By Michael Lanza

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t take young kids down that river in May. It’s much too dangerous. I tell families to go in June or later, when the river’s lower.”

That was the dire warning issued to me over the phone by an employee with an outfitter based in Moab, Utah, that offers multi-day float trips down the Green River in Canyonlands National Park. His tone completely derailed me: Based on everything I’d read and heard, May was an ideal time for a family trip on the Green—which may well be America’s best easy float trip.

From the put-in at Mineral Bottom on the Green, through 52 miles of Stillwater Canyon and then four miles more on the Colorado River to the takeout at Spanish Bottom, the river slowly unfurls beneath a constant backdrop of giant redrock cliffs and spires. Off the water, you can take side hikes to centuries-old Puebloan rock art and cliff dwellings, camp on sandy beaches and slickrock benches, and maybe even spot bighorn sheep scrambling around on precipitous rock faces.

I had several friends excited about it. We’d comprise a party of 17, with nine adults and eight kids, the oldest 11, the youngest my four-year-old daughter, Alex. A few adults were experienced kayakers or canoeists, but most of our party were novices. I’d assured everyone we’d have no problems, that the river current would be gentle. But I’d never taken my kids on a multi-day river trip before, and I’d never been on the Green (though I had seen much of Stillwater Canyon while mountain biking the White Rim Trail in the park).

I like uncertainty in the backcountry, but encountering surprise challenges with little kids along can be stressful—and potentially dangerous. And at the other end of our group’s age range was my 80-year-old mother-in-law, Ann. High on my personal list of Big Screw-ups to Not Commit? Losing my mother-in-law on a river.

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So I checked into the river’s level and talked to people who knew the Stillwater section, including an employee at another outfitter—and ultimately concluded that first guy I spoke with was blowing a lot of unhelpful hot air, probably because he had never taken kids on a wilderness trip. He reminded me of other (usually childless) people I’ve encountered who, while well-meaning, seem to think children are like fragile glass vases that will shatter if not handled with extreme care. Like most kids I’ve known, mine are as fragile as an alligator.

We decided to go for it.

Under a blazing desert sun on a May morning at Mineral Bottom, we launch a small armada of three heavily loaded rafts, two kayaks (a single and a two-person), and a canoe. If we set out buzzing with excitement—adults all smiles and kids clearly feeling like they’re joining John Wesley Powell’s first descent into the unknown—we have no idea what a lasting impact the next five days will have on us.

That first afternoon, we tie up the boats to scrub brush on a riverbank of slick mud at Fort Bottom. Then we walk 15 minutes to the ruins of a one-room log cabin built in the 1890s by a rancher named Mark Walker. Not much more than 100 square feet, all that remains of it are walls of hand-cut logs, a stone
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