By Luisa Frey
As a family travel writer, my two children – nine-year-old Ethan and 17-year-old Alex – have been traveling far and wide since they were six months old. Alex has been on about 40 cruises with me while Ethan traveled all the way from the East Coast to Hawaii for a cruise when he was only 20 months old. Because of these experiences, they are excellent judges when it comes to the success or downfall of all the many family vacations we’ve taken.
Last winter we went on a week-long Nickelodeon cruise that was filled with non-stop kid activities. After that family vacation I thought, “How can we ever top this?”
Yet Ethan, my 13-year-old niece Lindsay, and I certainly did top that. We recently returned from an eight-day adventure rafting down the Colorado River with Grand Canyon Expeditions where we camped each night on the banks of the river. It was indeed the trip of a lifetime.
Mind you, we live in a very suburban area of New Jersey and are only 10 miles from midtown Manhattan. While we do lots of day hikes in New Jersey and New York, only Lindsay had experience camping before. And none of us had ever gone river rafting prior to our Grand Canyon Expeditions trip.
So while we were very excited prior to our Grand Canyon Expeditions trip, we had some trepidation prior. Some of these included: How intense will the rapids be? How tough will it be pitching two tents each night?
These concerns were elevated on the first afternoon of our Grand Canyon Expeditions adventure since a huge rain and thunder storm whipped out of nowhere. Here we were, novices to rafting and camping, yet we were on a raft in the midst of the mighty Colorado River with the wind, rain and rapids whipping us in the face! Although our very competent guides and river runners Art and Beaver reassured us that “monsoons” are common in the Canyon this time of year, we were frightened since there is no overhead protection from the elements on the rafts.
“I want to go home,” Ethan cried to me as I used a raft cushion to protect his head from the rain. (We hadn’t gotten into the routine yet of packing our rain gear in our day bag.) “Ask them to turn the raft around so that I can go home,” he reiterated. I felt a mother’s pang of guilt when I saw his tears.
“There’s no turning back, Ethan. We’re on this raft for another 240 miles and seven days!” I replied.
As is typical with monsoons that hit the Colorado River, they come and go quickly. Because of that, our guides found us the first camp site available and by the time we finished unloading all our gear from the two rafts, the rain had abated.
Lindsay helped Ethan and me pitch our two tents while our guides prepared a delicious first night dinner. During that time, I grabbed my deck of cards and rounded up the seven teenagers in our group of 27 guests. Although Ethan was the youngest in the group by far, the teenagers welcomed his easy-going, fun nature with open arms. They even allowed me to play cards with them, along with a British guest, Christine, who was 28 years old. If we had been in our home environments, I don’t think a bunch of teens would have been so welcoming to a nine year old boy, his mother and a 28 year old woman!
However, there is something magical that happens when groups get together to forge the Colorado River amidst the awe-inspiring scenery of the Grand Canyon. There is a sense of “we’re in this together” that brings folks closer.
Beyond that, there is the unmistakable sense of the strength and energy of the Grand Canyon that touches all those lucky enough to be in the canyon for long periods of time.
Our nightly card games turned into a much-anticipated event every night of our trip. Ethan was the group’s mascot; he was very funny during our games, which helped everyone let their guard down to get to know each other quite well. This sense of camaraderie was immediately felt by Ethan.
I couldn’t believe it when at bedtime the first night, as we brushed our teeth to the sound of the rushing Colorado River and the light of an almost full moon, Ethan uttered to me:
“The Grand Canyon and a full moon…it doesn’t get any better than that!”
His amazing transformation, from the scared boy who wanted to go home to the young man who helped a group of teens and adults feel comfortable, came over a period of just a few hours. It then struck me that the Grand Canyon holds such beautiful, serene power that it could transform even a frightened child into a true advocate of exploring the Canyon by river raft.
His advocacy grew even more as the days passed. By the end of our family vacation, he said to me out of the blue,
“This is the BEST trip we’ve ever gone on.”
Now that’s quite an endorsement — especially from a family travel connoisseur whose experiences range from Alaska to the Caribbean and then some!