Eight years ago, after turning forty and countless years of being in kayak every free minute, picking up and travelling the world at the drop of a hat, and making every minute an adventure, my wife and I accepted an adoption referral for a baby boy from Korea. The very same day, just minutes after accepting the adoption referral, I received a call from EJ offering me sponsorship with his then-new company “Jackson Kayak”. What a life changing day that I will never forget.
All my friends insisted my travelling the world and kayaking days were over. Wrong they were! The first years there were a number of changes indeed, but mostly just adjusting how I managed my schedule. It also took learning ways to incorporate our little guy, Cedar, into our life style. Often this meant doing a half run on the river, swapping a kayak paddle for a lovable but not waterproof toddler at the midpoint of a day run so my wife could get needed river time as well. While one of us boated, the other one taught our son the joys of hanging out on the side of the river, flinging rocks, splashing in the eddies, and meeting new people.
We also still managed a Colorado River/Grand Canyon trip most every year, and hit some far off countries, thanks greatly to grandparents that wanted Grandkid time.
When Cedar got a little bigger (3 yrs) we got him a helmet, lifejacket, and the smallest wetsuit I’d ever seen, and incorporated him into easy multi day trips aboard a raft, and in the kayak sitting on my lap in flat water. He would also spend a little time in the nose of an IK, allowing a few splashes to bounce in. We let him splash getting used to the feel of the paddle in his hands and imitating what he had seem Mommy and Daddy do.
I believe that it is easy with kids (and girlfriends, wives, and friends) to push too hard too fast. I have seen this so many times in the past, where guys will push their new girlfriends beyond their skill level until a bad swim happens and they will not set foot in a kayak again. Not the girlfriend’s fault, but the effect of being pushed too hard too fast.
The same is true with kids. Let them develop at their own pace, keeping it fun and safe. You can do this while building solid skills at the same time. At four years old, our son would play in his Fun 1 and I would tow him around with my kayak in a big eddy behind our cabin.
A few years ago, we started what we refer to as Kidfest, where we invite both river and non-river families with kids for a weekend of rafting and kayaking. That is when the Dynamic Duo came out to play and became the biggest hit with the kids. It was here where Cedar totally forgot the meaning of the word share. Now that Cedar is eight, he has totally become my Duo partner. This past year he was in the front of the Duo for most of Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River, the Wild and Scenic section of the Rouge, the John Day and other rivers. We choose our rapids with care, making sure not to surpass his or my skill levels. The last thing I want to do is make him have a bad experience on the river.
The Duo has been great letting him get used to going from flat water with only a few splashes to some pretty solid class III rapids. Last year I met a twelve year old on the Wenatchee that was just tearing it up in his Fun 1.5. I talked at length with his father and learned they had started out together in a duo as well. For several years they had paddled together, so when it was time for him to start paddling his own boat on tougher stuff, he had the skill set that he had developed sitting in front of the Duo. Although I am sure there was still a learning curve once he was in his own boat, the boy I saw looked like a twelve year old superstar on his own.
Cedar is not ready to break free on his own yet, but by the end of this summer I think he will be in his Fun 1 on some class II. Being selfish, I think the best thing about the Duo is the “together bonding time” with my kid–sharing something that I love so much and seeing him also grow to love the sport. I can’t think of many other sports where you can be so closely connected, pushing skill levels and still have a super high safety factor. This year I am planning of competing in several slalom races with Cedar. Will we win? No. Will we have a lot of fun together? You bet.
A couple of the biggest challenges I have found has been outfitting him for cold water. There just is not a drysuit small enough for him, which limits our paddling to warm weather. Cedar is small for his age, and quite thin (a product of limiting his junk food intake), so although he runs around the house shirtless much of the year, on the water he gets cold easily. And we all know that if your kid is cold, no one is going to have fun. We have found some good thermals, wetsuits and booties to fit, but we all know how much nicer a drysuit is when it is cold. I’m really looking forward to when he can fit into the smallest drysuit made so our paddling season can extend beyond the summer months.
I have been asked, how do I deal with the dryskirt and a kid so small? What I have found that works is a large skirt pulled around him. It goes clear up to his armpits, and is very loose all the way around his midsection. The point isn’t to keep him in the boat; it is to minimize water intake from the occasional splash or wave. In fact, water does come into the boat when breaking through waves, but of critical importance is that if he does need to swim out, he can just push out without having to remember (or needing the strength or reach) to pull the grab loop. We practice rolls in flat water and he knows how to and has practiced wet exits. To date, we have never had to employ those skills in moving water, and although I aim to keep it that way for quite awhile, I want us both to be prepared for the alternative.
Another key seems to be letting him have a say in which rapids he gets to paddle, portage, or raft. Regardless, we have continued conversation about what we are seeing on the river. By narrating what we are seeing, and talking to him about hazards, he is slowly learning to read the river. By giving him a voice in what rapids or sections he paddles, we are encouraging him to progress (with limits we set), and at the same time giving him an acceptable way to opt in or out depending on how he feels about what he sees, and what mood strikes him. He is an 8 year old, afterall!
The Dynamic Duo has added a whole new dimension to river running and family life.