PADDLING WITH YOUNG KIDS:
A Few Tips
Two Words: Be Prepared
Ok. You've got a kayak or a canoe with room for the family and you're ready to set out on a maiden voyage. Do you find yourself hesitating? With a little planning, this could become a regular outing for your brood, creating memories that last a lifetime and instilling a love for the outdoors that they'll carry with them into adulthood.
As a parent of a three-year-old, I'm currently navigating this course, too. Luckily, I have Chris at my side, and he has nearly 25 years of leading groups in kayak tours-- and a grown son, Graham. Needless to say, he's got this. But today, while we were out with the Special Olympics kayak team on a fun family paddle, it made me think: there's more to this than just putting on your PFD's and setting off into a creek or river.
A Few Tips
BE SMART. If you don't have a basic understanding of tides, current, boating laws (you are in a self-powered watercraft) or paddling, look around for an introductory class. A good intro class will teach you everything you need to know to be safe on the water, including the required gear and how to get back in your boat if you fall out. For example, did you know that you have to have a safety whistle attached to your PFD? And if you don't have one, law enforcement can give you a hefty ticket if they see that you don't have one?
Coastal Expeditions offers private and class lessons in basic water safety throughout the year designed for weekend kayakers that teach you what you need to know to get started.
ALWAYS, ALWAYS HAVE ON PFD'S. As soon as we get to the landing or dock, we all put on PFD's and we keep them on for the duration. No exceptions.
HAVE A PLAN. Check the weather and tides before you set out and absolutely cancel your plans if there is a "small craft advisory." This should be a fair weather activity for sure. Know your route and let someone know where you're going and how long you plan to be out (check out float plans for more information).
Stay out of big water. If you are just starting out, try a small blackwater creek, like the Wambaw, for your inaugural paddle. It doesn't bring the risks of big boats, fast currents, wakes and other issues that the Charleston Harbor or other coastal areas present.
A good map to have on hand is the Coastal Expeditions Map. It covers the entire coast and up to 80 miles inland and is invaluable when you are planning an adventure.
BRING SNACKS. You're not the only person in the family that gets hangry. Today, we threw some canteens of water and some sunscreen in the cockpit of the kayak and that's it. And as soon as we approached the restaurants that line Shem Creek, our little one started asking for food. Trail mix and a couple of types of fruit usually do the trick for a short outing, and a picnic lunch is great for a longer paddle. A picnic gives you a chance to stretch your legs, explore the creekside banks or forest and take a break from sitting in a canoe or kayak (don't forget a blanket!).
*Pro tip: Chris keeps a bag of gummy worms in his pocket and doles them out as an occasional treat when he senses she's getting impatient.
BRING WATER. This should probably go with safety in tip one, but it needs to be re-stated. Bring more than you think you need, and encourage frequent consumption, even when its cool outside.
LEAVE WHILE YOU'RE STILL HAVING A GOOD TIME. Have a general plan for your outing, but don't feel compelled to drag it out if you can sense that the good times are close to an end. When Chris and I take Olivia out, we turn around at the peak of enjoyment. Even though sometimes we are just getting into the rhythm of the day, taking in the dappled light, finally unwinding from the constant pressure of cell phones and computers, Olivia has about a 2-hour window where she'll maintain happiness in the hull of a canoe. So if we're canoeing on the Wambaw in Francis Marion National Forest, we'll paddle for 45 minutes, get out for a creekside picnic and walkabout and then paddle back. As she gets older, we'll push it a little further and further.
PLAN WISELY AROUND NAPS, PEAK SUNLIGHT HOURS AND MEALS. When we go for a family paddle, it works best for us to have breakfast and go. This gives us the morning to be on the water when she's still fresh and the sun isn't pounding down. It's hard to be tired and hot--- and a little person will let you know it with whining and pouting. And the only thing worse than a whining and pouting toddler is being trapped in a canoe or kayak with a whining and pouting toddler!
DON'T STOP. The more times you do it, the easier and more fun it will get. Your child will have a better idea of what to expect the more times you go out. Young children appreciate structure because it gives them a sense of security. Once they know the drill, they are more likely to relax and have a good time. "Paddle, lunch, paddle....then nap in car on way home? Got it."
And keep this in mind as you begin adventuring on the water: just making the decision to go and do it means that you have succeeded. Even if you end up spending more time looking at wildflowers at the landing than you do actually paddling the first few times, just stay in the moment and enjoy it. Next time you'll go further.