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Touring America's Rivers

Body+Soul, 2007

We're rattling north out of Moab, Utah, in a beat-up, blue pickup with our shuttle driver, Glen, at the wheel. A canoe, three inflatable kayaks, and a cache of river gear wag erratically in the trailer behind us. My husband, Steve, our dog, two friends, and I are bound for Ruby Ranch on the Green River. The ranch is our starting point for a four-day, 45-mile paddle through Labyrinth Canyon, offered by Tag-A-Long Expeditions. With its warm, easy flatwater and abundance of sandbar campsites, it's one of the most spectacular, self-guided river trips in the country.

Three years earlier, before we were married, Steve and I had run this same stretch of river, floating on our backs, skinny-dipping, and sleeping under the stars. It had seemed as if the two of us might come apart that summer, but those four flawless days on the Green sealed us for good. We made it to the end, or the "takeout," at Mineral Bottom by barely lifting a paddle.

Now, as we pull up to Ruby Ranch, we see a different scene altogether: The river is sluggish, brown, and wide, lapping the shore like a lake. It looks impossibly low, practically without current. "You're gonna hit every sandbar that's out there," Glen grumbles. "Better plan on paddling a night shift if you want to get to the end on time."

We scramble to wedge dry bags, tents, and coolers into the boats and launch with circus-like chaos, our kayaks sagging under the weight. The day is blazing, brilliant, perfect, and the river is idling our little flotilla, however slowly, downstream. But I'm too busy worrying about whether we'll ever make it to Mineral Bottom to notice -- and wondering if everything I've learned about rivers is wrong. How do you go with the flow when there is none?

River Reckoning
I was a late convert to rivers. Growing up in the run-on suburbs of New Jersey, I got my summer water fix at the community pool, my grandparents' lake houses in Canada and Maine, and, once a year, the Jersey Shore. The only river even remotely on my radar was the sludge-colored Passaic, which snaked past shopping malls and all-night diners, collecting trash and toxins on its way to the Atlantic. "Carcinogen Creek!" my mother would sing out cheerfully whenever we'd drive across it.

All that changed when I moved to New Mexico in my early twenties. The state's only large natural bodies of water were reservoirs, with broad, muddy shores and gritty bathtub rings of silt around the edge. But reservoirs mean rivers, and there were two close at hand, the Rio Grande and the Chama. Both are beautifully wild and rugged -- and they're the next best thing to the clear, Eastern lakes I'd grown up on. That first summer, terrified in an inflatable kayak, I learned to love the musky sweet smell of sagebrush on the bank of the Chama -- a wiggle of Class II-III (novice to intermediate) whitewater that drops south through roadless, red-rock wilderness to its confluence with the Rio Grande.

It wasn't until five years later, when I spent a week at Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School on northern California's Salmon River, that I discovered what it means to love rivers for what they are -- and for what they can teach you. Practicing eddy turns, combat rolls, and ferries in the Klamath River's clear, beginner-friendly Class II-III rapids, we adopted a mantra of whitewater wisdom that reads like cliche, but isn't: Grab the new water; don't fight the current; look where you want to go, and not where you don't.

Back home in New Mexico, I bought my own kayak, and Steve and I started to take longer trips on new rivers: the Colorado, the Green, the Arkansas. I reminded myself to stay fluid and believe in my roll, even when I was sure I wouldn't make it, and to move with the current, not against it, even though I didn't know what lay downstream. Like Steve, rivers had become part of me: inextricable, steady, reassuring. By the time Steve asked me to marry him, I realized that even though there were no guarantees about how our life would unfold, I could have faith in its flow.

Paddling Forward
Now, as I sit down with our friends for lunch on our first day on the Green, I dig out the river map from the bottom of someone's dry bag and discover -- with some relief -- that we've already paddled four of the 45 miles. The current is slower than it was three years ago, and so are our boats. But at this rate, we'll still make it to Mineral Bottom in time to meet our shuttle driver. The gloomy shadow of Glen's doubt has finally lifted, leaving only the sunny prospect of three days in the languid flux of a desert river. We camp that night on a broad crescent of sand just below a willowy hollow called Junes Bottom. In the morning, as the sun makes its long, patient creep down the canyon wall and onto our tiny peninsula, I watch the water slip soundlessly by, its surface shimmering with the red and orange outlines of the rock above like iridescent oil.

That day and the next, we swim as much as we paddle. We knew that even if we didn't try, the river would carry us along, past thick tangles of tamarisk and narrow side canyons. Our days take on an easy rhythm, and as we pass deeper into the stillness of Labyrinth Canyon, I feel myself shrugging off the nagging distractions of my real life. They don't exactly disappear; they just ease by with the invisible current. On our last night, we watch an apricot half-moon rise over a dusky canyon and wish for more time.

Shortly after noon on the following day, we effortlessly drift into Mineral Bottom. Just as it had seemed possible that we might never get here, now it seems impossible that we've arrived so soon. Our ride is late, or maybe we're early. Either way, we're a long way from anywhere and have nothing to do but wait. We unpack the boats and sit on coolers in the shade of a sweeping cottonwood tree, scuffing the red dust with our bare feet. It's hard not to think about the routines and responsibilities waiting for us out beyond these steep canyon walls. But after giving ourselves up, sun-browned and free, to the slow flow of the Green, I'm not worried at all.

Text by Katie Arnold

River Tours
Not ready to hit Western rivers on your own? One of these expert outfitters will have you paddling in no time.

Run by Far Flung Adventures, this two-day trip along New Mexico's Rio Chama passes 600-foot sandstone mesas, while splashing through Class II-III waves. farflung.com

Sheri Griffith Expeditions leads adrenaline-seekers on a four-day adventure down Cataract Canyon, Utah's 96-mile roller coaster of Class III-V rapids -- considered one of the country's most coveted whitewater runs. griffithexp.com

The undisputable king of river trips is the O.A.R.S.'s Grand Canyon 15-day full canyon expedition in rapid-worthy, wooden dories. This exhilarating trip is guaranteed to change your life. oars.com