A few weeks ago, an article showed up in my newsfeed from our local newspaper:
Winter river rafting is a 'magical experience;' here's where to do it in Michigan.
Before I'd even read the whole thing, I immediately texted my group of outdoorsy girlfriends:
"OUR BUCKET LIST JUST GOT LONGER."
Two weeks later, after a flurry of texts, emails and Facebook messages, I hopped into an inflatable boat on the ice-crusted, fast-flowing Jordan River.
Don't you just love it when plans come together quickly?
Much of the trip credit goes to Lisa, who both organized the outing and took the fabulous photos in this post. Usually I'm the one who does the organizing so it was great that Lisa took over the role. Thanks Lisa!
Winter river rafting: It's either not as bad as you think, or way more awesome than you think.
Many people think that getting into a boat while there's ice and snow around is a dangerous proposition.
I'm here to tell you: It's not.
At least it isn't in Michigan. If anything, floating down a river in winter was more relaxing than doing it in the summer. There's almost zero chance of you getting wet, much less of tipping over; and there's no other people on the river ruining your peace and quiet with their loud music and cursing (or occasionally, having sex).
In the winter, everything is more beautiful, more peaceful, more amazing. We saw deer, another group just behind us saw a beaver, and everything was so quiet. The only thing that could have made this trip better was if the sun was shining, but those of us in the upper midwest know that you have to take what you can get when it comes to weather.
Winter rafting rules
There are a few rafting rules in the winter that are different than the summer. If you can understand and follow them, then you'll be just fine.
1. Watch for low-hanging branches.
Unlike the summer, where the river is regularly cleared of fallen trees and limbs, the winter river is a bit more cluttered. Your guide should warn you of these (ours was named Al and he made dad jokes and looked a bit like Gandalf), or, you can just see them yourself and duck. Duck LOW. Like, lie in the lap of the person next you — a great way to build trust and camaraderie..
One of the women in our group did manage to get a small cut on her face when some ice slid off a branch. But she loved it. The rest of us were actually jealous. Like three different people tried to give her a bandaid and she refused. She said she wanted to casually bring it up on Monday's staff meeting ("Now next up is the marketing budget, but before we move on does anyone think that with this head wound I should be making any big decisions...?")
2. The river runs faster in the winter.
Because the riverbanks freeze before the middle of the river, you'll find winter river rafting moves very quickly — basically the whole current is funneled into the middle. So what may have taken you an leisurely hour and a half in August will take about half the time in February. The good news is that there isn't much paddling to do (your guide will do most of it, asking for a little help every once in awhile) so you can sit back and enjoy the view.
3. The trips don't run if the river is frozen.
Up until the day before our trip we weren't sure we were going to get to do it. Our guide service, the awesome Jordan Valley Outfitters, can't run the trips unless the river is wide enough to get the inflatable boats through (the boats are the same as what they use in Colorado). We had just experienced a very extreme polar vortex in Michigan, and so most of us had our money on the trip being cancelled. But it warmed up just in time.
In summary, if you can watch out for branches, not freak out at a fast current and the river hasn't iced over, you're all set to have an amazing adventure.
This is actually the fourth rule, but it's so important I made it its own heading.
Everyone I told beforehand about my plans had the same facial expression: The "You're-going-to-freeze-your-ass-off" face.
They weren't wrong. But they weren't exactly right either.
To explain, here's what I wore (with tips on how it was awesome OR how I should've known better):
The details of the trip
The trip started at the JV Outfitters headquarters, where we paid $40 each and boarded a bus with about 10 other people at 1:30pm. Dan & Melanie, who manage the shop, run the trips on weekends every four hours or so. It was about a ten minute ride to where we "put in," and we all grabbed a Personal Floatation Device (the outfitter actually laughed when Lisa asked about her "PDF" — which is another thing entirely!) from the back of our bus seats as we headed down to the river.
We had five women in our group, so we got our own boat. We listened to a quick safety briefing, then headed down to the river to get into our boat.
The float begins
I was a little nervous about getting into the raft; as a kid, I had a traumatic river accident with a friend, and so I've always been just a tad anxious when it comes to float trips, even in the summer. But it was as easy as a one-two quick step into the boat. We settled in and pushed off, and headed down the river.
It wasn't long before we came to our first tree and had to crouch down and hold our arms over our heads so that the branches wouldn't swipe our hats from our heads. In fact, the only person to lose something was our guide! But he deftly plucked his hat out of the river with his paddle.
The river flowed quickly around corners and we bumped into rocks and turned around backwards several times, but it was all very chill (ha). Someone said it felt a little like bumper cars. We all marveled at the scenery and the way the snow was untouched in the woods. We saw deer bounding off into the forest at several points (apparently we just missed seeing a beaver, though we saw plenty of sticks that the beaver left behind). Sometimes, when Al asked, we would paddle to help get the boat pointed in the right direction. But mostly we spent the time alternating between taking photos and ducking under tree limbs.
A treat at the end
An hour and a half later (or a bit less), we arrived at the end point. It was just as easy getting out of the boat as it was getting in, much to my relief. We headed up to the bus where there was hot cocoa and "river rocks" — a sort of local sugar cookie-type of treat — waiting for us. We chatted with the others in our group while everyone took turns pouring hot cocoa for each other (they also had hot cider if you wanted it) and comparing notes on our trips.
Do it. Do it now.
If you get the chance, you should try winter river rafting. I'm not sure you need to do it more than once, unless the first time you don't have much snow. You can even do it with the family or as a birthday or bachelorette party. The pictures are amazing, and besides — you've probably done all the skiing, snowshoeing and winter hiking at some point — so why not try something new?
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Jill Hinton Wolfe,
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