Taking a child kayaking is the easy part—kids and water mix well. But like trout, kayaks only thrive in beautiful places, and that means hard driving and long going. Kids don't always deal with a long drive as well as a wet splash. Passing through northern California recently with a heavily loaded station wagon, my wife and I managed to get our four-year old to kayak school. But it took hard driving over curvy passes in the Trinity Alps, in the most isolated and obscure corner of California. It was hair-raising for adults, and it proved hard on our kid—but not very. He didn't care about the spectacular views of coniferous valleys, or even the boredom of hour eight in the car.
But after hearing that his mother and father were both feeling carsick from the endless sweeps and hairpins and curves with no guard rails, little Max felt the need to join us. "I'm coresick," he said. Sic. He didn't know what "core sick" meant, but he knew he didn’t feel well.
“I’m going to throw up," he finally warned us. "Chunks. Of puke. In a bag."
An application of wild blackberries, gathered at the side of the road, cured him, if not his parents. We stumbled into Otter Bar Lodge in the condition you want to be in: tired, relieved, hungry. There was just enough light to confirm that we had entered a wider valley, meadows of soft grass, and ponds carved out for the teaching of kayak skills here, at the headwaters of California's purest rivers. The soft rush of water in the background was the Salmon river, which joined the Klamath and later the Trinity, making one of North America's best protected watersheds.
Otter Bar is one of the best whitewater kayaking schools in the world. We showed up after the official summer whitewater season was over, to hang out with owners Peter and Kristi Sturges for a few days, and to see what would happen when we put Max in a kayak for the first time.
Otter Bar has the Salmon River out its back door, but we took to the practice pond in the meadow out front instead. I suppose there is a four-year old somewhere who can swim through a rapid, but even with a year of swim classes behind us, and full flotation, there was nothing safe about taking our boy down whitewater. We used a sit-on-top kayak and stuck to flat water that was only a few feet deep. My son Max wore his favorite blue floaty, a belt of foam blocks, which is not approved by the Coast Guard and convinces him he is, in his baggy swim shirt, a superhero.
I paddled slowly in circles around the pond, as he attempted to "hunt" frogs warming themselves on the bank. There were a lot of frogs, and this animal harassment produced a pleasing round of giggles and laughter. Each frog gave a loud bleat and jumped for safety with a fat splash and an underwater dash, a lesson in swimming and animal camouflage. My wife Beth walked on water, nailing her first strokes on a paddle board; the usual splash fight ensued, with victory going to the holder of a double-bladed kayak paddle, which produces greater total volume.
Later, we went back around the pond and did it all again: frog chase, splash fight, and, for good measure, catching imaginary salmon. In the afternoon, I left to go swimming in the Salmon River, free diving with Otter Bar's founder, Peter Sturges. We were going down to 25 feet beneath boiling rapids, but Max protested at being left out of this expedition.
"Dad," he explained, "I already know how to kayak." I have a feeling we’ll be bringing Max back to Otter Bar in six years, when he’s old enough for the kids’ whitewater kayaking camp, held every summer in late June.
The fish were in. California is having one of its best salmon years in decades, and Peter took me down an obscure path to a long hole in the river, less than a mile from the lodge. The tight canyon created a deep green world here, cold and oxygenated water friendly to salmon.
The fish were hard to spot at first, but each dive down—a minute of breath-hold swimming in snorkel gear, duck-diving down and then finning, grazing the gravel beds upstream—showed us more. First there were a few darting fish, large enough to rile the fisherman in me. Then there were more, bigger. Dozens!
By the third plunge we were approaching the head of the pool, where the rapids dumped a blast of bubbles down into the depths. Scores of salmon loitered here, even bigger than those lower down. Peter had been diving on the fish for weeks. He taught me to sneak up slowly, hiding behind boulders.
The animals were fresh from the sea, bright silver, and strong, with none of the decay that would score their flesh later in the season. They were not digging reds here in the deep, only waiting for the right invisible signal telling them to move farther upstream. They were active, even aggressive, constantly turning on each other, their jaws marked with scars from battling over position and dominance in their hierarchical world.
And then, in the bubbles: sharks. That's what they looked like. The biggest bruisers. The biggest fish always get the dominant position, and that turned out to mean right under the bubble stream, pressed to the bottom under the raging bubble stream. Dozens more salmon, the biggest yet, were hiding inside that fickle stream of silver air, blasting out of a Class III rapid. The currents shifted briefly this way and that. The bubbles parted, allowing glimpses of dark forms. The size was staggering—25-pound fish, a yard long--but their beauty struck me even more deeply. I found myself staring at their swift movements so intensely that I forgot myself and ran short of air. A desperate hurdle to the surface, a few gasps, and I was back down, relishing another chance to see what Peter called his favorite sight in the world: "masses of wildlife."
The sun moved, the canyon went into shadow, and somehow our one-hour trip to the river turned into three hours. We spooked a bald eagle out of a tree, just 20 feet away when it took off, indignant that we had interrupted its own fish-watching vigil. We took off our fins and packed up our masks and started up the trail, laughing, having forgotten all about food, work, kids, and even air for long stretches of the afternoon—followed by an immediate application of more blackberries.
Who’s the child now?
If You Go
Otter Bar Lodge is a small, family-run kayaking school on the banks of the Salmon River, in remote Forks of Salmon, California. They run weeklong whitewater kayaking camps for adults and kids, led by the sport’s top paddling instructors. Everything about Otter Bar is first rate, from the crystal-clear Klamath and Salmon Rivers out the back door to the top notch instruction and the always gourmet, usually al-fresco, meals.
While mature teens are welcome to join to the adult weeks, offered May through August, the last two weeks in July are dedicated to introducing the sport to littler river rats, ages 10 to 14. Otter Bar’s Not Quite Grown Ups program (NQGU) pairs kids of similar ages and skill levels—the first week is dedicated to beginners, the second to paddlers with more experience. Best of all, the kids camp is happening simultaneously with adult camp at the main lodge, so you can be honing your skills while your kids are honing theirs next door. Babysitting—with major benefits! Or just send the kids on their own. Trust us, they will thank you later.
Otter Bar owner Peter Sturges knows a thing or two about teaching kids to rip in the rapids: He launched NQGU when his son, Rush, was 10. Now 20, Rush is a professional freestyle kayaker, with 100-plus first descents to his name, and an award-winning adventure filmmaker. Talk about raising a ripper.
Otter Bar’s NQGU camp costs $950; adults’ beginners to advanced camps, $1990. Both are all-inclusive.
Next year, Otter Bar plans to expand its new stand-up padding program, which launched this past summer on the Klamath.