CHILDREN ON RIVER TRIPS
The first time we took our son on a river trip, he was a ripe old 6 weeks in age. Some people were horrified that we would take a tiny infant into ‘the wilderness’ but folks who lived on the river, naturally, thought it was not in the least unusual. When we landed at Stewart Island, longtime resident, Rudy Burian’s first comment upon seeing the baby strapped to my front as I scrambled up the bank was, “I see you have an extra passenger this year.” Enough said – on to more important topics.
Life got in the way a bit, so our daughter was 3 years old by the time she headed out on her first river trip, a three week excursion on the Eagle-Bell-Porcupine-Yukon Rivers to the Alaska Pipeline bridge on the Dalton Highway. She was born in August and has since celebrated almost all of her birthdays on some river in the Yukon or Alaska. When she was asked as a young child, when her birthday was, her response was always, “On the river!”
Both enjoyed many years and many miles on a variety of rivers in the north. It instilled in both of them, now adults, a love of, and respect for the water and for the beauty of the north. They gained paddling skills, learned how to read the water, how to cook over an open fire and how to build that fire under the worst possible conditions. They learned to endure harsh conditions bravely, and to enjoy great conditions with enthusiasm.
Always ensure that the children are wearing flotation devices appropriate for their size and weight. Try them out before you go on the trip. When very young and once they could walk, ours wore them basically at all times unless they were in the tent. Teach the children about the strength of river currents, the steep drop-offs often found near the shore and slippery banks. For obvious reasons, they should be closely supervised at all times. Be sure you know at all times which adult is currently in charge of watching them. It is very helpful if they have had swimming lessons and/or water and boat safety instruction before going on the trip. Do an overnight camping/canoeing trip on a nearby lake to allow them to practice some basic skills.
Teach and practice what to do in the case of an encounter with wild animals. Give each child a whistle and have them wear it at all times except when sleeping. A second whistle should be tied onto their flotation device. Strictly enforce the rule that it is only to be blown in an emergency.
Devices such as SPOT and satellite phones were, of course, not available at the time we were traveling with young children. If they had been, we would definitely have carried one. It is a great comfort that you can call for help if some unforseen emergency involving a child should happen.
Children will need basically the same equipment as adults although you can use youth sleeping bags and mats. Once they’re old enough to hold a paddle, buy them one - it is amazing how every bit of paddling helps and they feel valued for contributing. Various child-sized paddles are available in sporting goods stores.
For meal times a bowl and a cup with a snap on lid is very helpful for small children as even as adults, it’s sometimes a struggle juggling your bowl of soup and your cup of tea while perched on a rock!
When children get a little older they should begin to carry some “necessities” on their person at all times – a pocket knife and match case with waterproof matches.
A flashlight or lantern is a must – you can count on some late night bathroom trips. If you are traveling with a child in diapers, please pack out any disposable diapers. They do not burn well.
See your doctor or pharmacist about any first aid items specific to wilderness travel with children. (Some medicines such as some antihistamines may be suitable for adults but not for children)
Children, particularly small ones, get incredibly dirty, incredibly quickly, so take more clothes for them than you would for yourself. This is especially true if the child is in the process of being toilet trained. Although it can and has been done, it is not much fun boiling water to do laundry at the side of the river. A clothesline and some clothes pegs are handy items to have along. Be sure they have good quality rain gear and silly as it may sound, we always took a small collapsible umbrella for them to hunker down under.
Children have high metabolisms and small stomachs. This means they're always eating! Be sure to carry more snacks than you think they will eat. Particularly if the weather is not very good, you will need some goodies to cheer them up and they will need the calories to help keep them warm.
They also drink a lot of fluids so keep a jug of mixed juice or water in the canoe handy at any time for them to help themselves, or provide each child with a water bottle. Put a treat in their day pack which they are allowed to have in the late afternoon when everyone is tired and energy is low. This will help tide them over until the evening meal is prepared.
If you visit a dollar store or toy store before the trip, many small items can be picked up for a reasonable price. I bought nothing bigger than about 4” square so that I could put many ‘goodies’ in my pack. Then each night, I would slip one in each of their daypacks and that was their “new toy” for the next day. You can even buy tiny board books for them to read. While on shore, there was never a time when they had to be entertained. There were stones to gather, skip and build inukshuks with, there was sand to dig and draw in, and there were pools of water to play in. A bag of sunflower seeds kept them going for hours. Snacking and then using the shells as ammo for the ‘Spitz’ wars across the gunwales of two canoes was excellent entertainment for hours!
There is a long list of things children can be taught on a river trip – they are never too young to begin learning paddling and camping skills as well as honing their observation skills. Reading a map and reading the water can be learned even before they can read printed words. The dangers of sweepers, log piles and dead heads should be learned very early.
Make them responsible for certain chores such as being sure their day packs are ready to go with all necessary items, searching for firewood and helping put up the tent. Teach them the skill of building a fire.
Carry small activity books (word searches, crosswords) or travel games for rainy hours in the tent. A deck of cards is a great item for all ages. Children of school age should be encouraged to keep a daily journal. It is a priceless keepsake for the whole family. A sketchpad is perfect if the child likes to draw.
Children are a wonderful asset on a wilderness trip. They see things so differently than adults do and their sense of wonderment about the world around them is contagious. When you introduce your children to this kind of experience you are giving them something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives - a chance to experience and appreciate the wilderness and the incredible environment in which we live. While learning some basic survival skills they will learn to respect and love nature.