Yvon Chouinard can have his Let My People Go Surfing book. Thanks to longtime paddler, author and wilderness adventurer Alan Kesselheim, paddlers now have Let Them Paddle, his latest book on revisiting rivers with his three children that they unknowingly floated a decade and a half earlier as fetuses. PL checks in with the author…
When Kesselheim and his wife, Marypat, were starting their family, each of their three kids unintentionally experienced, before birth, a major river expedition. Recognizing a unique opportunity (and excuse to go paddle), the family returned to each of those “birth” rivers to repeat the three original paddling trips as each child reached the age of thirteen. Over a period of four years and spanning geography from the Arctic Circle to Mexico, the family of five shared inspirational travel adventures and created their own unique rites of passage.
PL checks in with Kesselheim for his take on the book and the journeys…
What inspired you to return to those rivers?
Kesselheim:The theme of these trips was to return to the same rivers we were pregnant with each kid on before they were born as a mark of their transition to adulthood. For each, they had been womb-bound stowaways on these same rivers and so we returned as each kid turned 13 to celebrate that transition. The only exception is Ruby, who, in addition to her birth river – the Rio G – she talked us into another northern foray down the Seal River in Manitoba. So she got two trips.
Quite a bit different this time around, with the kids in tow on their respective birth rivers?
Kesselheim:Having children in the wilderness puts a very different cast on the experience. On the one hand, it expands the experience because they bring their youthful energy and curiosity to the mix. On the other, it is a daunting responsibility, just as it was when we were pregnant, to travel safely and competently while engaging the adventure fully. On balance, I’d say that having kids with us was like turning the lights up higher – a great illumination on the experience. This was especially true in the Far North, where the scale and scope of wilderness is so vast. It was a true pleasure to introduce our kids to that level of adventure and exposure.
So Marypat was pregnant on all three earlier trips…what was the farthest along she was while paddling, and did it hinder that particular trip at all?
Kesselheim:She was 5-6 months along with Eli on the Kazan River. By the end of that trip she was finding it more and more difficult to be comfortable — the paddle rubbed, it was hard to get up from sitting on the ground, that sort of thing. With Ruby on the Rio Grande she was actually 7 months pregnant, really big. In addition, the two boys were ages 2-3, so they were a major handful. We had all of us in one 17-foot canoe — that was challenging.
How did the kids react to the idea of traveling to their “birth” rivers? Kesselheim:Enthusiastically.They have always thrived in the wilds, and they are best with each other on trips, where the distractions of civilization, school and friends disappear and they revert to their playful ways. The only exception was Eli, on Ruby’s Seal River trip. He was scheduled for a soccer camp that summer, so he convinced us to leave him home for that leg. Otherwise, they were all very into the experiences.
Have the rivers changed much in those 13 years?
Kesselheim:Along the Kazan I felt there was real evidence of thawing permafrost in the amount of standing water, the river levels, and the eroded ground. That was very different. Also, on the Rio G., post Homeland Security, the border feels very different. Especially on the Mexican side, there is a palpable sense of atrophied communities and a lack of vitality that was there when we first went down in ’95.
PL: Did it bring you all closer together as a family?
Kesselheim:Well, sure. There is no way you don’t coalesce out of months of shared time in tents, in storms, on the water, sharing food, waiting out the wind, experiencing danger and beauty and wildlife. It’s hard to pinpoint the evidence, but our kids are really tight with each other. More to the point, they still like going off with us on trips — we just got back from a week in the desert with them and it was wonderful, despite the fact that they’re more college-age these days.
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