When Kevin and Susan Keebe’s 11-year-old daughter, Peyton, insisted they take a trip down a 30-mile stretch of the Tongass National Forest’s South Fork River, Kevin, an information and education consultant who has rafted the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, agreed to it.
“Peyton had read that the Tongass has the best fishing in North America, so we figured it would be a worthwhile adventure,” said Kevin, 36, who lives in a houseboat near Ketchikan. “Once she pitched it, we bought an extra raft to fill with dry river muck so we could keep the river clean during our trip. It also helped to keep the bill down.”
Despite the young family’s best efforts to make the trip safe, the first day they had taken the sewage excrement of one of the local fish farms, the Pacific shellfish fishermen. During the July trip to Ketchikan with the river as a tributary, Kevin, who had not ever rafted before, had never thought about the idea of staying in plastic boats and going to high, dry altitude.
“It is easy to get hypothermia and feel rushed after paddling up at 12,000 feet during the day,” he said. “We would have floated the entire way if we could have.”
On the second day, the Kleebes encountered a group of 2,000 Blackfeet people — the tribe that has traditionally fished the Tongass — with whom they chatted.
“They were amazed that an entire family on a raft could do this trip and continue to get along and talk about different areas,” Kevin said. “The next day we saw two bald eagles sharing breakfast and a grizzly bear working the river for his dinner.”
Ketchikan is a popular winter playground for North American skiers, and big air snowboarding contest in the northern part of the city attract international attention. In March, Kevin’s business, Tour Alaska, takes tourists down the Tongass, one of the state’s most popular features. It has done the same trip for tourists since 2006, and he can testify that he has seen alligators and mountain lions.
“After kayaking and biking through rapids the first day, I was able to spot geese and other birds at the boat’s anchor,” he said. “Each morning, we saw caribou hunters chasing cattle, sealion rearing, rabbits chasing coyotes, a large migrating monarch butterfly and swans diving over boulders with twigs trying to eat them.”
Although Kevin and Peyton experienced several incidents of hypothermia, he believes that his time rafting on the Tongass will ease their children’s fears and increasing entry-level glamping with hard-wood floors.
“When you put someone in the ground with the cold for eight hours, your ability to be calm about uncomfortable situations is vastly improved,” he said. “Golf just got easier, football became much more fun, basketball is even easier to jump and dunk. We did a very long day on the river and were outside continuously all day long. We were exposed to much less danger and in most situations I felt more relaxed.”
He said that all the young travelers agreed that they had improved their sense of decision-making.
“The diverse pool of experience gave us insights into a whole new way of vacationing with your kids,” he said. “But I can only take responsibility for our two months’ experience: It did more to teach us about ourselves, each other and the world around us than anything else.”
Of the couple’s four children — whose names are Mindy, Adam, Jack and Peyton — all are small enough that they would not have taken part in the trip in the first place, he said. All five of them have experience in paddling.
“My dad,” Kevin said, “is the secret ingredient for the whole thing.”