river rafting with the family
Photo credit: Alpine Adventures

We could hear the roar of the first rapid on the Wenatchee before we arrived. The teens in their “duckies,” single-person inflatable kayaks, lined up in the calm water above the rapid. A guide in his own duck gave last reminders and led the chain into the thick of the waves. Those of us on the raft tried to watch, but our guide, “Buddha,” urged us to start paddling so we didn’t end up on a rock ourselves.

Our paddling synced up, the waves splashed in, and the boat went up and crashed down. Yes! This was fun! Really fun! The kids were not falling out of the raft; the teens in their duckies were still upright; and we were all cheering and hooting. Not a single member of our group was thinking about deadlines, messy rooms, budgets, homework or carpool schedules.

Whether you’re looking for big thrills, gorgeous landscapes or family fun in the sun, the Pacific Northwest has the perfect summer rafting experience for you. The quintessential family trip is a midseason run down the mighty Wenatchee River, near Leavenworth, Wash.

I guided this stretch of river for nearly a decade before having kids. Now, with our two daughters, ages 11 and 14, we return every year to find new adventures. The Wenatchee boasts heart-pumping Class IV rapids around Memorial Day; big, exciting waves in June and early July; and fun, calmer floats in late July and August.

We took this particular trip early last August, along with old family friends from Texas. Our three-family group included kids ages 8–13.

We booked our trip with a local outfitter, RiverRider.com, several weeks in advance.

On the morning of our adventure, we arrived at its headquarters on Highway 2, a few miles east of Leavenworth, to discover friendly river guides waving us into convenient parking and then directing us to a little shack at the top of the parking area.

At the shack, we signed release waivers and got a quick lecture on what to bring (sunscreen, drinking water, cheap sunglasses, things you don’t mind losing) and what not to bring (car keys, expensive electronics, things you do mind losing). I was at first disappointed to discover that the river was a little low. We would be rafting the upper stretch of the Wenatchee, starting six miles upstream in Leavenworth and working our way back. I had been hoping for the adventure I was more familiar with, a trip downstream through legendary rapids like “Gorilla” and “Snowblind.”

But there was a silver lining! Teens and adults could choose to paddle their own inflatable kayak (the duckies), providing independence and adventure, the perfect teenage combination. We counted out who wanted what sort of boat and then moved on to wardrobe: wetsuits and not-so-stylish wetsuit booties.

Soon everyone was dressed and down by the river, staring at calm but fast-moving water and heating up in our rubber suits. We strapped on life jackets (tight!), paddles and helmets for folks in kayaks. Some sort of industrial garden hose emerged to cool us as we boarded the bus to take us upstream. Yikes!

Everybody was screaming and laughing, and we hadn’t even started.

No turning back

Photo credit: Osprey Rafting Company

At the launch point we could see our boats, waiting patiently at the edge of the river. Giggles calmed during “the safety talk.” We all piled into the boats and kayaks, and the next thing we knew, we were floating downstream.

Once the boat leaves the shore, you’re committed to the voyage. We had seen the calm water at the end and we were in calm water at the beginning, but we had no idea what the middle of the river might hold.

The scenery stilled everyone’s nerves: bright blue eastern Washington sky over a scattering of colorful rafts on water that twinkled in the sun. The sun was hot enough to make us wish for a dip in the river; the river was cold enough (50–55 degrees) to make us appreciate the sun.

We practiced our paddle strokes and working as a team.  The teens figured out how to steer their little boats — and how to use their paddles as weapons for splashing each other as well as parents and siblings in the raft. Buddha told us stories about past rafting adventures — at least a few were true.

The scenery changed as we entered the steeper part of the river, where the banks closed in. After we shot that first exciting rapid, we paddled on to an amazingly wide stretch of the river in which the water seemed to flow sideways. Underwater slabs of rock ran perpendicular to the river banks, and we had to navigate our way across the expanse, getting caught in funny currents and avoiding being pulled downstream into a huge pile of rocks, which seemed to unnerve even Buddha a bit.

Next stop was for swimming — in a rapid! The guides had picked out a perfect little “eddy,” a calm spot at the edge of the river. At the side of the eddy was a churning stream of whitewater. We waded up through the calm pool, climbed a little rock and jumped into the fray. Woosh! Brrrr! After getting swept downstream a short way, we had to swim aggressively toward shore. A few guides stood guard at the bottom. Most kids went two or three times before we boarded our boats again and headed downstream.

More sun, more waves, more rapids, more water fighting. After about five miles, we landed on a sandy beach, where we snacked on fresh fruit and cookies, took photographs and swam in deep water. For the final stretch of river, some of the younger kids tried the duckies and some of us older “kids” gave up on paddling, lay down on the raft tubes and soaked up the sun and waves.

We arrived back at RiverRider.com headquarters to discover a catered lunch. We had forgotten that our trip included lunch! We quickly stripped off our stylish wetsuits and feasted on grilled chicken dripping in barbecue sauce, hot dogs, vegetables, fresh fruit and lemonade.

The kids clamored to go again in the afternoon. Pleeeease! But it was better to leave them wanting more. Leavenworth, with its outdoor Bavarian music and old-fashioned sweet shoppes, was waiting.

Ashley Steel and her husband, Bill Richards, are a Seattle-based family-travel writing team who wrote and published Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids. Ashley was a professional river guide for more than a decade. In the Northwest, she guided for RiverRider.com as well as several other local companies.

Next in our guide: 

Take me to the river: Our favorite trips and when to go

Oars in: 7 safe trip tips

Finding an outfitter: 8 questions to ask

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