The River Mild: A Canoe Adventure

How a family-friendly canoe trip took me out of my comfort zone and made a memorable splash


Courtesy Centennial Canoe

Some things you should probably know about me: I’m uncomfortable in the water. Love wading in the ocean, hanging around a lake, lounging in the pool. But you probably won’t find me swimming out to a sand bar, doing flips off a boat or demonstrating a proper crawl, backstroke or butterfly. I hate mosquitoes. Like, really hate them. On me, bites swell up to welts and itch like heck. Awful. And I like the idea of camping—really, I do. But I also like a nice, firm mattress, Wi-Fi and (especially) indoor plumbing.

So, when I decided to book a three-day canoe trip last summer for my family of four, I surprised my husband and kids, but, despite a particularly brutal attack by mosquitoes (I should have packed an entire case of Off!), I surprised myself most of all.

Day one
Our trip along the Gunnison River with Centennial Canoe started at the Escalante Canyon bridge, some 25 miles south of Grand Junction, at 6:30 a.m. Here, our group of about 20 met our three guides, ate breakfast, got the safety talk and paddle instructions and packed our gear (tent, sleeping bags, chairs, clothing, etc.) in provided dry bags as I made my best attempt to hide my fear from my tween daughter (whom I’d be sharing a canoe with). After entering the put-in with a rocky start (“Wait! Which way do we paddle? Why are we turning in a circle?! Whose idea was this, anyway?!”), we were simply on our way.

Our trip, themed “Paddle ’n’ Games,” was designed for beginners and families with kids (water guns included). It didn’t take long to feel at home on the 31-mile cruise through the Escalante and Dominguez Canyons, where the water ran low and slow, with just a few Class 1 rapids to add a little excitement. High walls of red sandstone and shale and towering cottonwood trees offered epic scenery, and, a few hours into the day, we pulled over for a catered lunch on the river bank. After paddling a few hours more, we arrived at our camp site, just as that seemingly daily July afternoon rain began to fall. As our group set up our tents—props to my husband for scoring a perfect private spot—our guides set to serving up hors d’oeuvres and dinner (salmon, green beans, potatoes, pie, wine—now, this is camp food!). They also set up games for the kids so parents could relax and unwind.

Now, normally when I camp, I barely sleep. Blame it on the day of paddling in the sun, the big meal or all that wine, but this night, we all slept like babies.


Courtesy Centennial Canoe

Day two
In the morning, we were greeted with coffee, blueberry pancakes, eggs and bacon, fueling us for a memorable guided hike in the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area, where we spotted ancient petroglyphs, secluded swimming holes and a 40-foot waterfall. Due to runoff, the water was muddy—the color of chai tea—but we could have played in it all day. Back at camp for lunch, the group took turns jumping in the river and floating downstream (life jackets on, of course), then broke off to nap, read or play games, before being fed another feast at dinner (this time, s’mores for dessert).

Day three
On our final morning, we rose to another catered breakfast, packed everything up and hit the river for our final stretch. This time my family tethered our two canoes together—which made us slow, for sure, but it was worth it to be able to chat, laugh and just be together. We stopped for lunch and were bummed to hear that a grandfather from New Jersey, on the trip with his grandson from California, had left his camera behind.

All the way home we laughed and retold stories from our adventure, but nothing made us happier than reading an email the next day that said the guides had paddled back to our lunch spot after we had all unloaded and found the man’s missing camera. That sort of attention only added to our desire to plan our next river trip. Just remind me to triple the amount of bug spray.

Yampa River: Beer Tasting
June 8–10

  • The Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s curator of human health and taste leads you on a beer-tasting journey as you explore remote areas and canoe a gentle, 33-mile stretch of the Yampa River, the last un- dammed tributary of the Colorado River system, teeming with colorful vegetation, picturesque views and wildlife. 21 and older, $436

Gunnison River: Dinosaurs
July 29–31

  • Experience fascinating rock formations from the age of the dinosaurs as you paddle your way along the Colorado River with Museum of Nature & Science educator Samantha Sands. During this trip covering 31 miles, you will hike, camp and explore, as you’re dwarfed by high walls of red sandstone and shale deposited during the age of the dinosaurs. Ages 6 and older; adults, $436; kids, $406 

Colorado River: Star Gazing
Aug. 11–13

  • Led by Tito Salas of Fiske Planetarium at CU-Boulder, this 26-mile canoe and star-gazing trip takes you from the city lights for a clear view of the night sky. Act fast—this one sells out every year. Ages 6 and older; adults, $394; kids, $354

Since 1985, this adventure company has been offering guided and outfitted one- to six-day trips on nine river stretches in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, as well as sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands in Washington and a multi-sport experience in Costa Rica. Guides, food, wine, canoes and equipment provided.

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