Top Tips for Paddling with kids, and having fun!

Top Tips for Paddling with kids, and having fun!

My 15-year-old son Zev has been canoeing since he was 8 months old. As I write this, he’s on his own adventure paddling across the Canadian Prairies. His final destination is the Churchill River Canoe Outfitters in Missinipe, Northern Saskatchewan where he’ll be working this summer. Canmore, Alberta to Missinipe, Saskatchewan by water - only in Canada!

young man paddling a canoe  with his dog sitting behind him

Zev may feel like he’s stepping into his own movie on his journey because he did much of the route when he was 2 years old. The 2009 National Film Board film, ‘Finding Farley’, follows our family’s cross-country journey by canoe, train, and sailboat through the Prairies, the North and the Maritimes of Canada; the settings of Farley Mowat’s most famous books.  

That canoe trip from Canmore to Hudson Bay was our first exposure to paddling in boreal shield country. Every summer since then we’ve joined ranks with other families for an annual two-week canoe trip on rivers like the Churchill, the Berens, and the Bloodvein. Here are a few things we have learned about paddling with kids along the way.

three people wearing paddling gear over looking river deciding best route to take in canoe

Location.

Thinking of Saskatchewan drums up images of wide-open prairies.  But, if you head just a few hours north of Saskatoon, you’re in classic Canadian shield; a landscape that literally shaped the modern canoe. From the air, it looks like it’s mostly water with a bit of rock and scrub forest strewn through it. It’s a paddlers dream.

There are 4 main reasons boreal shield rivers are perfect for canoeing with kids.

Warm water.

Camping on rocky shield outcrops is stunning.

Fishing!

The risks associated with paddling white water are manageable.

Note on Whitewater:

One trip we did on the Churchill River had an age range of 3-73 years old. There was plenty of white water, but the beauty of shield rivers is it’s slack water right up until you reach the rapids. There is plenty of time to get out and scout the rapids. Sometimes the kids head down the portage trail with one adult while a few expert paddlers run the canoes down. Other times boats are lined or portaged. These little puzzles are a big part of the fun of running these boreal rivers.

two people in a canoe paddling rapids

Timing.

When most people think of the northern Canadian Shield, they think of bugs (cue the NFB classic short film ‘Black Fly’). This is true in some places at certain times of year. We’ve found if you go in August it’s really not buggy. Believe me, I know from experience. Go in August.

Distance.

For the kids it’s all about camping, so build in lots of time for that. We like to have 10-12 days for these trips and we’ve found if you plan to cover about 15km per day and build in a layover day or two, that’s about right for distance.

Heading out on canoe trips with a couple other families is more efficient because everyone takes a turn cooking and doing chores. And, there are more eyes to look out for the kids, more musical talents, more jokes, more fun! Keep in mind: at least one family should have intermediate canoeing skills and everyone should be accustomed to wilderness camping.

sunny rocky out cropping with tent for camping by the river

Tricks.

1. Be an expert tarp builder.

A good tarp is the difference between happiness and misery on rainy days.  What makes a good tarp? It’s big enough for your whole group to get under and enough space for a dry corner for cooking. And, it has releasable knots so if it blows down in a big wind gust you can quickly release the tie downs and start over. The tarp can also double as a sail on windy days.

hammock in trees by the river

2.Bring a Dutch oven.

Kid-friendly meals and treats like calzones, baked mac and cheese, deep fried fish and chips and cinnamon buns can all be on the menu if you bring a Dutch oven.

womanoutside crouched on a rock holding out a dutch oven full of cinnamon buns made while camping

3. Stuff.

Don’t bring too much stuff! On these trips you will be portaging. Sure, you’ve got lots of hands to carry stuff, but packing and unpacking are not the fun parts of the trip. So, leave the lawn chairs, beach toys, pillows, etc. at home.

The magic of these trips is when you’re in the flow. You’ve got your systems down, it’s all routine and nothing much matters other than the place you’re in and people you’re with. As the years go by we need less stuff. Less stuff = more flow.

Here are some nice things to take that don’t take up a lot of space:

Lightweight hammock

Lightweight grill for cooking on campfires

Fishing rod (one per family, net, a variety of lures, Leatherman or pliers for releasing small fish)

Good fillet knife and cutting board for processing fish

Deck of cards

little toddler smiling and holding out a finger with an insect on it

The best PDF for kids is the one they'll wear. Replace your PDFs before your next adventure.