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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

With the right education, whitewater paddling becomes a fun family affair

For the Spokesman-Review

After years of training, my 13-year-old daughter and I recently rose to the challenge and met a long-term goal of paddling a multiday whitewater river, in a canoe, without spills, swims or mishaps.

From my perspective, it was a voyage of the heart – the fruit of much fatherly instruction. From Sage’s standpoint, it was a rite of passage – marking a transition from sometimes-klutzy kid to capable young person.

Deeper still, our voyage earlier this month was the final exam after years of study. By the time it was over, the wheel of life had taken an unmistakable lurch forward.

Right river, right companions

To boost the odds of a trouble-free trip, we charted a course for the Grande Ronde River in extreme northeastern Oregon. Though nowhere near as challenging as the Selway River or the Middle Fork of the Salmon, it offers plenty of modest rapids strewn along a 39-mile run through wild, remote country.

Though fairly easy, the Grande Ronde is not without risk. Two brothers, ages 7 and 9, drowned there in early June. On shore, rattlesnakes are common.

Like any free-flowing river, the Grande Ronde commands respect.

With caution a top priority, we chose our other companion with care. On this trip, Sage and I were accompanied by our good friend Paul Hill, one of the finest people with whom we’ve shared a campfire.

Paul rowed a small raft laden with our gear, while Sage and I paddled an open canoe. He was the cart horse; we were the race horse.

There were plenty of other people on the Grande Ronde during those three days, all of them in big, squishy rafts or inflatable kayaks. From what we saw, ours was the only canoe on the river.

Building family traditions

Over the years, Sage and I have done plenty of canoeing together. In the beginning, she simply toddled around in the bottom of the boat, playing with toys and trying to stuff her feet into her mouth. In the fullness of time, she began swinging a paddle over the gunwales and, er, “helping Daddy paddle.”

This trip was different, because we were in a tandem boat on a busy river. This time, I needed a capable paddle in the bow. This time, she was half of the team.

Yes, I was a little apprehensive as we loaded our boats at the launch site. The river was flowing at about 1,400 cubic feet per second, which is a mellow, nonthreatening level. Even so, there’s no turning back once you peel out of the first eddy and head downriver.

With so many other people on the river, it was clear there would be competition for campsites. The clock was ticking, so Paul – our trusty Sancho Panza – swiftly loaded the raft before pushing out into the current.

This was the moment Sage and I had long been awaiting. We powered across the eddy line, she threw a quick draw stroke, the bow swung downriver, and we were out in the current, moving fast and free.

The first 10 miles below the launch site at Minam are on the Wallowa River, upstream of its confluence with the Grande Ronde, and that’s where some of the trickiest rapids are located.

Red Rock Rapid, the first significant navigational challenge (mile 3), came and went without incident. Then came Blind Falls (mile 5 1/2), where the river courses through a rock garden, gathering intensity, before dropping over a river-wide ledge. There’s no avoiding the hit at the bottom, so we tipped our heads back and howled like lost souls as we punched through the standing wave.

At that point, it dawned on us that our skills were sufficiently honed to: a) Stay safe; and b) Have a lot of fun.

A place to feel small

Lush and thickly forested, the Grande Ronde offers a lot to catch the eye.

Sure, there are geese and goslings at water’s edge. There also are grumpy-sounding kingfishers, flitting from tree to tree. Osprey dive from the heights like Kamakazi pilots, plunging into the river in quest of fish; sometimes they emerge with one, sometimes they come up empty. Higher still, bald eagles patrol the sky.

At one point, an otter frolicking in shallow water caught sight of us bearing down on him. He pulled himself onto a barely submerged rock and stared us down as we approached, finally abandoning his post and disappearing into the water as we drew near.

Bighorn sheep are commonly spotted on the canyon’s steeper, open slopes, but they weren’t in evidence on our voyage.

A father/daughter thing

The paddling was undeniably exhilarating, but it was at day’s end that our adventure really came into focus.

Serenaded by lovely birdsong, we prepared a simple meal in a backcountry camp. The setting sun turned the river to burnished gold and there was time for music, shared laughter, and the clink of glasses in moments that define love and friendship.

Later, laying side by side beneath an evening sky splashed with stars, there was time for a girl and her father to talk softly about life and the challenges of growing up.

A few hours later, as dawn began to chase the night away and the birds resumed their song, it was time for another day of whitewater canoeing. More profoundly, it was time for a father to see his daughter in a new light – no longer as a gawky kid, not yet as an adult – but as a companion in adventure.

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