DAY 6 — “How’s the funness back there? Six year old Hannah Sitzman yells.
Just fine, we say.
She’s perched in the front of an eight-person Montana Whitewater Raft as we head down eight miles from Gardiner, Montana on the Yellowstone River bordering Yellowstone National Park. The water is cold but the more we’re splashed by the rapids with names like Bone Garden, Revenge and Splat Rock, the better the kids like it.
Grownups too, as our guide, middle school teacher Liz Richmond tells us to paddle forward and go back to maneuver through the rapids – and no “lilly-dipping,” which is weak paddling. Austin Lehman Adventures guide Katie Gugliotta, who has been helping to lead our way through Yellowstone all week, leads the kids in silly songs. She’s an experienced raft guide as well; at one point pulling out a silver platter (an Austin Lehman tradition) of Swedish Fish that she insisted came out of the river.
Ethan, who until this trip wasn’t a fan of water, doesn’t hesitate to jump in the frigid water at a clam spot after Katie jumps in to catch him. We all applaud.
Our river guide tells us that the majority of those rafting have never been before and it surely is a fun way to spend our last morning with Austin Lehman Adventures—checking out mountain formations from the water. See the sleeping elephant?
The kids are sorry our adventure is over. So are their parents. Mike Sitzman, Hannah and Ethan’s dad, has had a real vacation—not often the case when kids are part of the equation– because, “The guides facilitated 100 per cent of the experience. I didn’t have to worry about where to park or having water… They even brought our suitcases to the rooms and got us checked in,” he said.
That’s not counting how much knowledge they shared, he added. “They make it so easy for parents and that’s really big,” he said. “I could really enjoy being with my kids without the stress and that’s huge!
We’re talking as we eat our last picnic lunch by the Yellowstone River—pizza, salad, watermelon and trail mix today. Mike notes that not only has there always been plenty of food but plenty of options that the kids would eat—they discovered Nutella hazelnut spread this trip.
Our last night, we’d spent at the Chico Hot Springs Resort in the heart of Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone National Park in the foothills of the Absaroka Mountain Range. The famous hot springs pools are surrounded by mountains. No wonder this is such a popular spot for weddings.
Katie fed and entertained the kids in the hot springs pool while we dined on excellent steaks in the resort’s dining room and celebrated a successful and memorable week.
Dan Austin, who with his wife Carol runs Austin Lehman Adventures, says you can’t underestimate the value of a guided trip-not least of which is that the guides invariably can get the kids to do stuff their parents never can.—even leaving cell phones and iPods and iPads locked in the van. “If the guides didn’t do this for a living, they’d be out there anyway because they love these places so much,” he said.
“We liked that the guides were able to take us places that we would not even have noticed if we were alone,” said Katherine Shatrau, who was finishing a group family Austin Lehman trip at the Chico Resort the same night we were there. “They offered us insights into the area at the right times and right detail levels for the kids and the adults.”
“This trip had no stress whatsoever,” she added. “No worries about where to get gas, whether we were lost, whether we had enough cash to tip everyone, whether we could get dinner reservations or make it to dinner on time, etc. All we had to do was wake up and bring our camera/water bottle/sense of adventure!”
Yellowstone remains the company’s signature trip and most popular especially for families which account for more than 60 per cent of their business.
“While every day was spectacular, the opportunity to spend a stress-free week with our kids exploring such an incredible place was truly remarkable, added Tim Mast, there with his wife and three daughters. Worth the money? “Absolutely,” he said, adding the family is already thinking about next summer.
Before we left in the morning, we were treated to a slide show of our adventure—complete with music –of all of the moments of our week…from zip lining at Big Sky Mountain Resort to posing for pictures under a waterfall to catching frogs and kayaking at Lake Yellowstone to the bear we’d watched in Yellowstone National Park.
“The best vacation I ever had,” declared Ethan as he and Hannah gave a goodbye-hug to Matty, Katie and Hayden, the big stuffed bear who shared the back of the van with them throughout the trip. “I don’t want to leave.”
Next: Reliving the Battle of the Little Big Horn