You might say that my wife, Jenny, and I fell in love paddling canoes. Before we had children, we paddled thousands of miles together, traveling down remote waterways and camping out in every imaginable kind of weather.
So it seemed natural, when we had our first son, to take him out on the water with us so he could join the fun.
We knew our paddling adventures would dramatically change with Tom on board, but we also couldn’t imagine raising kids who didn’t share our love of canoeing.
When he was just eight months old, we decided to take him on a trip down the Yellowstone River in Montana. Although friends and family expressed doubts, we persisted.
Sure, things might not go according to plan, but what does with children?
Canoeing does not need to change just because you have a family
The first morning in the canoe, we were preoccupied with making sure the baby was safe and secure on the water. Our attention focused on changing his diapers, feeding him and watching to be sure he avoided sunburn. After awhile, though, Jenny and I loosened up, and we truly started enjoying the magic of canoeing with a child. With Tom as my guide, I was exposed all over again to the warmth of beach sand. I was hearing my first goose honk overhead. And I was pulled back into the strange and glittering world of flowing water, which mesmerized Tom as my paddle dipped rhythmically into the river.
Today, Tom is six and routinely paddles bow. Canoeing has become a way of life for my family, which now includes Beatrice, age five, who’s determined to match her brother’s technique, and April, age three, a veteran of more expeditions than many adults. Our family shares memories of crackling campfires and wilderness stories and revels in the joy of traveling together on some of the nation’s most beautiful waterways.
Canoeing makes a lot of sense for families who enjoy outdoor adventures. Unlike backpacking, it doesn’t require you to carry the load. The canoe does it for you, and there’s plenty of room for picnic blankets, toys and fresh food. In a canoe, you can get to much more remote places than you could ever reach by car.
Most important, canoeing lets you share the wonders of nature. On a three-day trip down the Missouri River in Montana, my family drifted along the same route that Lewis and Clark explored nearly 200 years earlier. The kids spotted Indian paintbrush growing out of rock crevices, dug for freshwater clams in the muddy shallows and watched pelicans drift serenely overhead. Each day was packed with dozens of their small adventures: Beatrice capturing a little frog, April splashing joyfully in a shallow pool and Tom proudly grinning when he scaled a small pinnacle of sandstone.
Canoeing family Tips
To help you experience the fun of canoeing as a family, I’ve compiled some of my best tips, geared to beginners. Over the next six pages, you’ll find my family’s favorite games and activities, as well as a list of scenic waterways to try out. Like Jenny and me, maybe you’ll find that your first canoe trip with children will lead to a lifetime of adventures.
If you’re new to canoeing, I wouldn’t suggest that your family hop into a boat and float off for a week. Remember, Jenny and I had years of paddling experience when we first took Tom with us. It’s best to begin modestly with short outings that might at first even seem too easy. Renting a canoe near a local waterway is a good place to start.
The keys to success
Keep two guidelines in mind. First, make sure a canoe is the right boat for you (if you find it hard to keep your balance, you may want to try rafting instead). Second, travel on water that you are absolutely confident about handling. If you stick to these rules, your canoe trips will be both fun and safe.
Renting a canoe
The first time out, most families rent a canoe. You may not have a lot of options when it comes to the model, but make sure the craft is large and stable. Tell the outfitter where you intend to paddle to be sure the canoe is appropriate for the trip. Rental packages usually run between $25 and $50 per day and should include paddles and life jackets for everyone. Some rental companies don’t stock life jackets in child sizes–an essential on a family canoe trip–so it’s wise to call ahead.
Packing for a day-trip
Think in terms of planning for an all-day picnic where there’s a very good chance of rain, and you’ll be prepared. Kids are likely to get wet during a canoe trip, so dress them in quick-drying clothes and take a spare outfit for each child. Windbreakers and rain gear will prepare you for weather changes.
Pack some snacks–crackers, gummy bears, dried fruit, drinks–along with a picnic lunch and drinking water. Include a blanket to sit on during lunch. A bucket and shovel may be all the toys you’ll need . . . just add water and sand!
Stow your belongings in waterproof bags. You can either line a duffel bag with a plastic garbage bag or invest in dry bags especially made for paddlers. Make sure everything you care about is clipped or tied to the boat and pack the load so it’s balanced on both sides. (If it isn’t, you’ll know as soon as you board, and you can shift some gear, or people, to even things out.)
Jenny and I sought out waves and rapids before we had toddling passengers, but white water is the kind of paddling thrill we avoid when we travel as a family. Safety is a top concern on trips with the kids. By planning thoroughly, you can make sure things go smoothly. For a complete list of safety tips, call the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association at 613-269-2910 or log onto their website.
Getting yourself ready
Even for short outings, parents need to be competent swimmers before they consider family water trips. It’s also helpful to know basic first aid and to practice classic canoe strokes prior to a family outing. Outdoor stores can provide information on clinics, books and videos, and paddling clubs.
Preparing your child
Before they try canoeing, kids should be good swimmers and feel comfortable in and near the water. One way to get ready is to swim together as a family, or have picnics along lakeshores and riverbanks. It’s also helpful to borrow life jackets before a trip and head for a local swimming hole so kids can get used to the feel of them. If you live near a slow-moving river, try swimming with the kids in the current. Teach them to bob downstream on their backs–feet forward to fend off obstacles. Everyone on board should wear boat sandals or slip-on water shoes (available at discount stores) to protect their feet.
Choosing the right water
When you’re just starting out, pick small, protected lakes or slow-moving rivers that are free of obstacles. Large lakes can get dangerously rough if a wind whips up, and fast current is tricky until you hone your paddling skills. Easy water, however, allows you to concentrate on having fun and practicing your technique. Again, I want to emphasize that if you have any hesitation about a body of water, do not set out in the canoe.
Life jackets are the boating equivalent of seat belts. They are absolutely essential for everyone, even on the shortest trip.
For kids under age ten, life jackets should feature a leg loop strap that prevents the vest from slipping over their heads, along with adequate flotation for their weight range (this information should be printed on the vest).
Kids under age five should wear jackets with head-flap flotation as well. Adjust the jackets so they fit comfortably even when cinched up snug.
Wherever the shoreline has swift current or a sudden drop-off, kids should wear life jackets on land, too.
Bugs, burns and other bummers
Sunburn is a real threat on water trips, so wear sunscreen, bring lightweight long-sleeved shirts, and keep hats on heads (we like the hats with flaps of fabric that hang down to protect bare necks). On several excursions, we’ve brought umbrellas for shade and a lightweight tarp to rig as a sun shelter at lunch or in camp.
Kids are also vulnerable to cold, wet conditions, since they don’t have the body mass of adults. Pack some warm hats and mittens for them in a waterproof bag. Mosquitoes, biting flies, and other insects gravitate to waterways. Although bugs usually aren’t too bothersome on the water, when you’re on shore, long-sleeved shirts help the cause. To combat bugs, apply kid-friendly repellent and avoid taking trips in the height of bug season.
As a rule, stay close to shore on open water, even if it adds to your paddling distance. If wind and waves come up, you can quickly get to land or paddle in more protected water. If waves do catch you in the open, angle the boat to face them and avoid getting hit broadside. In rough or turbulent water, the best thing you can do to stabilize your boat is to kneel in it. Your paddle in the water has something of an outrigger effect, so keep stroking steadily, angling toward land or a protected bay.
As long as you follow the basic safety rules, capsizing is, thankfully, a fairly rare occurrence. And when it does happen, most families say it isn’t anything more than a startling and briefly uncomfortable experience. Once you stop sputtering, talk calmly and make sure everyone is making their way toward shore or shallow water. Keep hold of your paddle if possible, but only when everyone is safe should you concern yourselves with the boat and gear. Since your belongings are tied in, they’ll stay with the canoe. While one adult manages the kids, the other can swim the boat into shore.
If you’re new to canoeing, start out slowly. Take a half-day jaunt (at most) and include stops for playing and exploring. In the middle of your trip, take a long break at a pretty beach or picnic spot so you can rest. In planning your route, keep in mind that two to three hours of paddling on a lake will take you two to four miles, while paddling for two to three hours on moving water will take you about five to eight miles.
When you’re boarding a canoe that’s nosed up on shore, one person should stabilize the boat by putting the bow between his knees and gripping the sides of the canoe (known as gunwales) with both hands. From shore or from a dock, the safest way to climb aboard is to step into the center of the hull, bending over to grab the gunwales as you take your seat.
The two adults should sit in the bow and stern seats, and the kids should sit in the center of the canoe, either in kids’ folding chairs or on a comfortable bag of clothes. If kids want to paddle, seat them to one side of the boat’s center and offset their weight with gear or another child. From this position, the young paddler will be able to easily reach the water. Younger children should sit in the center of the canoe, surrounded with gear so they don’t slide around.
Until they get strong enough to be a full partner in the canoe, kids will mostly paddle when the mood strikes. Paddles should reach your child’s chin (when he’s standing) and have grip handles that fit small hands comfortably. As for technique, most kids are naturals, and they don’t need as much formal instruction as they do practice. An overall rule is that the paddler in the stern has more steering control and usually guides the canoe, while the person in the bow is typically in charge of identifying obstacles. Here are the three strokes that everyone who’ll be paddling the canoe should practice.
The forward stroke
This stroke works best when the blade of the paddle enters the water about even with your knee and exits just behind your hip. Short, fast strokes are preferable to long, drawn-out ones. Practice “feathering” the paddle blade on the return by rotating it 90 degrees and swinging it forward parallel to the water. This minimizes wind resistance and the tendency to catch wave tops with the paddle.
This stroke is used to change direction quickly, as when the bow paddler sees an oncoming rock. Plant the paddle well into the water perpendicular to the hull and as much as two feet out from the side of the canoe, then pull straight toward the boat.
This decreases your speed, for example, when you’re nearing the shore. It’s also effective in small waves along rivers, because it slows the boat and lessens its tendency to slap through rough water. For the best results, lean back with your upper body to increase the leverage and power of each stroke.
Although manybeginners like to stick with day-trips, camping out is the next logical step for families who want more adventure. Before you camp out, take day excursions until you’re confident about your paddling techniques and the kids are comfortable on the water. If possible, invite another family along—a second canoe adds a measure of safety, and the kids will enjoy entertaining each other.
Don’t leave home without…
An overnight camping trip requires you to tote more equipment. Here are some of the basics.
A family tent with good mosquito netting, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads.
Mess kits, nesting pots, and a camp stove with fuel (depending on the site, you may be able to build a campfire and cook hot dogs, marshmallows, and such).
Simple, filling dinners like boxed macaroni and cheese, hot drink mixes, a cooler for fresh food (you can even make a pot of chili or stew before you leave and heat it on the trail), and water bottles and plenty of water, plus purifiers for untreated water.
Warm coats, light hiking shoes, several pairs of socks, and at least one extra set of dry clothes per child.
A compact first-aid kit with a basic manual, Band-Aids, and tweezers.
Toilet paper and sealable plastic bags, a flashlight with fresh batteries, and a compass.
Staking out your camp
After unloading the boat, pick a spot to cook meals that’s well away from the water, plus a flat spot to pitch your tent that is a bit sheltered in case of a storm. Make sure you pull your canoe up on land, turn it over, and tie it to a rock or tree. You can stow paddles, life vests, and other loose gear underneath.
The ideal camp has sand and rocks for playing and a stretch of quiet, safe waterfront for wading or swimming. It’s also a plus to be near hiking trails. My kids love to wander through the woods searching for secret hideaways, collecting rocks, and discovering treasures like feathers and bones.
Once you’ve rented a canoe several times and plan to head for the water regularly, it may be time to buy a boat. This is a big–and in some cases, pricey–step.
You’ll have a huge array of canoes to choose from. Narrow the selection by checking out large, stable, and deep-hulled models at a reputable sporting goods store. Typically, a suitable family canoe will be about 17 feet long, roughly 3 feet wide at the widest point, and as much as 15 inches deep at the bow. Ask the salesperson about the boat’s stability and about its tendency to take on water in waves. As is true when you’re buying a car, there will be dozens of models that will work. Pick the one that best suits your family size, the water you want to paddle, and your budget.
Comfortable, snug life jackets are purchases you shouldn’t skimp on, even though your children will outgrow them. Inexpensive paddles (under $30) work just as well as high-priced ones.
Keep the kids busy
Bring plenty of things for kids to do for the times when they aren’t paddling. A bucket and shovel, coloring books, and drawing pads with pencils can engage kids for hours. For added laughs, bring some inflatable float toys you can tie to the back of the canoe.
Keep a trip journal
On a canoe trip to a new spot, pretend that your family is recording a great expedition, in the spirit of Lewis and Clark, and imagine that you’ve discovered the place. Have people take turns recording their feelings, plus the weather and wildlife sightings.
Stretch your legs
Pick a canoe route that lets you combine paddling with a short exploratory hike to a waterfall, scenic vista, or other local landmark. To unwind from paddling, you might take a brief fishing expedition or skip rocks together along a beach. Bring licorice, crackers, and fruit to keep the troops fortified.
Make feathered friends
Rivers and lakes are prime environments for beginning bird watchers. Bring binoculars and a bird book, and have the kids keep a list of all the birds you see during the trip. Ducks, geese, herons, sandpipers, ospreys, bald eagles, and many other species live in waterside habitats.
Make up stories
As you paddle, take turns weaving a tale. The inspiration for your story can be a landmark with an interesting name (such as Bull Mountain). Or, to keep up the paddling rhythm, sing songs in the tradition of the French Canadian voyageurs.
Kids love to race sticks and small logs down moving water. When you take a break, get a competition going along safe stretches of water or in side channels. Or, try log riding. Find a driftwood log big enough to stay afloat with a kid on top. Move it to some safe, quiet water for paddling around in, and children will stay busy for hours.
The following five trips are feasible for people with beginning to intermediate paddling skills and some camping experience. Most waterways are accessible from May to October, but check with the local authorities for the best time of year for trips, general information about the area, and help planning your itinerary.
Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland
The Maryland end of Chincoteague Bay is ideal for flat-water canoeing. The inner side of the barrier island is protected from ocean swells and storms, and there are wonderful opportunities for beach walking and bird-watching. The best put-in is at the boat launch on Fir Landing. Several public landings outside Assateague are good put-ins as well, and they have access to crabbing and clamming areas.
Contact Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 62, Chincoteague, VA 23336; 757-336-6122.
Missouri River Wild and Scenic Waterway, Montana
This historic passage is most famous for being part of Lewis and Clark’s trail to the Pacific, and it remains as beautiful as it was 200 years ago. The river is broad and flat but moves steadily through country full of sandstone bluffs, small canyons, and natural arches. White pelicans and desert bighorn sheep are some of the more exotic wildlife found here. The most scenic stretch of the river begins at Coal Banks Landing, downstream of Fort Benton, Montana, and ends at the highway bridge known as Judith Crossing. Plan three to four days for the trip and you’ll have time to hike and explore.
Contact the Bureau of Land Management, Lewistown Field Office, P. O. Box 1160, Lewistown, MT 59457; 406-538-7461.
Mount Desert Island Bar Harbor, Maine
Mount Desert Island is blessed with some of the most stunning scenery in Maine. Acadia National Park boasts several flat-water canoeing possibilities for beginners. Check out Long Pond, Eagle Lake, and Jordan Pond. Many paddling trips on these lakes can be combined with hikes to peaks or along forest trails. Fall is beautiful in Acadia, and after Labor Day you avoid the crowds.
Contact Acadia National Park, P.O. Box 177, Bar Harbor, ME 04609; 207-288-3338.
Olympic Peninsula Port Angeles, Washington
Several large lakes within Olympic National Park are ideal for day-trips or overnight family canoe vacations. The most remote and rewarding for a backcountry experience is Lake Ozette, in the far northwest corner of the park. The best access is from the small town of Sekiu. From the ranger station at the lake, it is a four- to five-mile paddle to the camp at Ericsons Bay. From there you can explore miles of shoreline by canoe or hike 2.2 miles overland to the spectacular ocean coast.
Contact Olympic National Park, 600 E. Park, Port Angeles, WA 98362; 360-452-4501 or call the Wilderness Information Center at 360-452-0300.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Munising, Michigan
Pictured Rocks is located along the southern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The picturesque shore extends nearly 50 miles from Munising to Grand Marais. The most canoe-friendly water is along the eastern half, which is characterized by long stretches of dune and beach. Designated campsites and some nice hiking trails are accessible from the water. For the first outing, plan a three- to four-day out-and-back trip starting at either Grand Marais Harbor or the campground at Hurricane River and stick to the sandy, eastern section. Although the weather is always unpredictable, the most popular month to travel is July (but be prepared to deal with biting flies).
Contact Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, P.O. Box 40, Munising, MI 49862; 906-387-3700.