By Bobby Miller
I have been kayaking with my 3-year-old daughter, Sahalie, since she was 1 and there is no greater joy than sharing the river with her. I hoped from the moment that she was born that she would want to join me on the river. I was so pleased when we started taking river trips together and am even more excited that she seems to love it more and more as time goes on. Here are some lessons I've learned from my paddling trips with her.
1. Start easy and work you way up to more difficult water – I started on a flat water float to get Sahalie used to being in a kayak. We then worked our way up to a Class I stream that we ran multiple times that first summer. When she was a little older, we began running Class II water. Since we switched to a duo kayak, we have run a few rapids that have approached Class III in difficulty. She is excited about getting into Class III water and keeps asking me to take her over a waterfall! Obviously, as a parent, you need stay at the level of water you’re confident in when paddling with your child.
2. Prepare your child for the possibility of something going wrong – Many avid paddlers go through some level of instruction and safety training to prepare themselves for that "what if" moment when things go wrong. Prepare your child for he possibility of a swim in the rapids by signing him or her up for swim lessons. One of the prerequisites that my wife, Melissa, and I decided on with Sahalie is that she must know how to swim before she can go down Class III whitewater. Although it is unlikely she will end up swimming, it is important to be prepared by helping your child become comfortable in the water and outfitting them with as much floatation as possible.
3. Get all of the necessary equipment for taking your child down the river – The new crop of long (12-foot) creek boats are all very user friendly for sitting a small child in the cockpit with you. The extra length and rocker of these boats sheds most of the water so your child doesn't get drenched constantly. These designs also provide stability and maneuverability that make them great for going down small rapids with no skirt. However, paddling without a skirt only works well in Class I-II water. Once you have reached a point where you want to go further, you will have to get a setup with a skirt. If your child is a little older and ready for some more independence, you could get a two person kayak (or as Sahalie calls it, the "Daddy-Daughter boat"). In all honesty, I feel that the ceiling for the duo kayak is quite high and this boat should be useful to us as we continue to progress through Class III water and beyond. When your child is ready for his or her own boat, there are many options–whether sit-on-top or regular cockpit boats–to choose from.
4. Go places and see new sights – The local run can be a good place to start but there are probably plenty of different runs to choose from within a couple hours of where you live. I have tried to mix it up and take some road trips to new areas. Make paddling an adventure and make each trip special. Make a list of neat places that you want to visit and make it a goal to go to all of the places on your list. Setting goals and reaching them is an incredible bonding experience between parent and child and teaches valuable life lessons as well. If you are into racing, there are plenty of easy races that you could enter with your child. I plan to race with Sahalie next year in the Tim Gavin Downriver Race on the Shenandoah River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
5. Foster a love of water – Sahalie has always loved the water, whether it is splashing in the bathtub or swimming at the local pool. If your child loves water, he or she will naturally want to do more activities in the water. Make time on the river as fun as possible. Stop and swim, throw rocks, jump off rocks, splash each other, use squirt toys. Kayaking is ultimately about celebrating the love of water so take your time and make it fun! Remember, your child will not be concerned with the destination but will be focused on enjoying the journey!
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