This summer, I was determined to celebrate my children’s birthdays with an outdoor adventure. Three years ago, we had to uproot them from their place-of-birth (Alaska) and move to the Washington, D.C. area. I feared that they would lose their confidence in nature where at age 2, they could traverse a snowfield in crampons with the biggest smile on their faces. So you can imagine my disappointment when I suggested whitewater rafting for Ethan’s birthday and both kids said, “No” without even looking up from their iPads.
“Do you even know what I’m talking about?” I asked after confiscating their iPads.
“Sounds scary,” Ethan said.
I sat both of them down in front of my laptop and searched for some videos. I explained how my parents took me rafting as soon as I was old enough. Ethan was turning six and I wanted to give him the same gift.
“I’d rather get toys,” Ethan said. That statement alone made up my mind. I was going to take them no matter what obstacles I had to overcome such as how were we going to afford the trip and whom would we beg to watch my one-year-old.
Kyra, who turned nine a month ago, studied one of the rafting videos I found. For her birthday, we fished for flounders on the ocean but returned empty handed. “Boo,” she had said as she did now when she saw someone fall out of a raft on a Class 5.
“Boo,” she said again on Ethan’s birthday after all the arrangements I made to get us on the Shenandoah River. Our River Riders guide, Kaitlyn, had just maneuvered us through a series of Class 3 rapids. “The Doah” as Kaitlyn called it sloshed into the raft soaking our shoes.
Ethan complained, “Ack, I don’t want my feet wet!”
In an effort to get some reaction from my stone-faced kids, Kaitlyn pointed out some of the wildlife. “Do you see that bird with the long neck on the shore? That’s a blue herring or West Virginia Pterodactyl.”
The kids got frustrated that they couldn’t see the bird. Five rafts with the rest of the passengers guided by River Riders swept by.
Kaitlyn asked Kyra, “What can I do to make you smile?”
Kyra said, “I’m hungry.” For the month of August, we had a rare day when the sun did not burn my skin and a gentle breeze lifted the hair on the back of my neck and my child who was known as the “thrill-seeker” in the family was paying absolutely no attention to her surroundings.
“Forward paddle,” Kaitlyn shouted at my husband and I. “Back paddle. Together please.” She had seated us at the front of the raft and instructed us that the more in sync we were the smoother the ride. The river fought my paddle and a blister developed on my right thumb. I kept thinking, please, don’t let any of us fall into the river. Images from the safety video River Riders showed us at the start of the trip played in my mind. Feet trapped on the river bottom. Helmets slammed against rocks. So far, my husband had not made one comment about whether he thought this trip was a good idea or not. It seemed like our paddles were also not communicating too well.
By the time, we landed on a massive pile of boulders in the middle of the river I started to worry whether the city had ruined my family. As soon as each of us stepped onto the rock, we immediately scattered in different directions. Plus, with what seemed like thirty other people that landed with us, it took a while for me to herd the four of us together.
None of us said much as we downed several cups of pink lemonade which the guides reassured us would be the sugar kick we needed to get through the rest of the rapids. Kyra finished a granola bar that Kaitlyn had given her.
“Want to take a swim?” I asked Kyra and Ethan.
“I’m scared,” Ethan said.
“You know how to swim and you have a life jacket on,” I said, taking his little hand and helping him into the river. We all had the right gear, that’s something I am religious about, so our wet shoes gripped the slippery rocks as we made our way deeper into the river until the water rose to my waist. My husband seemed much more relaxed than I. He chased and splashed the kids while I just stood there observing them all. By the time someone snapped a family photo for us, both kids were floating on their backs and giggling.
After our swim, Kaitlyn deftly guided us through a rapid called the “Dragon’s Tongue.” The boat spun 180 degrees and white froth coated our backs. Ethan loosened his death grip on a webbing strap and said, “I felt the tongue lick me.”
Meanwhile, Kyra started to warm up to Kaitlyn. She started to ask questions like “So can we pretend to fall off the boat?” or “When can we go down a waterfall?” or “Can I scuba dive?”
Scuba dive? How did my daughter know what scuba diving was?
Kailyn asked, “So if you could scuba dive anywhere in the world, where would you go?”
Without hesitation, Kyra replied, “Atlantis.”
When we entered the Potomac River, Kaitlyn pointed out Virginia and Maryland and said we were now in the “State of Confusion” and I thought that’s exactly how I was feeling. Confused that I didn’t know my kids as well as I thought I did. Confused about whether my parenting had failed in the city.
Fortunately, Kaitlyn had a solution. First, she “surfed” our raft in Lower Staircase for a long time, long enough for the bucking, spinning wet ride to remind me to enjoy the present moment and the thrill of not being in control. Second, she hooked a flip line to a biner on the bow and asked Kyra and Ethan to hang onto it for our last rapid of the day.
“Brace yourself,” she yelled as we paddled hard down a chute.
The raft tipped back and the kids were launched into the air above White Horse Rapid. As the raft pitched, Kyra and Ethan whooped so loud that the other rafters smiled at us.
Later on the way back to the car, after Kaitlyn arranged for all the rafters to sing “Happy Birthday,” Ethan grabbed my hand and pulled me down to his eye level. He whispered as if he were telling me the greatest secret ever, “Thank you, Mommy.”
I couldn’t resist asking, “So if you could only play your iPad or raft, which one would you choose?”
His cheeks turned pink. “The White Horse,” he said.
Leslie Hsu Oh is a writer, teacher, and mother living in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three kids. See more of her work at www.lesliehsuoh.com, and find her on Twitter at @lhsuoh