By Katie Arnold
Eric & his prodigal spawn, Rock Island, TN photo: Corey Rich/Aurora Images
With four world championships and two world champion kids to his name, freestyle kayaker Eric Jackson just may be the ultimate rad dad. In the past 14 years, he’s paddled the international pro circuit, started his own business, Jackson Kayaks, and carted his family to comps around the country while living in a 20-foot RV. Paddling’s in the Jackson genes: Emily, 21, and Dane, 18, have won 8 championships between them (including Dane's three gold medals at the 2011 Freestyle World Championships in Plattling, Germany last month). Three-year-old, 35-pound KC already has his own daddy-designed, teeny-tiny Fun1 kayak (future 2026 World Champion?). EJ spills the beans on staying badass while raising badasses, and living a nomadic adventure life with kids and without compromise. Do try this at home, folks.
[Stay tuned: Next week, heir apparent Dane Jackson dishes on growing up a river rat….]
RR: When you first had kids, were you worried you’d have to give up your adventure life?
EJ: I was VERY lucky in that I had just make the USA kayak team the year before and Kristine "bargained" with me, saying "you have your kayaking, I'll have my kids as our hobbies,” and told me that having Emily would not affect me negatively, but just make her happier. I ran with that idea and that is exactly how it worked, and I believe it can work. I believe you have to make a conscious decision to live for yourself and spouse first and the kids third, and I was lucky to have done that. Anyone who believes your life is "over" because you have kids is subscribing to a very specific type of parenthood, one where the kids rule and the parents drool. Putting the kids first puts the marriage at risk and puts your lives on the back burner.
How did you introduce Dane and Emily to the sports you love?
Since I also agreed with my wife to “work at home,” I was always home, or kayaking. We lived in walking distance to a river since the kids were born, so they grew up on the river. Both of them were on my lap in a kayak as young babies and in their own boats at age 2 and 3. We didn’t force them to paddle, just put them there as they enjoyed it, and it was a way to keep the whole family together.
I struggled with both of my kids in that I really wanted them to WANT to be good kayakers, but they preferred to just put around in them and not learn to roll. Any time a kid can do a sport as a game, without being "taught" or forced to do it, they are old enough. Kicking a ball around the house or yard is prelude to soccer, learning to throw and catch a stuffed animal or ball is prelude to baseball. KC is quite proficient at throwing a golf disc, as he went from a newborn to almost 3 in a backpack while I played disc golf in my backyard and all over the country. He loves the sport and now runs the 18-hole course with me and my other kids. Assuming I keep playing and bringing him along, he'll be predisposed to being a top disc golfer if he wants. I am not trying to create that; it is just how kids are. The more time you spend with your kids the more your life is an influence on them. It is simple math. Home-schooling them is a huge step towards having kids exposed to what you want them exposed to.
13-year-old Dane dropping in @ Rock Island, TN, 2007
How did you help them sustain their passion for paddling without burning out or rebelling against the sport you loved so much?
I have never told my kids to come kayaking. They ask me, or I ask, and if they say "no," I don't ask again. Burning out is ONLY a function of doing something with an end goal in mind. If you try to get your kids to be competitive athletes and focus on winning a cup or becoming top-ranked or shaming them into training when they don’t want to, their days are numbered. As long as your kids are doing are what they want to do, they will never burn out or rebel.
Did they ever want to quit?
Never, so far. If they did, I would respond by saying, “Sure, if this isn't what you want to do. You can do anything you want.”
Do you believe in pushing your kids to do something?
I believe that bringing your kids with you for all you do is the right way to parent. If you don't do anything, start doing something and bring them. Your kids keep you young if you play together. Putting your kids in soccer and watching from the sidelines falls way short of parenting’s potential. Let kids learn about good sportsmanship and having fun, and enable them to be with their parents during their best moments of each day, not with random people.
What would you have done if they weren't naturally good at paddling?
Nothing different. Emily was 12 before she really took to paddling, so the first 12 years she spent doing things like fishing, camping, and trampoline with me, and very little kayaking.
How did you set up your nomadic family life? Did you have any role models or did you just make it up as you went along?
The only person I knew with an RV was [whitewater kayaker] Dan Gavere, and it was clear to me that it had huge advantages. It goes from point A to B to C without having to go back to A. This was my biggest issue in my life before 1996: that I was not able to kayak where I wanted to because it was too expensive. When I did travel to kayak, I could not take my family much of the time. The RV brought my entire family with me full time. It got all of us to many awesome places we could not have gone otherwise. We were hooked. Our marriage and family life was greatly improved. I got to know my kids and love them much more than when I saw them only a few hours a day.
Was it very common to do this back then?
We didn't have any examples to follow. We ended up doing clinics for cash at locations we visited, and then it evolved to include designing and selling kayaks. It was amazing how many people were said they would do what we were doing if they could. The reality, of course, is that anyone can simplify their lives and get back to being a husband/wife/parent and then really enjoy the hours in each day by doing what is most important to them. This is what I call a Life Without Compromise. But they have to let go of what society prescribes as important, and more importantly what the media portrays as the perfect life.
What are the biggest benefits to living on the road?
Most people call it living on the road. We call it living at the river. We travel from one incredible waterfront to another, stopping along the way at put-ins, take-outs, mountains and valleys. Looking forward to the next destination, and leaving ones we love keeps us excited. There’s too little time at each destination to waste time. We have to make the most of each day.
What were the biggest sacrifices?
I can't think of a single sacrifice. In a life without compromise, sacrifice is when you can't do what you love most because you are doing something else. I had my four most important things in order and was doing them to the highest level I knew how: my wife, my kids, my kayaking, and my career. There was nothing I wanted to do enough to stop being on the road. To stop being on the road would have been a sacrifice.
Got any practical advice for parents who are interested in trying the nomadic adventure life?
First off, you don't have to live full time in an RV like we did. However, it is very easy and very liberating to try it. Selling all your possessions and simplifying is the only way to understand what is truly important to you and your family members. My wife and kids still talk about that time when we first moved into an RV and how fun it was to not have a bunch of crap that we didn't need. I prefer to buy used RVs with less then 20,000 miles on them. I get them cheap, less then many cars, and they serve us well. You can get a good one for under $40,000 and a reasonable one for under $30,000. Next, remember the beauty of an RV: You are mobile, and you can work on the road. My Georgie Boy Landau is a wireless hotspot, and I don't have a desk at my [Jackson Kayak] factory. Fourteen years after I got my first Coachman, I now have a house and 20 acres in Tennessee, where we live about five months of the year.
Has having a third kid cramped your style?
KC is happier in the RV and has celebrated each birthday in the RV; his third will be in Ontario, overlooking the Ottawa River. We have been in the RV since early April and will not see Rock Island until October. KC will be playing in the water in his new Fun 1 as soon as we get to the Ottawa, as well as accompanying me on fishing trips. I can't imagine not being on the road with KC. He loved Germany for the world championships, and loves the RV. The house is OK for him, but the RV is his playground.
Do you think he'll get into paddling?
He has been around water since he was born and loves playing in it. I took a bath with him every day all winter and we learned to like putting our heads underwater, and just saying "bath" gets him going full speed towards the nearest bath tub, river, or lake. He has a Fun 1 Kayak (our little kids kayak for kids from 30-80 pounds, he is 35 pounds) and will have a chance to play around in it for a few weeks on the Ottawa River and then at Rock Island this fall.
Do you have any other practical advice for parents who want to raise adventure kids?
Have fun with them in any sport, but don't push them! Your motivation won't do anything but turn them off if it is forced on them. They’ll get to a high level by wanting it for themselves. Focus on sports and activities that are lifestyle and long term and that they can enjoy with you and you can participate with them. Structure your life for more regular access to fun sports and improve your lifestyle while giving them better opportunities. Watch them have fun and support them and without pressure on winning or losing.
OK, but your kids are champions. How do you create a winning attitude?
Play lots of games and be competitive with your kids in a fun, friendly way that you and they want to duplicate every day. Wanting to play games and trying to be the best at them is a learned skill that is natural, but frowned upon by people who weren't good at them and never learned to enjoy them. Teach your kids to like games and how to play them so that, win or lose, they have fun. Winning isn't the goal, having fun and improving is the goal.