A parent starts letting go (but still holds onto the rope)


COOPER AVERILL PREPARES FOR HIS RAPPELL OFF BRIDGE BUTTRESS IN THE NEW RIVER GORGE. / PHOTO
BY GRAHAM AVERILL

I’m not convinced my son is actually going to walk off the cliff until I can’t see him anymore. There are so many opportunities for him to back out between the point where he gets clipped into the rope and the point where he backs off the edge of the cliff, and I wouldn’t blame him for reconsidering. Rappelling off a 100-foot cliff sounds like a great idea when you’re in the van heading to the trailhead, but standing on top of the ledge, looking straight down into a deep river gorge, things get real. Fast. 

We’re in the New River Gorge, that deep slice of rock and whitewater in West Virginia that has inspired so many men and women to put down roots on the edge of the chasm and live the adventure life dream. I’m here with my two 9-year-old kids, Cooper and Addie, pursuing a different dream: the ultimate summer camp experience. The idea is to spend a few days ticking off a list of summer camp-style adventures in the gorge. Whitewater rafting, cliff jumping, campfire stories, cabin v. cabin shenanigans…I never went to summer camp as a kid, but I’ve seen Meatballs a dozen times, so I know summer camp is a key part to personal growth. It’s where you make new friends who have different backgrounds and cultural experiences. It’s where you stick up for yourself against the bully, and climb the rock face called “Certain Death,” and swim the winning leg in the race versus Camp Mohawk, where the rich kids go…Summer camp is important and I want my kids to experience it. 

But I’m also not ready to let my kids explore the world on their own yet, so I’m going to summer camp with them. Does the fact that I never got to swim in a race against Camp Mohawk have anything to do with my decision to insert myself into this de-facto camp experience for my kids? Maybe. I’m not a psychologist. But I’d argue the factor that’s more in play here is that I’m a super controlling parent who wants to teach my kids everything. I want to teach them how to catch a fish, how to whittle a stick. How to whittle a fish? If that’s a thing, I want to teach them how to do that too. How to rappel and how to keep their feet together when they jump off a cliff into a lake…I want to imprint on them, the way mama ducks imprint on their babies or kidnappers imprint on their victims. Stockholm Syndrome. That’s basically what I’m after here: a bond so strong that even logic can’t break it.

Because I’m going to have to let them go. Eventually it will be college and study abroad and spring break in Cancun and marriage…the separation is on the horizon and that separation will start with a legit summer camp experience where they go off for weeks at a time without me, learning how to whittle a fish from some camp counselor barely out of high school.  

So, a family summer camp at New River Gorge. And so far, it’s been amazing. We staged the camp at Adventures on the Gorge, partly because of its location (as the name implies, it’s “on the gorge”), partly because it has a summer camp vibe with a bunch of cabins on a sprawling campus stacked with ropes courses and climbing walls and its own system of trails, and partly because they have guides that can lead us through a suite of adventures that would make up a badass summer camp: whitewater rafting, climbing, lake shenanigans…The guides can handle the logistics while I focus on quality time with my kids. 

“That’s basically what I’m after here: A bond so strong that even logic can’t break it.”

Day one has us on a pontoon boat exploring the serene waters of Summersville Lake, which sits at the head of the Gauley River. We join forces with two other families, both with kids about Coop and Addie’s age and they become fast friends, peering over the edge of the boat looking for fish. They don’t have much in common—they’re from different towns, play different sports—but it doesn’t matter. They’re kids. Kids get along. 

Make new friends: Check. 

Summersville is lined with tall, sandstone cliffs, so we idle beside a shady rock wall and one of our guides sets up an easy top rope for everyone to climb. Later, we paddleboard into concave amphitheaters with waterfalls and find a beautiful 20-foot tower sticking out of the water like a giant thumb. The kids help each other climb the tower and gather the courage to leap (“I’ll do it if you do it.”). And their form is perfect. So are the smiles on their faces. 

Cliff jump: Check. 

Later there are half eaten dinners in the cafeteria and s’mores and stories around a campfire (check), then a wild trip down the Upper New River in duckies where my kids point to the biggest rapids and say, “There, Dad! There!” During the deep, calm stretches of the river, the guides flip over a boat and the kids wrestle on top, king of the hill style. 

Cabin-versus-cabin shenanigans: Check. 

There’s a ropes course that my daughter zooms through, and games of hide and go seek. I hear my kids telling the other kids that they’ll have to meet back at the gorge again next summer. 

And the entire scheme seems to culminate with this rappel off the Bridge Buttress, in the heart of the gorge. You can see the steel bridge in the background as my son slowly inches backwards towards the edge of the cliff. We’re so high up; it’s equal parts beautiful and scary. My daughter has already rappelled and is waiting patiently on the floor of the canyon for her brother to make the leap. She’s only scared of the ridiculous: zombies in the toilet. But my son has real fears: Heights and sharks. Rappelling is the sort of thing that he’ll say he wants to do, but decide against it when the time comes. I watch him work through it all: Pulling the gloves onto his hands, adjusting his helmet, listening to the guide explain how the whole system works. How he’ll have to lean away from the wall and let gravity do the work. I watch him inch backwards and I know any second he’ll quit. He’ll ask me to get him off the top of the cliff, out of the harness and to take him home where it’s safe. That’s why I’m here, to be a cushion for the world. I’m already preparing myself to be kind. To not push him. But he doesn’t quit. He gives me one last look, a little bit of fear in his eyes, but also an eagerness, like he knows if he can just sidestep his fear, life will be amazing. He takes two small steps down the rock wall and then I can’t see him anymore. He’s gone. 

Push out of your comfort zone: Check.

And this is the way life will go as my kids get older. Every little step will create distance between us. They’ll leave me and go out into the world. I can only hope I’m doing a good enough job during our time together to imprint on them. Fingers crossed that my baby ducks have Stockholm Syndrome.