By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Dr. Stephen Nicholson got tired of being hated.

“Doc” Nicholson is the nicest guy and one you couldn’t imagine would inspire hatred — except for his profession. “People would come into the office saying they hate you,” he explained.

That’s because Doc Nicholson was a dentist and no one likes going to the dentist, although these days, for some, that could be a welcome respite from shelter-at-home directives.

Doc Nicholson preparing for another day on the river
Doc Nicholson preparing for another day on the river

As for Doc, he retired and opted for a second career where people meet him with big smiles on their faces, some having waited more than a year to meet him. The 75-year-old grandfather is a whitewater rafting guide — a legendary guide, in fact, in whitewater rafting circles, especially in the Grand Canyon where he is known for his skill piloting four-person dory boats through the huge rapids. Dories are small, 17-foot-long rigid boats that can run a river much more quickly than an inflatable raft. Nicholson has rafted and guided his entire life.

We met Doc last spring on our OARS trip on the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah — the last undammed tributary in the Colorado River System. On our trip, everyone vied for the four spots in Doc’s dory every day; A few had chosen this trip specifically because Doc was one of the guides.

I’ve been thinking about Doc and our other stellar guides — all so enthusiastic about showing us the wilderness — as we are stuck at home. One of the best parts about a rafting trip is being so far off the grid, our biggest decision where to put our tent for the night. There are no worries about missed emails since there is no cell service deep in Dinosaur National Monument — 211,000 acres of wilderness across high desert peaks and river canyons, across two states famous for its “Wall of Bones” — 1,500 fossils exposed on an 80-foot-long cliff face inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall.

A boy shows his hand on the wall with petroglyphs. Dinosaur National Monument
A boy shows his hand on the wall with petroglyphs. Dinosaur National Monument

Right now, the famous Quarry Exhibit Hall is closed, all river trips are canceled, and camping is suspended at the Monument due to COVID-19. In addition, OARS has suspended its rafting trips at least through April not only in the United States but abroad.

The Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah, as well as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks have now closed at the urging of national parks staff and local communities concerned that it is impossible to keep visitors a safe distance apart on popular hiking trails. The closures follow the government’s earlier announcement that the parks would offer free entry in an effort to encourage visitors. (Check here for the latest updates from the National Park Service.)

“Warnings on the National Park Service website and closed park facilities are not enough to deter people,” Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association said in a statement. “As more national parks employees have tested positive for the virus, there is a growing clamor to close all national parks, including from The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents more than 1,800 current, former, and retired employees and volunteers of the National Park Service.

Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park

This as city dwellers, in an effort to flee COVID-19, book vacation rentals in small towns and wilderness areas, worrying local residents that they may bring the virus with them, overloading already taxed medical facilities. “Visitation Currently is Not Allowed, “blares , which typically promotes the southwest Colorado region, popular for skiing, riding in winter and mountain biking, hiking and camping in summer.

Even if state and national parks are open, governors and public health officials are urging families to get outdoors closer to home right now.

“Enjoy our outdoors but be responsible. This isn’t vacation time,” Colorado Governor Jared Polis urged on Twitter with the hashtag #DoingMyPartCO. “By staying in your neighborhood or your region, you can help reduce the risk of transmission to our rural and gateway communities.”

Coloradans — including us — who famously head to the mountains at any opportunity — are being told not to “travel unnecessarily” to other parts of the state, to congregate at trailheads or book a short-term rental.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is asking “all visitors to Massachusetts to self-quarantine.”

You don’t have to be in a national park to experience a national park! NPS parks and programs are sharing virtual content on their websites and social media. Check out wildlife webcams, virtual tours, Junior Ranger programs, citizen science videos, even coloring pages. #FindYourPark from home. (For more ideas, check out our just posted The Best Virtual Family Vacation Ideas while we practice social distancing.)

River Raftng with O.A.R.S
River Raftng with O.A.R.S

As we take long walks in our neighborhood – staying six feet from anyone else — I can’t help but look forward to when we can get into the back country again safely.

Rafting trips, I discovered, are especially popular for wilderness-loving grandparents who no longer want or can carry heavy packs or get to locales they can now reach by raft. For families who haven’t camped in years or ever, it’s a way to safely step out of their comfort zone.

The experienced campers in our OARS group thought the trip was the height of luxury — no provisioning and cooking meals (the guides did that). No carrying packs (the boats did that). No reserving campsites or worrying about gear (that was part of the guides’ jobs as well). And such trips, while more expensive than camping, can be affordable. (The Yampa River trips, for example, start at $999.) This was no luxury foray — sleeping on the ground; peeing in the river; carrying our gear and tents; showering only in a waterfall.

“All we can do is be hopeful of the future, Nicholson wrote in an email. “In the meantime, help anyone who needs it and think of the happy times. I can see ’em now, the nice river views, the sounds of the river and the smell of campfires…”

See you on the river, Doc!