In a previous post about planning a river trip with kids, I introduced some of the info needed to get started. In this and future posts I'll cover the skills and practices that work for us.
In this post:
Canoe Skills and Comfort
Maine has great Class I and II rivers that are a fun challenge, but not too intense. When there's an occasional Class III rapid, there's almost always a portage available to go around it if you want. I don't want to give you false confidence, but Class I and II rapids are doable for someone with basic river reading experience and a good grasp of how to maneuver a canoe. If you've never done your own river paddling, consider hiring a guide prior to your trip to teach you Rapids 101. There are local rivers where you can get in a mini practice session without going across the state.
Make sure your kids have at least a few hours of flatwater canoeing experience. I highly recommend bringing the kids to a pond and practicing dumping a canoe and rescuing each other. That's a skill worth practicing several times before a trip and it greatly reduces the fear of tipping over. There are some great guide services that can train you if needed. And if you're the DIY type, there's YouTube.
Assuming you'll have one adult in each boat, along with a kid or two, that adult will want to be capable of steering the canoe from the stern with no assistance, and possibly some resistance. We teach our kids two strokes to start with: the forward stroke, and the draw stroke. We practice before heading down the river on any trip. Get them good at the forward stroke, and you may be surprised by how much they can contribute. Draw strokes are essential in rapids.
Make sure they understand that you'll be calling out commands, and you expect them to respond quickly. It can be a little jarring for kids to go from singing happy down-river songs to being "yelled at" by a parent in a rapid. They need to know you'll be super-focused, and that you're having fun even if it doesn't sound like it.
Packing the Canoe
Please, please, please do not arrive at the put-in without first test-packing your boat at home. There will not be an extra inch of space, so you really need to figure out how to Tetris it all in efficiently. Then take a picture of it so you can pack it the exact same way every time. The kids have to help bring gear to and from the boat, but the adults pack it each time.
Depending on the ages and abilities of your kids, you may need to have a kid ride duffer in the middle of the boat. That takes up considerable space you would otherwise use for packing. I strongly recommend you come up with a 17' or 18' canoe if this is the case. Our big canoe has a center seat, but you could get away with having a kid sit on a soft dry bag or low bin. They will not want to sit on the floor of the boat for long, even with padding.
As you pack, try to balance the weight evenly so you don't end up paddling in circles. If you want to get fancy, you could weight the boat slightly heavier towards the front, to compensate for the weight difference between you and your kid. Resist the urge to make it all fit by stacking things upward. You'll make the boat very tippy. Keep the weight as low as you can. This means you should also try to avoid having a kid use the cooler as a seat. That kid'll be the first one overboard.
Absolutely everything needs to be tied into the boat. Everyone develops their own system, and you will, too. We generally have one line that snakes through everything in the middle, looped around the forward and rear thwarts. My partner is Mr. Fancy Knots, so he uses a good quality length of rope. I am not capable of learning knots, so I just use a nylon cam strap. Keep the lines taut and out of any areas that could cause foot entrapment. We tie everything in such a way that if we flipped, it would probably all fall out, but it wouldn't be lost down the river. Your knots/webbing needs to be secure, but easily undone in an emergency (even if soaked and tight). A dive knife on your PFD is a critical piece of safety equipment to cut ropes free if needed. Make sure you can still open your cooler and food bin for river-side lunch breaks. Day bags (dry bags) get clipped in a spot that's easy to get to without making the boat wobble.
Items at the very front and back get tied to the canoe handles. We learned a valuable lesson on a recent trip: We had a couple collapsible wash buckets tied to the bow handle. We got momentarily jammed up in a rapid, and the buckets immediately filled with pounding river water, ripped the canoe handle right off the boat, and floated away down river. The kids thought they didn't have to do dishes anymore, heh.
Entertaining Kids on the Water
Imagining bored kids trapped in a canoe is one of the primary reasons people abandon plans to go on family canoe trips. Understandably. One thing we learned, however, is that they don't get as bored as you might think. Canoeing down a river is a novel experience, with constantly changing scenery and 'hazards' to navigate. The person (child) in the bow is responsible for alerting the stern paddler (you) to the sporadic rocks and stumps sitting at or just below the surface ('sleepers'). The stern paddler (you) are also responsible for this, unless you have 100% full faith in your kid's attention span.
As far as what we bring, we try not to overthink it. To be honest, I never found just the right toy for this situation. Some kids like to have ownership of the map so they can give us up-to-the-minute reports on our location. We get by with books (all of us understanding they might get ruined) and word games. This is not an area of strength for me, but the kids usually have all kinds of ideas they've picked up from school or camp. There are thousands of websites with word game ideas, and it's well worth having some in your back pocket.
I sometimes give my son a fishing rod* with no hook, which he'll happily cast for a while. I'm not sure I told him there's not actually a hook on the line...
*A warning that neither you or your children can fish most Maine waters without a fishing license. The wardens do patrol the rivers and they will ask to see it.
Campsites along wilderness rivers are first-come first-serve. Plan to be off the river by around 1:00. If you paddle up to your chosen site and it's taken, you'll need to keep going until you find an open one. Sometimes that's 1/4 mile, but sometimes it's 2+ miles. The subject of sharing sites gets lots of debate, but I'll say this: Having a site to yourself is much more relaxing, and most of the time it's okay to send another site-seeking group down the river with a wave and a smile. But sometimes being a good human is a better choice. If the weather is getting nasty, or darkness is coming, you may want to invite the late-comer to your site.
While under way, talk to other paddlers. If they pass you by, ask where they are headed for the night, and alter your plans if needed. Stop at random spots on the river to collect firewood. Most campsites have already been scavenged for dead and downed wood. Check out these guidelines from Leave No Trace about how to responsibly collect firewood.
Most campsites are set considerably higher than the height of the river, so be prepared for some tricky lifting over roots and mud. I think packing and unpacking is one of the most dangerous activities of the whole trip. Lots of opportunity for slips, falls, and back strains. Take it slow, and go in small stages if needed.
When selecting a spot to put up your tent, think about the following:
Most campsites will have spots that are clearly intended to host tents. Although these spots are not always ideal, using them keeps the human-related damage to a contained area.
Look up to check for widow-makers (detached branches hanging on other tree branches)
Don't put your tent in a low spot where water might collect in a rainstorm
One of the most important things on our pack list is an outhouse supply bag: a roll of TP (pack multiple!) and some hand sanitizer. It lives in a day bag and it's one of the first things we take care of at camp. Toilet areas are wildly different, depending on who maintains the site. Many have nicely-built outhouses with tp stocked by the wardens. Others are literally an upside down bucket with a hole, behind a few sticks as a visual barrier (see photo). When someone goes to use the outhouse, they lay a canoe paddle across the path, 'blocking' it. The paddle leans against a tree the rest of the time to show that it's open.
The kids are on dish duty each night. There are lots of ways to handle this, but we use two collapsible buckets. The first has heated river water and a small amount of biodegradable soap, the second has river water and a couple capfuls of bleach. As the dishes are going through those scrubs and dips, we boil more river water. One bucket gets rinsed out and filled with the hot water. Dishes get a final dip in clean water, and a wipe down with a dry towel. Then they generally go upside down on the picnic table to finish drying.
Whether you decide to bring a pet or not depends largely on the animal. Check the rules on your chosen river, but we've always been able to bring our dog, Riley. She's little, and I wouldn't try it with a dog much bigger than her. She sits proudly on top of the cooler, and since she hates water, she never jumps off, and she's too small to wobble the boat when she adjusts her weight. She always wears her PFD while in the boat, just like the rest of us. For running larger rapids we put her on the shore and she runs along beside us. She would never let us out of her sight. Having a dog on the boat during a pinning would make things so much harder to deal with.
In a future post I'll cover our packing list, and I'll discuss why we pack certain pieces of gear.