Our Day On The River With The Teenagers
This school year came to an end (don’t be hating; we started back at the beginning of August) and my husband got the brilliant idea that we should do something special to commemorate the start of summer vacation. Also: There was a special deal he found online (I’ve taught him well). Thus it was that we packed up our two teens and a third we often borrow, and headed off for an afternoon of kayaking down a nearby river.
Let me tell you about our collective, prior kayaking experience: Hahahhaa! Just kidding! We had no prior kayaking experience, any of us. That’s okay! Let me tell you about our collective outdoorsy-ness: Haaaaaaaaa! Okay, yeah, it’s possible this was an aspirational outing. My husband and I are both middle-aged, not-as-active-as-we-used-to-be, not-terribly-athletic types, and the three teenagers we dragged to the river that day spent the entire drive on their electronic devices, the glow of their tiny screens rivaled only by the blinding white of their pale, “do I have to go outside?” skin. We were totally ready for this, though, because we had the foresight to purchase water shoes. Also, we had sunscreen. And snacks! And surely our admission to kayakapalooza here would include some sort of instruction on how to keep from dying.
We drove past our destination, then circled back and drove down a tiny dirt road to the parking lot. After signing paperwork that assured the nice tour folks that we would not sue them if we died, we picked up life jackets and paddles and boarded a small school bus that looked exactly like the one I rode to school in in the 70s. In fact, I think it may have been one of those buses I rode to school in in the 70s. This bus took us and a lot of other nervous people and a trailer full of kayaks on a 15 minute drive up and down some cliffs, finally arriving at a landing spot on the river. Our young and surfer-looking driver cheerfully announced, “That was the scariest part of the trip!” as he turned off the ignition. We all tumbled off the bus in relief, and now it was time to learn how to kayak.
Surfer dude began unloading kayaks and chucking them into the water. “If they start getting kind of heavy, like you’re starting to sink? Pull up somewhere and open this valve to empty out the water,” he said. I waited for further instruction, but that was it. “Be back by 7:00 or there’s an extra charge!” he added. (It was 1:00 pm.)
Per usual, my younger teen was looking quite nervous, and the older teens were ignoring everyone else entirely. That meant it was time for me to do my usual routine: Act confident to soothe my son’s worries, while trying not to let on that my daughter’s attitude was annoying me. No problem (I do this on land all the time). We put my son in a kayak and pushed him into the water and told him to wait for everyone else. He promptly started drifting and freaking out because he was having trouble figuring out how to steer. I scrambled into the water behind him and tried to talk him through how to use his paddle effectively, leaving my husband to corral the remaining teens, who seemed in no hurry to get into the river.
Eventually we were all on our way, and we hit our first patch of “rapids” (think mini-rapids) just a few minutes down the river. As our family comedy unfolded, I began to wonder if this entire outing had been ill-conceived. My son got stuck behind a outcropping of rocks and—as is his way when he’s frustrated—commenced being quite snappish and surly as we tried to help him navigate (and this was doubly fun because I was paddling in wide circles around him, fighting the current, myself). “Telling me the same thing over and over isn’t making me any less stuck!” he yelled at me, while I bit my tongue from pointing out that if he would just do it already I wouldn’t have to keep repeating myself. The older teens also got themselves stuck behind rocks, but on purpose, and they thought they were hilarious. By the time we got my son unstuck, we moved downriver a bit only to realize that my daughter and her pal felt no need whatsoever to stay with us or even proceed in a linear manner at all. I had myself turned around to face them, and we shouted back and forth (not in anger, just because I kept drifting further away) while they assured me they’d “catch up.”
Well. I paddled over to my husband, only to discover that my son had gotten the hang of steering, finally, and was pushing ahead. “Look at all the turtles, Mom!” he called. “And the geese! Look! I’m going over here!” And… off he went. For a while he was ahead, we adults drifted behind him, and the older teens lagged behind. We were with the kids but not with the kids. I was nervous about our group spreading out, but it was okay. Nobody crashed or drowned or even came close. (Uh… except for my husband. He took a tumble in one of the rapids sections, but he was mostly okay.) We stopped about halfway through to hydrate and rest, and for the second half of the journey I somehow ended up far ahead with my son while the rest of the family was too far back for us to even see, and it was fine.
“Look at you,” I couldn’t resist commenting, on the final flat section of the river, after we’d gotten drenched in the roughest section of rapids we’d encountered. “You figured it out and look at you go!”
“Yeah,” my son said, looking around as if he was a bit surprised to discover it was true. “Sorry I was rude, before,” he added, remorseful. “I was kind of stressed out.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I know. It’s okay.” We paddled in silence for a bit. “Are you having fun?” I asked.
“I didn’t think I would, but I am,” he answered, flashing me a grin. “But I’m getting tired. Can you tow me for a little bit?” He pulled up alongside me and stuck one end of his paddle behind my seat, effectively attaching us together. I pulled us both along for a while, but it was hard to steer, and slow. Eventually he sighed and removed his paddle. “I guess it works better when I do it myself,” he said, dipping his paddle back into the water and shooting ahead of me.
Three and a half hours after we started, we were all assembled back at our starting point. I’d watched my youngest triumph over his fears, and barely seen my oldest all day. There were some metaphors in there, for sure, but also a lot of mud in my shoes from various stops and pushing-offs. We were tired and dirty and mostly happy. In the end, all I could really do was paddle my own kayak and hope that whatever guidance I could offer the kids (or whatever they found on their own, while away from me) was enough. And it was.