Kids that Groove: Wins from a Rafting Mom


Groover site selection tends to be enmeshed with each rafter’s culture. Some value privacy, some convenience to camp. Others let scenery determine the bathroom location. It’s a rarity that all three site requirements align, the trifecta of built-in privacy thanks to a swath of willows, a view of the setting sun across a rocky butte, and a clear and smooth trail back to camp. These are magical places to do business. And I’ve had the distinct and happy pleasure of utilizing a groover in some picturesque locations, from Cremation in Marble Canyon on the Colorado River to hushed locations in central Montana.

But in my opinion, the best groover sites are the ones your kids will use. Willingly. Without complaint or tears. Try accomplishing that with an outhouse or Port-a-potty in July. At a take-out that sees too many people and too few federal dollars for adequate maintenance.

It doesn’t matter whether there are regulations mandating the groover, we’re launching for three nights, or if we’re out for an afternoon float, the groover comes on every raft trip. It’s as essential as life jackets, oars, and an unholy amount of snacks.

Getting my two kids, who are now ages four and eight, to like using the groover has been one of my (few) parenting achievements and the one that I’m most proud of. I figure if your kid poops in a bucket on the side of the river, sometimes in places where strangers will float by in colorful rafts and they still have a fun time on the water, then your work molding the next generation of river rats is off to a good start.

At least this is what I told myself this past summer when my oldest, Charlie, who’s been on the raft since he was in diapers, demanded to stand in the bow of our neon green raft while we plowed through Bone Crusher on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. After a thorough soaking and splashing, Charlie turned to me as I steadied the oars beneath my legs and groaned. “Montana is boring, Mom.”

Even on those perfect mountain July days on the river, parental defeat is a steady constant.

But later that afternoon, the kid, the same one who thinks whitewater rafting on the border of Glacier National Park, a mere 45 minutes from his home, is “boring,” did his business in the groover with such efficiency and proficiency that I didn’t dare follow up on his snarky comment. While Charlie needed help from my husband Cole to set up the groover, he managed the rest of his bodily evacuations on his own, used the hand wipes, and followed up with hand sanitizer.

As parents, we handle the post-poop groover operation. Don’t get me wrong. We’re grateful that our kids feel comfortable using the portable bathroom on the rocky banks of the river, but we still want well-sealed bags and a tightly closed bucket lid before we shove off. When it comes to poop and mitigating a groover disaster, even fostering independence has limits.

We introduced the kids to the groover well before we ever went on the river. Our commode system is a step up from the ammo can situation, catering to comfort over cutting weight. We set it up in the driveway, let them check out the plastic bag to hold the waste, and placed them atop the cushy seat so they could imagine what it would feel like when they needed to use it on the river.

They were more curious than nervous, and I credit the use of training toilets to help demystify the process. Bags prepped with toilet paper and hand wipes help to make things kid-friendly, especially for our older son. Also, telling the kids that this would pretty much eliminate the need for any outhouse use (Dark! Scary! Spiders! Smelly!) helped sweeten the deal.

Here’s another thing about kids, though, sometimes they don’t give you a lot of advanced warning when they need to GO. Therefore, our groover is always accessible on the raft. I also make sure we have a well-stocked dry bag with extra wet wipes, hand sanitizer, an extra set of clothes for each kid, and spare garbage bags for any soiled items. Cole oversees keeping the groover stocked. Though, unfortunately, tends to need a reminder to empty it once we return home.

It’s taken years to develop this system, and we’ve encountered several accidents. Particularly when the kids were transitioning out of diapers. Of course, actual photographic evidence exists of the time I forgot to bring extra diapers for my daughter, so I tied a bandana around her tush and hoped for the best. “Best” was a relative term.

Although I always remember to pack extra clothes for the kids in case of an accident, I don’t always remember to do so for Cole and me. If I’m really on it before a launch, I throw two t-shirts in the emergency bathroom kit. But we’ve rowed many miles with poop smeared on our clothes.

We’ve had times when the kids haven’t made it to the groover on time and pooped on the riverbank. The bags still come in handy for clean up. And it’s taught us to keep the bucket at the ready instead of buried beneath our gear, which can be tempting, especially on multi-day trips in the hot summer sun.

Keeping the groover secured near the oars means one adult can unstrap it from the frame while the other swiftly carts the kiddo, sometimes pulling the child’s pants down while exiting the boat and looking for a less conspicuous groover location, all while hollering for the bucket. I think this process might be the closest I’ll ever come to being a ninja.

When basic bodily function needs are taken care of and planned for, especially on the river, where the environment dictates the movement, pace, and largely the outcome of the day, there’s so much more room for exploration, adventure, and fun. Kids need little coaxing to talk about poop, pee, or make any number of poop jokes. They’re especially thrilled when an adult indulges and even encourages such potty talk. And pooping in a bucket, the very concept of a groover is, in itself, somehow hilarious.

Silliness aside, lessons in groover use also allow me to talk about what makes rivers so special and why taking care of them is so important. Starting with proper human waste management expands into other conservation topics. Like why littering and pollution of our waterways are downright bad. Or why sometimes we stop at a check station to check our raft for potential unwanted invasive aquatic hitchhikers.

I temper my fears when we talk about why the whitewater section of the Middle Fork won’t be runnable much past mid-July because we had a hot spring and our snowpack melted much too quickly. For my children, the climate crisis is an inescapable backdrop to our impromptu lessons.

I was raised on the rivers of the Great Lakes region. My parents instilled in me a lifelong love of the environment and the responsibility to conserve and protect it. I hope to do the same for my kids, following the Wild and Scenic North Fork of the Flathead River into Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes of my birth, to illustrate how water systems are vitally connected.

In my mind, it’s not a boring classroom. But again, I’m not an eight-year-old whose natural lexicon includes the vernacular of the American West, words like grizzly bear, whitewater, avalanche, or powder peppering his regular conversations. If I had to guess, I’m sure I once uttered a similar lament to my parents while canoeing down the Jordan or the Sturgeon in northern Michigan.

At least my daughter, Darcy, hasn’t followed a similar angsty tack. She continues to wear her princess costumes on the river, which cements in her the legions of river runners who know that any self-respecting rafting trip includes a costume party or two. I didn’t even explain the tradition of costumes and rafting to her. Somehow, she just knew to dress up before gearing up for a trip on the Middle Fork. Perhaps there is some sort of river life genetic inheritance?

Now that my kids are a bit older, they like to oversee groover site selection. It’s one of the tasks they can safely manage on their own and gives them a sense of contribution to the trip. On a joint family trip a few summers ago, my son and his friend were the Chief Groover Patrol. After a few basic instructions like not placing the groover miles away from camp, watch out for rattlesnakes and grizzlies, and try not to get lost, they wandered along the rocky riverbank in search of the best place to poop, supplies in hand.

While the adults set up camp and the kitchen, my daughter played in the late afternoon sun. The boys returned to camp, bursting with excitement. Like budding real estate agents, they gathered us and led us to the campsite bathroom, pointing out the privacy features of the downed cottonwood logs and shrubs and how the placement of the privy afforded a nice view of the river bend. They were proud, and so were we.

River trips are sneaky in that they offer so many opportunities for kids to get involved, even if they’re too young to row. They get to help set up camp, including the bathroom. Mine love gathering wood for a fire. And when river magic happens, like seeing a young grizzly bear in the tall grass, their awe intensifies my own.

My emphasis on building comfort with using a portable commode is that it’s a baseline skill for recreating safely and comfortably in nature. It’s one that often gets overlooked—especially if we haven’t grown up taking naps in the bottom of canoes or having our diapers changed on the top of a dry box.

Like many adventure sports, access and representation aren’t equal. Using a groover can be intimidating, even if you grew up with a paddle in hand. Starting my kids with basic conversations before we even hitch the trailer to the truck about how—and why—we’ll poop into what essentially is a five-gallon bucket are essential conversations that help build their confidence as much as how to read the river.

I also know that they won’t be young for long, and their bodies and bodily needs will be different too. At the moment, privacy doesn’t seem like a priority, but I imagine that will change. Like when my daughter begins to menstruate. But maybe having conversations about our systems on the river will help ease the transition on dry land, not just for my daughter, but for my son, too.

Cole or I won’t have to help my kids wipe or even set up the groover forever. But I hope we’ve laid a respectful foundation for when those needs change. Or at least we’ll figure out a way to make sure everyone feels comfortable, their basic needs met. How we can keep enjoying the river as a family.

Raising groover-loving kids isn’t entirely all about developing self-sufficient, conservation-minded children who will invest in a reciprocal relationship with the natural world. OK, so that’s a big part of it. It’s also slightly selfish. I don’t want to give up rafting. I want Charlie and Darcy to fall in love with rivers the same way I did. So much so that sometimes, in the dead of winter, I remember that tug and pull of a current against my boat and body, falling somewhere between a whisper and command, demanding all of my attention, and I think, how could anyone not hear this siren call?

In the cosmic dance that is parenting, where one child finds the surge and spiral of water “boring” and another squeals in delight wearing a white and pink princess dress, I’ll take the small victory that, at least for now, our groover beats out the outhouse. It’s not even a competition.


Guest contributor Maggie Neal Doherty is a freelance journalist, opinion columnist, and book critic. Her feature stories have appeared in The Guardian, Washington Post, LA Times, Ski, Field and Stream, High Country News, and more. Originally from northern Michigan, she’s 20 years a “Westerner” in Kalispell, Montana where she lives with her husband and two kids. Maggie’s a self-proclaimed “bookish river rat” and always packs too many books on any outdoor adventure.