Building Family on the River

When Fulcrum agreed to publish Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water by Alan S. Kesselheim, I was excited. The book, at first glance, is a family’s travelogue covering canoe trips on three rivers—the Kazan, the Yellowstone, and the Rio Grande. On another level, Let Them Paddle is an exploration of the transformative power of nature, the power of the natural world to not only provide us with sustenance and entertainment, but also to envelop us in the spiritual and connect us to ourselves and to others.

A view of the Navajo Bridge from the Colorado River

I’ve been fortunate in the last ten years to take at least one multiday river trip each summer. I’ve rafted the Green, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Yampa, the San Juan, and the Colorado Rivers, to name a few. Each river, like each river trip, is different, but there are some important constants: the feel of oars against the current, Dutch oven biscuits, the beauty of wilderness, trust in myself and those I choose to boat with.

Alan Kesselheim’s trips are taken with his wife and three children; mine have been taken with the extended river family whom I’ve chosen and who’ve chosen me. I admire the Kesselheims’ desire and fortitude to canoe and camp with toddlers and with teenagers—such an undertaking speaks of a family that loves, understands, and trusts each other. Not all families display such attributes and not all river trips result in friendships that become a family.

Again, I’ve been fortunate on rivers over the years. I’ve heard canyon wrens singing at Vassey’s Paradise, I’ve made every move through Pump House Rapid with perfect precision, I’ve listened to the wind whisper in remote Anasazi ruins, and I’ve flipped my boat in the company of my trusted river family. Even as water enveloped me and cold stole my core heat, I knew if I just held my breath long enough to surface, every upright boat in the group would be poised to pull me from the water. And I was right.

Righting a raft after a rough spot

Outdoor experiences teach us trust in ourselves and in others. The Kesselheims’ experiences in Let Them Paddle have something to teach us all—whether we frequent the remote wilderness or a local city a park—about our connection to the natural world and to those around us.