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Summer of safety: Whitewater rafting and rappelling are less risky outdoor options for travel

The compulsion to embark on a vacation is understandable, but this is the summer of safety first. Families want to take a trip, but there is a great deal of uncertainty with the novel coronavirus. However, what is known is that the risk for contracting COVID-19 is lower outdoors, according to Dr. Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

A dip in a body of water, preferably with little human contact, is a good idea, according to Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“In my opinion, pool water, fresh water in a lake or river or seawater exposure would be extremely low transmission risk even without dilution,” Rasmussen said via email to the New York Times. “Probably the biggest risk for summer water recreation is crowds.”

While looking back at travel experiences over the last year, it’s evident what is best in a world impacted by the pandemic.

My 11-year-old daughter Jane and I visited Disney World in Florida in February less than a month before the coronavirus halted activity throughout the country. Our shared memory is of the massive crowds that congregated to experience the relatively new Star Wars attractions. It’s difficult to envision how Disney World, which reopened last month, is functioning. The theme park operates with a limited capacity of guests, but it’s hard to imagine effective social distancing.

Also, visiting Disney World clad in a face mask hardly sounds like a blast, particularly under the blazing Florida sun, not to mention the oppressive humidity.

When looking back at our recent trips, it’s evident which is the best bet for a great time and a healthy experience.

Whitewater adventures

A whitewater run appears to be the safest vacation anyone can take during the coronavirus. Rappelling is an ideal option for those who aren’t crazy about rivers. Who would’ve thought these two adventurous options would ever be considered the safest?

Last summer, my then-14-year-old son Milo and I navigated the Colorado River throughout the Cataract Canyon on a memorable four-night run. The experience, which commenced in Moab, Utah, seems ideal for a trip during the pandemic.

A three-person crew, courtesy of Western River Expeditions (, 800-453-7450), will guide your group through an exhilarating whitewater adventure and cook the meals during your three-night run through the idyllic Cataract Canyon.

The vans, rafts and aircraft interiors (after you conclude your trip in Lake Powell, you’ll be flown over the canyon back to Moab via a Cessna) are cleaned and disinfected. Gloves, masks and social distancing are required. Meal preparation meets or exceeds restaurant protocols. Buffets are verboten; food is served individually. Temperatures and oxygen levels are taken daily. Hand sanitizers are ubiquitous. There is more spacing on rafts, and for the entirety of the trip you will likely only encounter those in your group.

Last August, we were part of a 12-person collective, including the crew. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to turn the experience into a family trip and possibly include friends, so, with the exception of the crew, it would be a vacation with the familiar.

Cataract Canyon

Another family signed on for the trip down the Cataract Canyon for the same reason we agreed to the journey. We didn’t realize how long of a wait it is to book a trip for a whitewater experience in the Grand Canyon. The waiting list is often more than a year. It’s also much cheaper to experience the Cataract Canyon.

Our four-day, 100-mile journey was about $1,500 for an adult, which is about half the cost of a Grand Canyon whitewater experience. The Cataract Canyon, which spans 46 miles, is hardly a consolation prize. The walls of the canyon are stunning and vivid due to the array of minerals. The walls contain iron, which imparts subtle shades of red, yellow and green to the canyon walls.

There are 14 miles of rapids ranging from Class II to V. During our late-summer run, we encountered a number of Class III rapids, which we nailed. The refreshing 68-degree water and the twists and turns of the river were a blast. Sleeping under the stars on a cot without a tent since it is bone dry was a highlight. Milo marveled at the myriad of stars in the pristine sky.

There’s more than enough room on the beaches to sleep with plenty of social distance.

The climax of the adventure was navigating through the three most impactful rapids of the Colorado River. We had no problem with Big Drop 1 and even Big Drop 2, which can be particularly tough to traverse since the rapids contain many large hydraulic features.

Prior to taking on Big Drop 3 – why haven’t such amazing rapids received a nickname? – our leader pulled over to survey what was ahead. When we returned to our raft, I watched as the preceding raft made like a vessel at Disneyland’s Splash Mountain as it quickly ripped through Drop 3. I told Milo to paddle hard so we could avoid becoming swimmers.

Within seconds, our raft hit a boulder after our descent, and I was airborne. As I wondered who else was out of the raft, particularly Milo, I failed to lift my legs to avoid foot entrapment. My legs bounced off a few rocks before I lifted them and swam through 200 yards of treacherous rapid and then another 100 yards to one of our rafts.

More than half of the folks on the raft, including our leader, were jettisoned. Milo, the lightest on the trip at 115 pounds, was one of the four who somehow remained on the teetering raft. The hydraulic was so intense that he was worried that his trunks, which were ballooning, would be ripped from his body by the sheer force.

After he jumped over the most intense blast of water emanating from behind the boulder and into the front of the raft, our guide signaled to him and the three others to abandon ship. Milo leapt off the raft, which was wrapped around a pair of boulders, and perfectly executed his run through the rapids.

After having become a swimmer on a number of occasions courtesy of some rough rapids, particularly Pillow Rock on the Gauley in West Virginia, it brought back some memories. It was Milo’s initial adverse situation on a river. Not that we fantasize about runs on rapids going awry, but such experiences make for great stories.

Milo and I still talk about what a great time we had on Cataract Canyon, from the rapids to the fine dining. We loved the pineapple upside down cake and the camping experiences. We were led to ancient Native American ruins and learned about the canyon’s initial river runner, John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War vet. Our guides were patient, knowledgeable and cool during a crisis.

Shoshone River

We recently dialed it down in terms of intensity for an excursion down the Shoshone River in Cody, Wyoming. If you’re looking for a laid-back whitewater trip, the Shoshone is ideal. It’s a scenic, hourlong trip down the Red Rock Canyon. You’ll experience no more than a tame Class II rapid. It’s for ages 4 and older. Our guide from Wyoming River Trips (, 307-587-6661) provided a history of Cody pioneers and the plains Native American culture. It was a relaxed experience in which my sons Eddie, 18, Milo and I chatted throughout our picturesque journey. Not a bad deal for $38.

Zion National Park

For those who have an aversion to whitewater, consider rappelling, horseback riding and a Jeep tour in Utah’s Zion National Park. The rappelling adventure is $169 per person, and we signed off on it at Zion Ponderosa (, 800-293-5444). It was a blast. It’s also perfect for those in search of safe fun. Our group was comprised of Milo and my 21-year old daughter Jillian, yours truly and a guide.

We spent the day climbing down the smooth and gorgeous rock formations in Zion. The following day, the three of us enjoyed a 60-minute ride on horseback with a guide, which is $49 per rider. That evening, our guide drove the three of us to the peak of Zion for a majestic view, which included the Grand Canyon about 110 miles away. It’s $49 person for the one-hour trek.

We had very little social contact. We were primarily on our own exploring, which appears to be the way to go during this unprecedented time.