Paddling with Kids

I was a water droplet of a man when I joined my family as a fifth-grader on a five-day float down Colorado’s Yampa River. Whether that trip influenced me to eventually raise my own kids a block away from the same river, I’ll never know. But it left an impression as indelible as the desert varnish stripes streaking down its famed Tiger Wall.

About all I remember from it is the guide telling me to kiss the wall for good luck as we floated by, and me giving my mom a bouquet of Indian paintbrush flowers, my face reddening like their petals when a guide commented on the gesture. You never know what a child will remember on such a trip, except that it will likely stay with them for life. I remember a flower bouquet and a kiss.

I’ve paid it forward with my daughters, Brooke and Casey, exposing them to the river every chance we get. By the time each were three, they’d already been on river camping trips on Utah’s San Juan River and Ruby Horsethief Canyons on the Colorado. Back in our hometown of Steamboat Springs, at age two Brooke blurted out 10% of her vocabulary: “I wanna go rafting!” So we did, inflatable kayaking the town run, using her baby jogger for our shuttle. You see, we’d realized that — aside from the scorpions, rattlesnakes, cactus, fire ants, poison ivy, sunburn, cliffs, and rapids — paddling is one of the most family-friendly activities there is, no matter the craft or waterway. It will float your spirits just as it does your boat.

Of course, it’s not always effortless — especially if you’re going overnight. Diaper changes, pacifier cleaning, cry arbitration, and crib packing all compete with everything else you normally do on such a trip. Crack-of-dawn starts are over; a trip’s success is measured by smileage more than mileage; and kids command more attention than the waterway. But you’ll also learn something more important. When you’re making mud pies, skipping rocks, and feeding ant lions (whose claws are straight out of Dune), it’s the being out there that counts.

We soon started taking our kids on river trips more regularly, with other families joining in, dealing with everything from shuttle logistics (“Okay, we’ll leave your rig at the takeout, but we have to shuttle three car seats down”) to rigging (“Let’s tie the Pack ‘n Play and umbrella on the back for Abby”). We also learned other things — like if you’re telling a bedtime story in the tent, make sure your spouse didn’t bring the baby monitor out to the campfire where everyone can hear you. Our Year of the Flatwater Trip evolved every year thereafter, and now we make paddling an annual family activity, where we bond even more than at the dinner table.


PFDs. The number one rule when paddling with kids: always make sure you and your child are wearing a properly fitted life jacket when on the water. It doesn’t matter the craft or waterway. Today’s Coast Guardapproved Type III life jackets fit better than ever, and there’s no excuse not to wear one.

Paddlecraft. When it comes to crafts — not needlepoint or finger painting, but paddlecraft — there are as many to choose from. In Colorado, we often take to local waterways and lakes in rafts, canoes, and inflatable and rec kayaks (not too much use for sea kayaks here). Rec kayaks come in a variety of options, with wide bottoms for stability and either enlarged open cockpits, which are easy to get in and out of, or sit-ontops, which make getting in even easier.

Getting Started. Craft chosen, there are two ways to get your feet wet: line up the gear and John Wesley Powell it yourself, or hook up with an outfitter to show you the ropes. For those unfamiliar with the discipline, go with an outfitter; they have the gear and skills to ensure your indoctrination doesn’t become an indunktrination. Unsure? Take an outfitted trip first, and then play Huck Finn. Either way, realize that paddling with your kids is a way to come together on a medium that’s responsible for all life itself — which means it’s bound to help your family life as well.

A former raft and kayak guide, and 14-year publisher and editor-in-chief of Paddler magazine, Eugene Buchanan has written about the outdoors for more than 25 years. He lives in Steamboat Springs.

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