Family Vacations, Summer 1996
I have three kids of my own, and I started them out on easy whitewater. On family-appropriate rivers, falling in really isn't such a big deal. It's pretty hard for your kids to get into trouble if their flotation devices fit properly (and you'll make sure they wear them at all times, right?).
To ensure my children's comfort in the water, I take them to a quiet pool and let them experience the sensation of floating in the flotation device. Then I teach them the correct way to be carried downstream: on your back, with feet pointing toward the water's flow and toes visible above the water's surface (letting you push off rocks rather than ram into them). I tell them to pay attention to their breathing so they don't suck in water. Fortunately, kids usually take quite naturally to the physics of water safety.
I never put fragile cargo (kids and the elderly) in the first raft. This creates a downstream safety net to easily catch such passengers if they were to fall overboard. I also put them in an oar-paddle combination raft, piloted by one of my senior guides. With that extra oar, it only takes two good strokes to get to someone in the water. For anxious parents there are riverbank footpaths: You can walk down the stretches of river you don't want to ride down. But it's been my experience that all anxieties vanish after the first rapid.
--Marty McDonnell, owner of Sierra Mac River Trips, has been a river guide for 31 years.
Copyright 1996, Outside Magazine