My daughter has a poster on her wall that says, "The river is life."
She bought the poster after a week of paddling her kayak on whitewater rivers in North Carolina; though schoolwork, a job and other interests keep her off the river most of the time now, she keeps the poster up to remind her of the exhilaration she felt in her own skill, of the confidence and independence she gained facing turbulent water alone and of the companionship she achieved with us -- her parents and brother -- and other adults who treat her as a friend on shore and an equal on the river.
Her brother, Ward, paddles with us still, and his enthusiasm has grown along with his skill in handling his decked canoe (C-1).
For most people, whitewater paddling evokes a sense of danger and images of brave and brawny mem tackling mighty rivers alone in a canoe. In this area, it might also bring up a picture of dedicated young athletes who sacrifice their time and youth to become world champions.
It's both. It's also a family sport, one our family shares with hundreds of others in the metropolitan area.
Dick Bridge, the dean of Washington's whitewater teachers, estimates that between a third and half of the Canoe Cruiser Association's most recent canoe classes were composed of couples in their 30s and 40s. A few bring their children into the sport from the start, though most wait until they have gained some measure of skill themselves.
At the Monocacy Canoe Club's annual whitewater weekend clinic, the percentage of families was higher: About 80 percent of the students were enrolled with one or more members of their family. The average age of the adults -- both teachers and students -- was over 35.
One of the families that took the course was the Welds of Gaithersburg. Jack and Pat Weld share an open canoe; son John has his own junior-size kayak.
Jack Weld sees canoeing as a challenge, a forced vulnerability for a man who, as a teacher, is used to being the authority, not the amateur.
"Everything else I do is safe," he says. "At my age, you don't like to expose yourself to making mistakes, especially in front of others. But when I'm on the river, I feel alive. I feel as though I am living in the moment."
Part of the challenge and the heightened awareness Weld experiences comes from the element of danger that's always present.
Karen Voisinet of Silver Spring, who paddles with her husband and sometimes their young daughters, agrees that there's danger, "but it can be made minimal with good training, good equipment and good sense." She will also tell you that canoeing is not going to suit everyone: "You have to put up with heat, cold, wet, sand, mud and long waits for the cars."
So why do they do it? The answers are as varied and as constant as the rhythms of the river itself. The most common themes are beauty, unity with nature and a sense of accomplishment.
The perspective from the water level is totally different from the one you get looking down from the bank. A skilled whitewater paddler also learns to be a partner with the river rather than an adversary.
You learn respect for the inexorable force of the current, yet must be willing to give yourself over to it in certain instances. Or, in canoeing jargon, "lead downstream."
And, when you plunge into a rapid, you don't have to wait a month, a year or a lifetime to know whether you've made the right decision. You know immediately.
Dick Bridge feels that one of the most important things whitewater offers for young people is independence.
"They can get away from their parents, even if it's only across the river. They can learn to face a challenge alone and gain confidence in themselves.
The Vamos' son Chris relishes the independence he has achieved in his C-1: "I started canoeing with my mom, and that was okay," he says. "But I wanted to get in the rapids and play around more than she did. Besides, if you flip in your own boat, you can't blame anybody but yourself."
As Chris knows, everybody spills sooner or later -- whether it's caused by a rapid tougher than you are ready for, a slow reaction or a lapse in concentration, it happens.
Such spills are like paying dues to the river; they make lunchtime conversation instead of news because whitewater paddlers are disciplined to help themselves and one another.
Rules for handling yourself in a capsize are impressed on new paddlers along with a strong sense of responsibility for others.
As our son Ward puts it in the parlance of the times, "If you're going to be on the river righteously, you have to be ready to help other people. You may be the next one looking" for help.
If you probe, whitewater canoeists will admit that learning to handle a churning river takes hard work, concentration and training in specialized techniques.
They also will admit their concern about the number of people showing up on whitewater rivers without that training. They are more likely to spill and less likely to know what to do about it.
The canoe clubs and several private instructors in the metropolitan area offer training and help in choosing the right rivers for your level of skill; the clubs new schedule trip on the weekends where new paddlers can practice in relative safety.
A Monocacy club trip on the Potomac last summer was typical:
The river was chosen and announced well in advance.
The designated trip leader, in this case the Bradshaw family collectively, set a time and place to meet, checked the water levels and arranged to have cars driven to the take-out point downriver.
We also made sure we had rescue roped and first-aid gear with us.
The group included tandem and solo canoes, kayaks and C-1s.
The youngest was nine-year-old Michelle Voisinet, who was in a canoe with her dad; the oldest could have been her grandparents.
Since the trip was classed novice, there were paddlers who had taken only a basic river canoe class as well as old hands.
As we approached each rapid, the new paddlers were offered advice on how to run it while some of the more experienced went ahead to serve as safety boats.
We stopped for lunch and a swim break and kept up a traditional verbal battle between the "funny boats" -- the speedy, nimble kayaks and C-1s -- and our lumbering open canoes.
Once the last rapid was behind us, and nearly a mile of flat water still lay ahead, the banter broke into open war.
The kayaks and C-1s, including Chris Vamos, Ward and our daughter and John Weld, used their paddles to send sheets of water spraying into the open canoes. We filled our bailers with water and shot it back.
In all wars, there are turncoats.
Michelle jumped ship on her father right after she scored a bullseye on another canoe.
Then, she might have seen Chris coming. He tried to board the Voisinets' canoe. He was repelled, but he took the boat down with him.
From the Cabin John bridge looking down, it must have seemed like the Spanish Armada after the storm.
The final count was five funny boats capsized to one open canoe swamped.
Which brings up a final point about family canoeing: Not only do the kids get a chance to be adults on the river, the adults sometimes get to be kids.