It's early spring, and it's the perfect time to start planning your family's canoe camping trip this summer. Lake canoe camping trips are a fabulous way to get kids into the wilderness, but river trips are my first love.
When my partner and I felt that we were ready to tackle this with kids, we planned our first multi-day trip on the Allagash River. Unfortunately, water levels were depressingly low that summer, so a few days before the trip we switched destinations to the St. Croix River, on the other side of the state. Despite not being as remote as we had planned, it was one of the best adventures we've had together. It wasn't all smooth; we made some mistakes, including busting up a boat. More on that later.
Wilderness river trips are more difficult to plan than lake trips, and they require greater organization. Once you're on the river, though, your family will have a blast. The scenery is constantly changing, every campsite is a new adventure, and rapids are awesome. Plus, the river keeps you moving forward even when the kids punk out.
There's a lot to cover here, so this will be the first in a series of blog posts about backcountry river trips with kids.
Into the Wilderness
Maine has spectacular wilderness areas that don't have cell service, roads, or infrastructure. Before embarking on a wilderness trip you should have some confidence that you can handle small to medium emergencies without outside assistance. I highly recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid class to help build some basic skills and comfort. To be clear, I don't believe you need to be an EMT to venture into the backcountry with your family. Just be prepared.
We carry a Garmin InReach GPS. We can use it to send and receive messages to family, or send an SOS call in an emergency. It's not cheap, but it sure feels good to know its there. There are other good options available like the Spot satellite messenger.
At the very least, you should leave a float plan with someone back home. A good float plan gives the essential details of your trip. It includes your put-in and planned take-out, your start date, and your planned end date. It's a good idea to include number of boats, description of boats, details of your party, and any emergency gear you'll have with you. It's also helpful to list any back-up plans you have made, and contact info for any local shuttle service you may be using.
When I plan a canoe trip, I spend many hours researching and learning everything I can about the river.
Get a good, recent, waterproof map. The map is everything. You may need to order one online. If you're lucky enough to be on a Northern Forest Canoe Trail river, I highly recommend their maps. If you can't find a hard-copy map, print a couple copies from a legit site, and get a good waterproof map case.
Read the guided trip descriptions on the websites of local outfitters. You can learn a lot about good put-ins and take-outs, trip length options from various start and end points, and all kinds of details about the river.
Search for trip reports and forum posts where people have asked questions about your river
To plan your daily travel distance there are a few things to consider:
We plan to travel an average of 2 miles per hour. Our actual paddling speed is faster, but the 2 mph average accounts for factors like lakes along the route, river flow rates, portages, and stretch breaks. A hint on estimating speed: you'd probably paddle across flatwater at around the same speed you would hike with the slowest hiker. You can expect to go quicker on a river.
We aim for 6-8 miles a day with kids, which is generally 3-4 hours of travel. We aim to be at the next campsite by 1:00 every day. More on that later.
It's crucial not to over-estimate what your kids can do. If you wear them out paddling, they'll be crabby, and you'll have to do all the unloading/unpacking by yourself.
I make notes on the map about where I'd like to land each night, but we adjust on the fly all the time. It just helps me to have a plan.
Set up car shuttle service early in your planning, as outfitters can get booked up ahead of time. Typically you'll leave your car(s) at the outfitter's home base, and load everything into their vehicle. They'll drive you to the put-in, then, some time before your planned exit, they'll drive your car to the take-out and leave your key for you.
If you plan on renting canoes, that's another thing to reserve early
Keep an eye on water levels, and be ready to bag or change the trip if the water is low. No one wants to walk down a river. If you've hired a local outfitter for canoe rental and/or car shuttle service, they are a great resource for that info.
Planning a multi-day canoe trip can be daunting, but if you start early, you'll have plenty of time to gain confidence. It is helpful if you have your own previous experience on the chosen river, but with general canoeing experience and a lot of research, you'll be just fine.
In future blog posts I'll cover things like canoe skills you'll want to practice, what and how to pack, planning meals, notes on wilderness camping, and mistakes we've learned from.