This entry is not meant to be a substitute for common sense, or a treatise on child care. The purpose is to provide suggestions as what has worked successfully for my family and other parents who have ventured into the water with their kids.
After the birth of Ian, Brinn and I tentatively began planning our future adventures as a family of three. Brinn bought a baby carrier backpack for hiking, and our wonderful friends and family bought us a variety of outdoor items rugged enough to withstand our high impact lifestyle. After a great deal of scouring the internet, I finally found a riding helmet small enough to stay on his little noggin. Our outdoor plans were all coming together, but one area remained a bit murky: at what point should we introduce Ian to the water? This was a really tough question for us because there’s just not a ton of literature available on this topic, and most of our boating friends with children waited until their children were older before an introduction to whitewater. So here we were striking out on our own with no guide-book on this particular parenting quandary. While I still can’t tell you what age you should aim for to put your kids on whitewater, I can tell you what methods and techniques have worked for us. This entry will be the first in a series of posts on introducing children to whitewater.
All parents are different, and we all have different methods of teaching. That said, I’m personally not a fan of the popular method of putting your kids in a solo boat and turning them loose on a river for their first trip. I consider this on par with throwing kids in the deep end of a pool and expecting them to learn how to swim. Some children might take to this method, but overall, I feel like this will largely inspire terror and set a child up for potential injury, violating our safety first rule. Instead of turning a first time paddler loose, I strongly recommend putting a child in your boat. But which boat is the right boat? That largely depends on your ability and your child’s needs.
1. Single person kayak: This method places an adult paddler in the cockpit of his boat with a child sitting in his or her lap. While some parents make this work, typically they are exceptional boaters who may hold a world title or two. The major concerns with this method are the lack of room and limitations on movement. The child usually gets in the way of the adult’s paddle, making it harder to control the boat. Some parents will use hand paddles for this style of boating, but movements inside the boat will be restricted as well with the child’s weight. We’ve seen some really darn good paddlers take their children through sections of the Nantahala like this, but Ian has always been such an active, squirmy child that this option would be terribly uncomfortable for everyone involved. For other kids, this may work well.
2. Tandem kayak: This method gives the adult paddler more room to maneuver since
the child is no longer right on top of him or her, and usually they have no problem using a traditional paddle. But again, the restricted seating in a kayak would still pose a problem for my wiggly five-year old who can’t sit still long enough to make it very far down river. Another concern for me is the ability for a small child to pop a spray skirt off in the event of a capsize. At five, Ian is still not strong enough to pull a bungee skirt loose from a cockpit yet, and I’m not sure he would have the presence of mind to pull it if he were to flip. Some paddlers choose to have their children wear a touring skirt, or no skirt at all, but both of these options come with the risk of taking on water in the boat that will have to be drained periodically. I feel that this method should also remain with only experienced paddlers who have practiced taking tandem kayaks out.
3. Canoe: A canoe seems like the most logical choice for children to first experience whitewater. For flat water, I heartily agree that a canoe easily outstrips all the other choices, but for whitewater, I still have some misgivings. The advantages of a canoe include more room for a child to stretch out and move around as they get restless, along with the ability to quickly and fairly easily get away from the boat instead of getting hung up in it if it were to flip. These perks sound great, but the downside is that paddling a canoe can be difficult job if you don’t already have some experience with it, putting you and your at a greater risk for flipping. However, if you’re already a bad ass canoeist, like our friends Spence and Lori, then this is the ideal way to get your child on whitewater.
4. Raft: Like a canoe, a raft seems like a no-brainer at first. Rafts are the most stable boat
on the water, there’s plenty of room to spread out in, and self-bailing rafts will drain out any water that they take on going through rapids. The disadvantage is that rafts also get stuck more than other boats since they tend to sit lower in the water and the width provides more surface area to snag rocks. Additionally, rafts are much easier to navigate with at least two paddlers, requiring an additional adult to go along. But most boaters can learn to guide a raft relatively quickly and be able to take multiple children down at the same time! One of my favorite features of a raft, is the option to put children in the floor so that they’re less likely to topple out when going through rough water. The raft is clearly my family’s favorite choice, but we also have our own in-house raft guide 😉
5. Cataraft: Catarafts like the Star Slice provide boaters with a two person raft that is much easier to guide down the river than a traditional raft. While these rafts can still get hung-up, they tend to punch through rapids easily, and they turn on a dime. More and more parents, like Zac, are turning to this option to get their children on the water. We don’t personally have a Slice, but I heartily recommend this option to less experienced boaters who are looking for a safer option to begin introducing their children to small runs.
6. Funyak: While my family found the raft to be our best vessel to introduce Ian to
whitewater, I would probably recommend an inflatable kayak to anyone who doesn’t own a raft. Funyaks cost just a fraction of the price of a full-sized raft, and are terribly versatile boats. They are considerably more stable than a plastic kayak or a canoe, and are easier to get unstuck than a raft or Slice. Additionally, a funyak will fit down narrower creeks where a raft or Slice might be too wide. Small children can easily fit in a single ducky with a parent, but tandem duckies are also available, and provide more room for children to stretch out while on the water. Our original method of paddling with Ian has been to introduce him to new rivers in the raft, and once his confidence comes up, switch him into the funyak for return visits. Now that he’s getting bigger, we’ve started him on some new runs in his funyak –particularly on creeks like Clear Creek where the raft wouldn’t fit.
As you start considering your own strengths as a boater, I encourage you to get out on the water and try out your different options before you attempt to take your children down. Check back in a few days as I share the signs that we used to recognize that Ian was ready to step it up to whitewater.