and everything out of the tent (in the rain and dark), so it could be moved down about 20 feet onto the beach shelf. Where there would be no cloud to ground lightning, thankyouverymuch.

No one said a thing.

We rigged, rowed, napped, explored, and of course, snacked, and all too soon, the glint of noon sun on the windshields of the take-out appeared through the cottonwoods.

Now in reverse, the intense logistics of launch day were replayed. Then we were home, and everyone scrambled back into their previously scheduled lives, the trip now a beautiful collection of photos and rosy-tinted memories.

Nan, our wise river mama, said it best when she explained why her and Jules value all the work and time it takes to get their family on the water and into the woods:

“Our children are putting down their first roots at this age. These are the memories and places that will anchor them as they grow. Isn’t this the right place for them to do that?”

Editor’s note: Photos courtesy of Nan Campbell and Jennifer Cummins-Zuber. 

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