When I was 22 yearsold, I led a group of 5 girls to the Arctic. For six weeks we paddled the Anderson River to the Arctic Ocean. Thanks to that trip, plus years of taking 12-year-olds to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, I’ve never doubted that it’s possible (and fun) to take kids canoeing. But I’ve also never had to plan a trip for kids on my own, and I’ve understood how parents might be intimidated to take their own kids on a canoe trip.
I can imagine the worries: Will the kids like spending so much time outside? Will they pull their weight on portages? How much work will it be to plan that kind of trip? Well, meet Montana-based writer Alan Kesselheim. He and his wife Marypat Zitzer have taken their kids canoeing since they were infants (actually, since before they were born).
Canoe Trips for Kids
We’re not talking about a day paddle on the local river, either. The couple spent six weeks on the far north river the Kazan with their three children. At the time, heir youngest was 10 years old. Kesselheim chronicles their adventures in his new book Let Them Paddle, Coming of Age on the Water. The premise is simple: Alan and Marypat had given up on having children when she became pregnant in 1991. The couple lived in a remote village in northern Canada, and in spite of pleas from their family to return home to the States, they continued with plans to paddle the Kazan. (Marypat is surely the epitome of tough, portaging the tundra while six months pregnant).
Without planning it, the Kesselheims and their growing family embarked on a canoe trip every time Mary Pat was pregnant. The couple came to think of these rivers–the Kazan, the Yellowstone and the Rio Grande–as their children’s birth rivers. As each child reached the age of 13, the family returned to paddle them once more.
Inspiration for Parents to Take Kids Camping
Let Them Paddle begins as the family unloads gear from a Single Otter float plane on the shores of Lake Athabasca, a remote Canadian lake. Kesselheim writes, “Blackflies ricochet off of my forehead. The kids pull on their bug shirts. Marypat rummages through a food pack. Small waves lap against the sand. A faint whiff of gas lingers. A breeze stirs through the stunted forest. It isn’t silence that engulfs us on the wave-smoothed beach but the absence of humanity.”
The doubt is palpable. At the end of their first day in the Arctic, he remarks to his wife that it’s a miracle nothing went awry on day one. She agrees–their performance was sloppy at best. But a remarkable thing happens over the course of the chapter and the course of the book. The family becomes a cohesive unit. They work together as equals, and on later trips, when they paddle more populated and developed rivers, the kids talk wistfully of the Kazan.
Kids Thrive in the Wild
Kesselheim does not sugarcoat the realities of paddling with kids. It takes time to plan each trip, money to make it happen, and there is always the adjustment from “civilized” life to wilderness. But he offers up a compelling testimony that kids and families thrive in the wild. The more I read, the more the gentle rhythms of Kesselheim’s writing evoked the rhythm of trail. Through his words I remembered the winds of the arctic and the glide of a canoe across an unusually calm lake. I even remembered canoeing before my trip-leading days, when I climbed trees in the Boundary Waters and my parents did the work of living on trail.
It felt good to be reminded of trail life, and I hope that parents will be inspired. As Walt Whitman said, “Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water
By Alan Kesselheim
Fulcrum Publishing, $19.95
Alissa Johnson is a Canoeing.com contributor who grew up paddling the waters of Minnesota and Canada.