A Wild River Life Recap: Memories of the Upper Midwest and Western Rivers

The Wild & Scenic Owhyee River bank


Hitting the road as the Wild River Life meant exchanging our material comforts and the stability of routine for a life focused on a few of our core values.

First, we essentially gave our time, energy, and resources to river conservation. We didn’t have a job that paid us to do this or someone dictating how to do it. We just followed our gut. We absolutely believe that our nation needs to step it up in protecting our free-flowing rivers, our clean water, our recreation economy, and our healthy ecosystems. There isn’t much time in life to put so much energy into a belief or a cause, and we consider ourselves lucky to have been able to make that happen.

Second, we lived simply. To the point, at times our 20-foot RV and a 10-foot gear trailer felt like too much stuff. But in the end, we appreciated all the things we had and were happy to challenge ourselves to acquire and consume as much as we could within our limited space. We got creative and made it work.

Lastly, we started a family. Talk about taking a leap. We knew having a child would be one of the biggest adventures of our lives and thought starting that adventure while living our values would be extra special. And so, we now have a bright and beautiful baby girl, Juniper Alma Elliott, just 8 days old at the time of writing this article.

As we reflect on these larger elements of our tour, we are reminded of several stand-out memories from our journey across the Upper Midwest and Western United States seeking Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Susans 2017 Wild & Scenic Highlights

Canoeing the St. Croix River
Wallace lept into the canoe each morning as if he forgot how much he preferred running freely on shore. We pushed away from our campsite and began the methodical paddling down Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s Saint Croix River. I’ve spent two weeks living out of my Green Boat on the Grand Canyon, and days on end camping with rafts, but I had never loaded my multi-day gear into a canoe and paddled away. This is the culture of the Saint Croix—canoe culture.

For me, exploring this storied waterway would not have felt as authentic in our kayaks. We also couldn’t have taken our dog or worked together as a team to paddle our way downstream. We sat quietly and listened to birdsongs. We watched turtles sun themselves on partially sunken branches. We watched the fog dissipate across the river’s surface each morning. Canoeing felt mindful in a way that allowed me to take in more of my surroundings, and more of the Saint Croix’s outstandingly remarkable values.

Learning Multi-day Tips from Seasoned Experts
Our Owyhee River trip included several new friends, as any good multi-day river trip should. We shook hands at the put-in and grew to love each other over six days floating through Oregon’s desert canyon landscape. Each night, Wilma and Dick would unload the kitchen from their raft. Having decades of multi-day river tripping under their belts, this was like no river kitchen I had seen.

We unfurled handmade wooden tables that connected with small pins and levers to their expanding bases. We unpacked individual stuff sacks for dishes that kept them cleaner and easier to find than in one big bin. And we opened Wilma’s kitchen box, packed perfectly with spices, sauces, hot beverages, handy utensils and more. I took notes and looked forward to modifying our kitchen to become such a tailored and organized system.

Being Pregnant on Rivers
Rowing into camps on the Owyhee, I would unload one of our river beds and promptly throw it among the sage brush for a nap. Breathing the crisp Oregon desert air as I experienced the typical “morning sickness” at two-months pregnant still felt like a treat. At six months, I kayaked the Main Salmon River, just barely fitting into my skirt. At nearly nine months pregnant, I floated the familiar White Salmon, my local Wild and Scenic river. As the months progressed and my belly grew, I bopped down rivers and imagined my child swaying along with me for each wave train, each eddy catch.

Intact river systems are the natural way of things. This environment helped me connect with the natural ways of my own body as I made space and supported the growing life inside of me. My stress hormones disappeared, my blood pumped strongly, my oxygenation increased, my endorphins released, and my baby felt it all. Simply put, I believe that spending time on pristine rivers greatly bolstered my baby’s health and well-being. Plus, her river log would already be longer than most before she was even born.

A Kid-Filled Grand Canyon
While we could not claim the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon as one of our 50 Wild and Scenic Rivers, we decided to venture into the big ditch this year since a development proposal threatens the river. Adam’s entire family would also be on the trip. Our four nieces plus two of their friends, all between seven and ten years old, would join us on two massive S-rig motorboats. (Side note: If you’re thinking “Whoa! That’s young!” I’ll just say that the combined experience of the adults on this trip equaled nearly 1,000 trips down the canyon.)

Watching kids explore one of the most iconic river playgrounds made this trip different than any other in the canyon. Hours were spent at a single mud pit. Games were conceived from thin air and toys from debris piles on shore. Hikes may not have been long, but time spent playing in waterfalls filled days. As I nurtured my own four-month pregnant belly, I found so much joy in thinking about bringing our future child on river trips soon.

Adam’s 2017 Wild River Life Highlights

Existential Musings on Family, Adventure, and Growth
This, my 27th year of kayaking, I’m often reminded of past adventures of kayaking, rafting and canoeing. I find so much joy in “simply messing about in boats.” This year was a surreal manifestation of my daydreams circa 1996 as a highschooler: living on the road, boating as much as possible, cute girl by my side, and rad dog keeping us company. And even though we were on the road from early April until September, with regional trips before and after, I felt that each new place we went was just part of being HOME.  

Before we hit the road, we knew that Little Dipper (our soon-to-be child) would be joining us, but it was our secret for the first several months. That our family was expanding made each experience unique and beautiful. This is the ultimate “highlight” of the year for me. While rafting with my family in the Grand Canyon, I could imagine all of us in another few years playing in the mud, rolling down sand-dunes, drenched under waterfalls, and shrieking delightedly through rapids.  

We took photos weekly of Susan’s baby bump and of course, this brought us great joy to think that Little Dipper was a significant part of our journey to all of these amazing rivers across the west.

The Virgin River in Zion, “Not the Narrows”
The plan was to blaze through the desert, stop briefly in Zion, do some hiking and sightseeing, crowd-jostling, etc. Because of the time of year, we weren’t daring to hope that the Virgin River (Utah’s single W&S designation) would be paddleable, and we were on a mission to make it to Colorado to spend time with friends on the Cache La Poudre (Colorado’s single W&S designation.)

But we found water, just enough to float. Within 30 minutes of entering the park, we were driving our RV, Gilly, up the road with an exclusive backstage pass to travel and park at the put-in for the Scenic section of the Virgin River as it meanders 8.5 miles from the Temple of Sinawava to the bridge at the Court of the Patriarchs. From uber-helpful staff at the backcountry permit desk, to perfect weather, easy shuttle via the park bus system, everything just fell into place.

25 times that day, I must have asked Susan, myself, and the gigantic looming faces of stone around us, “Is this real life?” We had turquoise water, sandy bottom stream, fragrant riparian zone, cicadas, fun bouncy class II rapids, and fingerling fish darting in the shallows. It was a warm late spring afternoon in a desert oasis, in one of the most popular (read: crowded) National Parks in the USA, and we had it nearly all to ourselves.

Pro tip: Going to Zion in the springtime—bring a boat!

Packrafting to explore Montana’s Future Wild and Scenic Rivers
The rugged and wild character of Montana’s wild frontier fits well with packrafting culture, which we experienced for the first time while on our Wild River Life tour. At the annual Packrafter’s Round-up, we sat with Kevin Colburn and Dave Chenault, the author of the Bedrock and Paradox blog as they mused about exploring Montana’s vast backcountry river stashes via packrafts.  

The next week, we joined Kevin to explore several proposed Wild and Scenic Rivers in Montana in both packrafts and kayaks. While not the most remote, the experience of hiking into the North Fork Blackfoot and the Middle Fork Flathead allowed us to see and feel the broader watershed, not just the river. We can’t wait to link up more watershed adventures rather than simply floating down the river.

The Upper Cache La Poudre, “Yes, the Gnarrows”
Rolling into Fort Collins, CO in late May, I called Ben Luck of Team Beer infamy to join me for some hardier kayaking. He had been putting nose to grindstone working on his master’s degree at CSU, yet got out to paddle a lot. It was my first day paddling on the Poudre and we went straight up to the class V Narrows, or the Gnarrows, as the cool kids would say.

One preconception of Colorado creeking is the “mankiness,” especially from those spoiled by the abundance of water in the PNW. That day on the Narrows, we didn’t have any mank. Ben and I paddled everything: blasting through curlers, boofing large holes, and rocketing into tight eddies. I felt giddy with joy at running a new and difficult creek and reconnecting with an old friend in such a wild (and scenic) place. All in all, the Gnarrows (and the fun downstream class III-IV sections of the Poudre) were another excellent unexpected highlight of this trip.

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