For the author and his sons, an afternoon float on New Hampshire's Saco River proves a perfect introduction to the joys of tubing
"But why would that be fun?"
My 7-year-old son Owen's question catches me off guard. I've just excitedly told him and his brothers, Will, 9, and Nate, 5, that we're going river tubing in New Hampshire's White Mountains. It's a big-boys-only trip, one that mom Jessica and baby brother Henry will sit out for safety's sake.
Never once did I consider that the news would have us bobbing philosophically into what constitutes "fun." Because it just is, I think. I ramble on about hunting for crayfish and doing cannonballs off boulders and jumping from rope swings and the thrill of not knowing what's around the next bend. Owen is so quiet, I'm beginning to question myself how and why anything is fun.
"Just trust me, buddy," I eventually say. "Daddy won't be working, and we'll get to hang out and have an adventure."
"OK," he says. "Sounds good." To very loosely paraphrase Jerry Maguire, I probably had him at "Daddy won't be working."
At the headquarters of Saco Canoe Rental Company in Conway, we're outfitted with life jackets and tubes: an adult size for me, smaller ones with bottom sleeves for the older boys, and a tether for Nate, who declines my offer to share a double tube. For a few extra bucks, we rent a dry bag for the sandwiches, apple slices, and granola bars that I've brought from home.
The Fun Begins
A van transports us a mile and a half upstream to the pebbly launch point, where the boys quickly abandon their tubes and begin skipping rocks, splashing, dodging floaters, and attempting to power thigh-deep to the other side of the crystal-clear Saco River. My job of convincing anyone this would be fun is apparently over.
We shove off, and before we've reached the second bend Owen is paddle-steering to an oblong charcoal boulder, which he mounts and leaps from in near-cannonball form. I'm not sure which thrills me more: the devilish look on his face or the fact he actually listened to my earlier discourse on what one does while tubing.
We've hit the river in late August, on a sunny Saturday, or party day, as it's referred to by some at the outfitter's. (Sunday, we learned, is family day, when the bodies filling tubes tend to be much smaller, though often just as rowdy.) And, sure enough, we end up intermittently floating alongside a raucous gaggle in their twenties with fluorescent sunglasses and blotchy "tans" clearly the result of haphazardly applied sunscreen, dragging in their wake a cooler of Miller Lite and, inexplicably, an inflatable purple dragon. This group doesn't seem to need any fun instructionals.
The river snakes through dense forest, occasionally turning to offer postcard views of the hazy green hulk of Mount Washington, New Hampshire's tallest peak. At this time of year, when rain is scarce, the water is slow, shallow, and deeply relaxing -- too much so for the boys. I take turns spinning each around and around and shoving them dizzyingly downstream. We play bumper cars nonstop and purposely drift under slumping trees just so that we can fight our way out of webs of branches.
When the current eases too much, Will dips his feet to the bottom and thrusts himself onward. It's slippery and rocky in places, and we're grateful for our strap-on sandals, Crocs, and water shoes.
Near the end of our three-hour float, we spy a rope swing (not outfitter-sanctioned but too tempting to resist) in a deeper section of river. Will already has drifted ahead, but the younger boys and I pull out. After the best tutorial I can muster -- "hold on tight, swing, let go" -- Owen is aloft, then dog-paddling back with an astonished face. Nate is panicky but determined, and after three failed attempts and one minor meltdown, he, too, takes the plunge.
We reach the takeout point not long after, and as we hand in our life vests I revisit Owen's original question. "Was that fun?" I ask. All three boys look at me like I'm crazy. "Of course! Tubing was awesome!" their stares say.
No more explanation necessary.
If You Go:
Saco Canoe Rental Company, Conway, NH. Tube and shuttle, $20 adults, $12 ages 12 and under; sacorivertubing.com
Brad Tuttle and his family live in western Massachusetts. From left: Owen, Brad, Nate, and Will.
More Family Floats
You can tube on your own, but working with an outfitter is safer and easier: they monitor river conditions, provide the proper gear, and transport you upstream. Some trips have enough white water to justify an age minimum of 10, but these three are easygoing enough for kindergartners.
Tippecanoe River, IN:
Riverside Rentals' tubing season is short (late June to late August) but sweet, with warm, shallow water and loads of wildlife. $17.50 adults, $12.50 ages 17 and under; riversidecanoes.com
Deschutes River, OR:
Sun Country Tours offers tubes from Riverbend Park for mellow floats through Bend's Old Mill District. From $15 adults, $10 ages 12 and under; suncountrytours.com
French Broad River, NC:
Zen Tubing, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and minutes from downtown Asheville, welcomes kids as young as age 4 and offers tubes with backrests in small, medium, and large, as well as doubles. $20 adults, $15 ages 12 and under; zentubing.com
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.
Originally published in the June/July 2014 issue of FamilyFun.