Documenting a family paddling expedition down the Grand Canyon

Editor’s Note: ’20 Seconds in Lava’ is a 30-minute film about a family trip on the Colorado River where 12-year-old Eleanor became the youngest female to paddle every rapid in the Grand Canyon. We asked paddling parent Christian Knight to offer some highlights and liner notes for the film.

By Christian Knight

Scene 2: “We’re 40 percent through the river and only 33 percent through the days …” Advice: Scores of Grand Canyon veterans had told us, via Facebook, to take our time through the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon. That’s where Elves Chasm, Matkataneeba, Havasu, and the Red Wall Cavern are. To make time for the inner gorge, however, we’d have to expedite our time during the first few days and last few days of our journey.


Scene 3: “I think I’ve figured out why I’ve blown my lines …” Advice: A 2,000-pound gear raft is more like a train than a kayak. Accumulating momentum can require some time and effort. But once it gets going, it can be hard to stop. This is especially important to know during the lead-in to many of the bigger rapids.

Scene 4: “I’m also worried about Eleanor …” Advice: Not that we have been successful at all with this, but, as parents, we try to turn our children’s focus onto practice, patience and fun, instead of achievement and outcomes. This is especially important for whitewater kayaking, in which rapids can easily become their own metrics of success. This can be dangerous. Still, Eleanor, then-12, quickly formed a goal of kayaking through Lava. And to kayak through Lava, she knew she’d have to practice on all of the other rapids. And, as her father, I knew I’d never be able to talk her down from that goal.

Scene 5, 15:57: “What are you thinking about right now Eleanor …” Advice: Not sure, actually. But what I tried to do is give her the knowledge and confidence she’d need if she chose to run Lava, and to always remind her that she would always have a spot in the raft if she chose to not kayak it.


Scene 6, 17:56: “It’s a fragile love …” Advice: This one is controversial, for sure, and, to be honest, I am still conflicted about it until I remember that my first priority as a parent is to enable my middle-class, suburban children to develop the kind of grit and resilience they’ll need to contribute to their own communities as they progress through life. The river certainly fosters resilience. The source of resilience, however, is inner-confidence, knowing you can get through this. And sometimes, that begins with an attitude. Tilly Jane, 10, has always been the most nervous about kayaking. I’ve contemplated the very early end of her kayaking career many times. But each time I ask her, she says she is a kayaker and she wants to become a better one. So we keep going.

In this clip, I realized that saying “I can do this!” was not enough. It did not shift her attitude. So I added one more line, which did shift her attitude. “I want you to say one more thing, Tilly Jane: I want you to say ‘Bring it on, Motherfucker!”
She calls her mother ‘Mama,’ not ‘Mother.’ So when she repeated it back to me, she said “Bring it on, Mamafucker!” Her syntax was a little off. But her attitude shifted and she was ready to run the rapid.

Contemplating Lava Falls. Screenshot.

Scene 7, 22:15: “Are you gonna watch from here?” Advice: Teaching your children to kayak reminds me of those early days as a parent, when your newborn is so weak, immobile and helpless. Put a 6-year-old in a kayak and they are basically the same: weak, immobile and totally helpless. They need you for everything. But, as in life, as their skills improve, they need you for less and less. And then one day, you are standing on a bluff, overlooking a massive rapid, and your child says to you, “Am I doing this all alone?” And you say, “Yes, you are.”

It is a terrifying feeling. (Don’t worry: We had two commercial J-Rigs and a Class V kayaker set up for safety at the bottom.) But the feeling is just the same: If she needs me, I can’t help her. By this point, I knew from Eleanor’s 20-plus runs of Class IV Boulder Drop, her cliff jumping and comfort swimming through rapids, that she’d persevere with her confidence unscathed. I knew she’d still be a kayaker–no matter her outcome. I guess you could say, with this one task, I trusted her.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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