A Rafting Trip -- Exciting for Everyone

Guy Gibson has the answer for parents whose teens insist they've outgrown family vacations. And he's not talking about leaving them home or dropping them at the nearest theme park. The Northern California attorney and father of three teens advises gathering the gang and heading for the river, one with enough white water to keep the young folks interested but not so much that parents have to clutch the raft for dear life.

"You're not in the car arguing about where you'll eat. You're not hearing the kids complain they're bored. You're not wondering where they are," says Gibson, voicing what we parents all know: When the kids are happy and in good hands on vacation, parents are happy, too.

River trips are exciting and relaxing -- with plenty of family bonding time and at least a few decent conversations. The kids can get off on their own, too, taking turns in individual inflatable kayaks. "It's a time to bring the family into an atmosphere of discovery without carrying all the baggage of modern life, phones and faxes and televisions," explains John Lynch, a spokesman for the American River Touring Association which has been outfitting rafting trips since 1963.

"A rafting trip really works. We got a week with our 15-year-old where she wasn't complaining a bit," agreed George English, a Tallahassee, Fla., banker who rafted last summer. Moms, meanwhile, like rafting trips because they spell relief from vacation chores: The activity planning, navigating and cooking are left to the guides. "I'd do it again in a second," said Celeste Soden, who lives in suburban Chicago and rafted last summer with her own and her brother's family.

However, rafting trips are not cheap, averaging $100 a day or more per person, and most aren't meant for children under 6.

But once the kids are old enough, parents and outfitters say, they'll have an experience well worth the money. I think so, too. The trip I took nearly 20 years ago down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon still ranks as one of my best adventures. I'm looking forward to the time when my kids are old enough to go.

They'll have lots of company. This year, some 5 million people will take a rafting trip, more than double the number who rafted a decade ago. Thirty percent are now families, and that's likely to grow.

"Outfitters tell us families represent the fastest-growing segment of their business," says David Brown, who heads America Outdoors, the nonprofit organization that represents about 400 wilderness outfitters. He adds that Meryl Streep's film "The River Wild" certainly helped business. (For a free 68-page directory, call America Outdoors at (423) 558-3597 or visit its Web site at http://www.americaoutdoors.org.

A rafting trip is a lot more than strapping on a helmet and life vest and crashing the rapids or floating through a pristine canyon. There's time for swimming, fishing, beach volleyball and gourmet meals under the stars. "It provides a pure wilderness experience without really roughing it," explains Dave Wiggins, whose Colorado company American Wilderness Experience offers family trips from six different outfitters as well as combined raft and horse adventures, (800) 444-0099.

Here are other outfitters respected in the industry that have a particular commitment to families:

* OARS The Angels Camp company in California runs 10,000 trips a year, including five-day trips on the Rogue River in Oregon, six days on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho and overnight float trips on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. On family trips, a guide is designated as "fun director" and comes equipped with a bag full of games and toys for the kids. On most trips, after the first two family members pay full price, everyone else in the family gets a 15 percent discount. Call OARS at (800) 346-6277 or sign on the Web at http://www.oars.com.

* The American River Touring Association (ARTA) is headquartered in Groveland, Calif., and has been outfitting river trips since 1963. ARTA also offers family trips on the Salmon, the Green River in Utah and one-day adventures on the American River near Placerville, Calif. That allows more time to play and includes a "fun captain." Nonprofit ARTA, donates a portion of its profits to environmental efforts. Ask about family discounts. Call (800) 323-2782 or look on the Web at http://www.arta.org.

* Northern Outdoors Adventures in The Forks, Me., is celebrating its 20th year taking people through the Kennebec River Gorge and down the Penobscot River. There are one-day and overnight family adventures for those whose kids are at least 8 as well as two resort centers that offer accommodations in a lodge, cabin or tent. Call (800) 765-7238 or check the Web at http://www.northernoutdoors.com.

* River Odysseys West (ROW), headquartered in Coeur d'Alene, Ida., offers Family Focus trips each summer on the Salmon River Canyons. The guides even serve an earlier children's dinner and ensure the kids have plenty of time to play and swim. Special Parent-Teen Adventure trips also are scheduled. Call (800) 451-6034.

* Bill Dvorak's Kayaking and Rafting Expeditions in Northrop, Colo., has been in business since 1969. Certain trips on the Green and Dolores rivers are kids-go-free with one paying adult. Other family discounts are available on two- and three-day trips. Call (800) 824-3795. Guy Gibson, meanwhile, has become such a rafting fan that he's organized trips just to introduce his friends and their kids to the sport. "It's got all the thrill of a two-minute ride at Disney World," he explains. "But it lasts all week."

(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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