Pick Your Paddle

Up a creek? Find the right trip—raft, sea kayak, or canoe—and the right adventure level for your family.

Jul 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

Staying current: rafting's green waters and white rapids

Paddling safely for nearly a month on a foreign river unquestionably requires a mix of knowledge, skill, and gusto that takes years to accrue. But the rewards to be gleaned from spending a few long summer days on wild water aren't reserved for the weathered elite. Even if you can't tell a downstream V (aim for it) from an upstream V (avoid it), there are still plenty of ways for your clan to have a memorable aquatic adventure.

With options like sea kayaking near orca pods off Vancouver Island, canoeing along Utah's 1,300-foot limestone cliffs, and rafting the Grand Canyon's ten-foot waves, it's impossible to pick the perfect paddling trip based on awe and excitement alone. Instead, match your family dynamic with a paddling style, be it sea kayaking, canoeing, or rafting.
"You don't want to put kids, or even adults, in situations where they are going to be stressed," says Gordon Black, the American Canoe Association's director of instruction and safety education, and father of two. "Paddling trips are not bird-watching."

If your kids are younger than eight, consider a canoe trip. The boat's wide berth and open hull mean kids can fidget and hop in and out easily and often. Black simply tosses his older son, four-year-old Ian, overboard when he feels like swimming, and scoops him up when Ian's had enough. (Life vests are a must.) Likewise, it's easy for you to move around when your kids need more sunscreen or a snack.

Large bodies of water, where you're more likely to get close to cool beasts like whales and sea otters, are better traveled in fast sea kayaks. But while kayaks' narrow hulls and low centers of gravity deliver efficiency, their design also means your kids will be confined to a small cockpit, where they'll have to sit still and out of your reach for long stretches. And single kayaks are tippy. Tandems are more stable and the best option for parent-child teams.

Whitewater rafting, the most pumping of the three paddle sports, is a roller-coaster/log-flume hybrid, often with calm stretches great for wildlife-spotting and swimming. When considering rafting, Black suggests asking yourself how well your kids follow directions and how remote and difficult a trip you're willing to go on. All adventure trips have risks that experts can mitigate, but kids must do exactly what a guide says, instantly. In a canyon of roisterous rapids, miles from any hope of quick rescue, there's no room for attitude. And children under 60 pounds typically can't go; the little tykes would be airborne after every bump. Some outfits have designated family trips, with entertaining guides and meals of grilled cheese in lieu of grilled salmon. A family-specific departure also means it's less likely you'll have a sourpuss on the trip bemoaning kids acting like kids.

Still not sure which sport is right for you? Talk to families who've haddled before. Get their input. In the end, says Bruce Lessels—coauthor with his wife, Karen Blom, of a new book called Paddling with Kids—the thing that matters most to your children isn't always where you're going, but with whom. And that's you.

Here are nine trips, with varying levels of difficulty, to help you decide.

Filed To: Paddling

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