PHOTOS AND STORY BY DAN CLARK
Family wilderness trips may seem like a daunting undertaking and your first canoe trip with your toddler or teenager might appear to be an impossible first step. But don’t stay home on account of a few unknowns! I can attest to the uncertainty that many parents feel when it comes to kids and canoe trips. Five years ago I didn’t know how to do draw or pry strokes, how to pack a canoe, or if the kids would fall out of the boat in the first hour. Yet after a canoe course and progressively longer trips, our family set off in 2012 on a wonderful wilderness adventure. We paddled 2200 miles north along the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean and enjoyed 100 days in the wilderness as a family. People often ask us, “What gear did you take?” “How did you get the kids to sit in the boat?” “How did you deal with the dirty diapers and bugs?”
Going with your family may take a bit more planning and you may not be able to go as far as a group of adults, but the rewards of a family trip on the water are well worth it. Picture your next family album filled with pictures of the kids lying in the canoe eating apples, playing in the sand on a quiet beach, and settling into their sleeping bags in the tent under a star-filled sky. Comfort is important to everyone’s happiness and success of a wilderness trip, so here are a few tips.
Stay Dry: Notwithstanding playing in the water and swimming, our family is a lot happier if we are dry. Generally we don’t paddle in the rain if it isn’t necessary, and if the waves are coming over the gunnels we get off the water. Our canoe cover from North Water Paddles Sports keeps us dry when we get surprised by a sudden squall or splash. The canoe cover allows us to snuggle a sprayskirt around our waist keeping us remarkably dry and warm, and gives the kids a flat surface to crawl around on when they need to move fore and aft. The spray-cover also reduces the influence of the wind on the boat. To top it off, we also carry an umbrella for the kids so that they can stay out of the rain, but still see out from their cockpit in the middle of the canoe.
Be Comfortable in the Boat: Where the kids sit in the canoe is critical to everyone’s comfort, and has evolved as they have grown. Their placement in the boat makes a big difference in how to pack the gear, and how the boat handles. When the kids were toddlers, they sat in the bow and stern cockpits with each of us. We used a paddle float as a seat in each cockpit and then squeezed our legs into the remaining space. However, once the kids were 2 and 4 they needed a space of their own. A drop-in seat saved the day and we created a space behind the yoke. We added a cockpit in the spray cover and suddenly the kids had their own space to play, nap, or search the shore with binoculars. They snack in their cockpit the other 50% of the time in the boat, so we never push off from shore without lots of healthy snacks to occupy the paddling time and keep everyone energized.
Don’t Get Eaten Alive in Camp: We spend a lot of hours each day in camp. When it gets buggy it isn’t a lot of fun without some protection. Our MEC Mantis Tarp has saved the mornings and evenings on countless occasions by providing a rain- and wind-proof tarp that is sided with bug mesh. This shelter gives us a large space away from the tent where we can escape the bugs, cook, eat, and relax. The kids can even play in the sand as there is no floor! If the bugs are really horrendous, a mosquito coil lit inside the tarp can clear the air really quickly. And when we have to be out in the bugs, the kids have grown accustomed to wearing bug shirts so they are completely covered and we don’t have to apply any repellant.
Imaginative and Creative Toys: Every family has their own norms regarding toys. Kids are creative from early on! When our daughter was barely crawling, we used a food barrel as a playpen in camp. She was quite comfortable in the top half of the barrel atop bags of pasta, porridge, and rice. As the kids got older, we often gave them a full water bucket and canoe sponge to ‘paint’ the sides of the canoe while we packed up camp. In the boat, our kids felt a real sense of independence with their own paddles (fitted with keeper cords so they don’t float away of course). We don’t expect them to paddle, but it is fun when they do! Rainy days have been saved with coloring books, a big ball of yarn, and some bundled socks that can be used for games in the tent. Even inflatable sleeping pads can be used to build forts within the confines of the tent. When the weather is fine and the kids are out exploring, the outdoors is also filled with a host of interesting natural objects that can become toys and treasures. We often find the kids’ cockpit filled with special rocks, sticks, bark and cones.
CLICK HERE to read the top five tips for camping with kids.
CLICK HERE to read about the film Dan Clark made of his family’s 100-day canoe adventure.
Watch the film, “Have Kids, Will Paddle” about the Clark’s Mackenzie River trip This year, Dan and his family switched gears from paddling to pedaling and are in the middle of a 4000 mile cycling trip through Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. CLICK HERE to view a video update from the cycle trip.