Spring is the time when our bodies start to twitch and you’ll find our whole family staring out the window longing for sunshine and brighter days. One of our favorite springtime activities is getting outdoors in our canoe. Canoes offer a fun, traditional way of experiencing the outdoors. Designs and materials have changed with time and technology, but modern canoes still evoke memories of the functional boats used by Native Americans and early wilderness explorers. For us trips can vary in both time and distance, from an hour-long excursion on a nearby lake or a four-day camping trip to remote mountain lake. In spite of or perhaps because of this diversity, it is an activity we always come back to.
Before having children my husband and I did a bit of white water rafting, but we were not very familiar with canoes or kayaks. So we approached canoeing with our two-year-old daughter with a bit of trepidation. Would she sit still? What if we capsized? Did we have the equipment or the know-how to do something like this?
Our fears were quickly put to rest. Our daughter is now six, and she and our 18-month-old son love the canoe. The pure bliss of being able to relax and listen to the healing sound of the water rejuvenates us and reminds us why we love being outside. Paddling in the canoe allows us to connect with nature and opens our eyes to things we don’t always see when hiking or exploring on land. While coasting across the surface of a lake or stream we have glimpsed bald eagles diving for fish, cliff swallows feeding their young in the nest, and gopher snakes swimming in the reeds. Being on the water also allows us to get up close and personal with painted turtles and western toads.
Here are a few tips to start your own water explorations:
Keep the kids involved in what’s going on. From unloading the car to paddling the boat there is always something they can do. And keeping them invested in what’s going on makes the trip that much more rewarding because they are able to contribute.
We think of outdoor activities in terms of three simple words: discover, wonder, connect. I like to try to bring toys or think up activities that encourage these. We sing songs, play “I spy,” bring fishing poles, or use binoculars to look at the world in more detail. Water is an ideal medium for contemplation so I also like to encourage everyone, myself and my husband included, to just relax and take time to reflect or just daydream.
I will be the first to admit that my idyllic dream of floating along contemplating nature is often interrupted by a crying baby, or another child asking for food or complaining of boredom. Be practical and bring one or two non-essential toys. If they are water-friendly toys you can tie a string to them and attach them to the gunwales so they can float alongside the boat.
Snacks. Bring lots of snacks. They tend to keep spirits high, relieve boredom, and help when the kids, and adults, get cranky and tired during that last bit of paddling back to shore.
As far as equipment, we bring lifejackets, paddles, snacks and plenty of water on every trip.
Other useful equipment includes a bailer (a bucket or suction water gun also works); a dry bag for keys, wallets, cell phone, etc.; and a padded seat, towel or blanket (I recommend fleece since it dries out easily back at camp or the car) to cushion little ones sitting in the bottom of the boat and your own backside. As with any outdoor activity we find it’s a good idea to have a change of dry clothes for each person, more snacks and extra water bottles waiting at the car when we get back.
It should be obvious, but remember to practice good water safety. When launching the boat everyone needs to be wearing a life jacket. In the canoe, sitting is a must. Before heading out, think about the time of year and where you are travelling. If we are heading to a larger lake in early spring I will take a set of extra clothes in a dry bag; if someone falls out of the boat it is much more essential to put them into dry clothing and get them warm to prevent hypothermia before we get back to shore than it would be if we were exploring a stream or inlet in August.
There are lots of options out there when it comes to canoes, but do not be intimidated. We started by renting a canoe from a local outdoor equipment store several times before purchasing our own. Canoes in the 16-foot to 17-foot range are among the most popular. They offer a nice combination of speed, maneuverability and carrying capacity. When looking for a boat keep in mind that the wider the boat, the more stable it is. The narrower the boat, the more efficient and easier the paddling. Narrow boats are slightly more “tippy,” but they tend to be lighter and easier to keep on a steady track.
On longer trips space can become an issue, but there is still plenty of room if you pack light and think ahead. In many ways it is like backpacking: if there is one device that can do three jobs, bring it and leave the other devices at home. Our first multi-day trip transformed our canoe from a recreational toy into a mode of transportation. From that time onward camping took on a whole new dimension for us and our kids.
If you find yourselves out on the lakes and streams this spring, listen. If you hear multiple voices making up their own lyrics to the tune of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, it is probably just us, floating along in our tippy red canoe.
Crystal Atamian is an environmental educator who fell in love with the wildlife biologist who taught her how to dissect a duck. When she is not living in her tippy red canoe she knits, gardens, plays, and creates with her two children in Spokane, Washington. She blogs about the dirt and discoveries at Duck Duck Moose.