Down to the river to play

🕔Jul 21, 2008

After an hour of cramming bags into boats, herding children, swearing and sweating, it started to rain—and then we set out on our eleven-day trip down the Dease River. I was so busy bundling kids into raingear I didn’t even paddle the first 15 minutes. When I did look up, the kids were fighting, the bugs were dodging the raindrops to get to our throats, and the rain looked like it was settling in for the day. I turned to my husband Travis and said, “What are we doing?”
It wasn’t an overly inauspicious start, but it was our first long trip with kids, and we’d been fielding the question “but aren’t you afraid?” for weeks. As far as rivers go, the Dease is a good prospect for tripping with kids: aside from two manageable rapids, there are no portages, and the only real danger is being far from help should something go wrong. Thankfully nothing did, and despite my misgivings setting out, we had a great trip.
We chose to run the Dease with friends more experienced than us, both in time spent paddling and in tripping with kids. Patty and Richard are both world-class canoeists with first descents, paddling championships, and master teacher status to their names. Their kids—Charlie (seven), and Bridgit (nearly three)—had canoed the upper Nahanni with them the summer before. Our kids were Elly, almost five, and Emmett, almost three.

Food challenges
After a full day of rain and mist, paddling down Joe Irwin lake and the start of the Dease, we stayed in a cabin at a small campsite. It allowed us to dry out and laugh as we wrestled with the kids in our long underwear and prepped dinner. In the morning the men packed up and kept an eye on the kids while breakfast was being made and I assembled lunch and snacks for later—the perfect job for a paranoid hypoglycemic.
Food takes on a deeper importance on the water. Children burn up energy at a crazy rate, so it was important to have one bag per child filled with snacks they could eat as needed. This also kept them quite busy. Patty and I had spent two weeks before our trip with dehydrators working overtime; we plotted and planned and shopped, and still didn’t quite get it right. That’s one of the things that keeps me coming back out on long trips: I know someday I’ll hit the food right on.
The greatest food challenge was not quantity, as we’d thought—feeding six hungry adults and four growing kids—but was instead a massive oversight on my part: bringing food I thought I knew my kids would eat. Sounds simple, but I guessed wrong on more than a couple of meals.
I will eat almost anything in the bush, if it is steaming and aromatic—even if it has celery in it. I wrongly thought this was the case with everyone. Our daughter Elly is a great sport; she’ll give anything a try, but Emmett is another story. Day one passed without his eating breakfast or supper; day two was not much better. By day three we were beyond feeling embarrassed by his pickiness—we were worried about malnutrition. Finally I thought about what he would eat at home, and we managed to keep him fed by keeping it familiar. Thus the most important lesson I learned on this trip: do not expect a child to suddenly love exotic food in the wilderness. Also, don’t underestimate the amount of peanut butter to bring: kids will eat it on anything, and it’s a great source of protein. Who cares if they dip their sausages in it?
Often people ask what our kids do in a canoe all day. First of all, it’s never all day; I personally can’t spend more than a couple of hours in a canoe at a time without ending up crippled with cramps, mad for a pee break, and itching for a run-around. And I’m in my thirties—imagine a seven-year-old! We only had one day where we paddled too long and everyone got peevish, but it brought us to a great camp where we stayed through the next day.

The easy Dease
On a river like the Dease, the living is easy. If you’re a kid and you’re not fishing, you might be watching a moose swim across the current, or reading a comic under your bug net, or having a nap. We brought only a few small toys and books per child; the fishing rods were by far the biggest attraction.
River days had an easy-going breakdown: we were packed and out of camp by eleven; we meandered down the meanders and stopped to fish at every likely spot. After lunch, we rarely paddled more than two hours—only to the next nice gravel bar with a pleasant breeze.
We happened on the most memorable fishing hole on day two. We tumbled out onto a sand bar that would rival any beach in Mexico, with huge eddies on both sides of the river. The breeze was just enough to blow away the bugs, the sun was scorching, and the kids stripped down to bare skin immediately. Travis sauntered off to fly-fish at the bottom of the bar, where the crystal-clear water dropped off ten or twenty feet; he could see the arctic grayling inch out of the shallows to check out his fly. The kids dug in the sand while I had a wash-up, stripped to the waist and hot in the sun. We packed up after lunch, just as the wind picked up and a drizzle started. We all donned rain gear to ride out the afternoon, satisfied and knowing dinner was only a fry-pan away: Charlie and Richard towed six grayling and a char behind their boat.
We were lucky to have mostly sun on our trip, but we were prepared for snow, if it came to it. We all had mitts in our pockets and a selection of toques and rain hats. I’m a desperate believer that if I pack for winter, it’s bound to be a sunny trip, and this time I was right. We had bug nets (thank goodness!) as blackflies and mosquitoes abound on the Dease. The item that surprised me most in its usefulness was an umbrella. Elly slept under it in the middle of the boat, crammed in amongst the dry bags, safe from rain or sun.

Comfortable with less
What I tell people who think we’re crazy to paddle with kids is that we’d be crazy not to. Because of our time spent on the water and in camp, far from TV and nightlights, our kids are comfortable with less, and when we’re out there, they settle right in. For the children, paddling is all adventure and no worry. We do all the worrying for them, but once we’ve instilled (and enforced once or twice) the rules and the boundaries of living in camp and playing by the water the worry recedes, and by day two or three we hit that river rhythm I crave all winter. We mosey. We spend a lot of time looking at rocks. We cast and reel, cast and reel, and often we sit and talk. All the work prepping for a trip disappears once the truck noise from the highway falls silent and we round another bend, far from our day-to-day lives. I love that. The kids do, too.
On day eleven we paddled up to the takeout at the French Creek forestry site. We stretched out our last few hours on the river as long as we could. Once, as we rounded a bend, we startled a black bear from its grazing. It raised its head out of the long river grasses and watched us pass, then went calmly back to its food, totally unbothered by our presence.
When I think of the Dease I sometimes remember starting out in rain, but more often the image of four kids buck-naked on a sandbar, leaping in golden afternoon sun comes to mind. I remember the fish and the moose, and the nights in our tents, three families lying under a sky unblemished by streetlights, and I think: “What am I doing on land? When can I go again?”

H3. Kid canoeing considerations

*Lifejackets: *
Kids and adults should wear PFDs in a boat at all times. All children’s pfds should fit well and have crotch straps (not too tight). We attach whistles to all our PFDs; reflector tape can be used to make them even more visible.

*Safety Kits: *
Every adult at all times carries a kit that contains a lighter, fire-starter, reflective safety blanket, and a knife. Mine also contains my fishing license and SPF 30 lip balm.

Safety Measures:
We follow the Transportation Canada small boat guidelines: every boat has a bailer, extra paddle, and a rope off the bow and stern. We also carry throw ropes and are able to do canoe-over-canoe rescues. Each family carries its own personal first aid kit, with a more extensive wilderness first aid kit in the kitchen kit.

Meds Kit:
Be sure to bring Benadryl or some equivalent antihistamine (for bug bites and allergy attacks), kids’ Tylenol or equivalent, Polysporin, cough medicine, cold medicine, bright-coloured bandaids… Any regular ailment particular to your child (and any adults along) must be considered.

*Bear Safety: *
We keep our kitchen area very tidy, disposing of leftovers and washtub scum in the fire. We keep a drybag in the kitchen area especially for clothes that have food smell on them. We sleep in pajamas or long johns that never see the kitchen. All food is kept in plastic barrels or bungied in a cooler to the boats. Bear spray and bear flares are kept close to the tent. Kids stay within sight at all times in camp—strictly enforced!

*Leave No Trace: *
We heard that a family who canoed the Dease soon after we did had seen no trace of us, which is our goal when camping. Richard has a great environmental fireplace that collapses and carries in a burlap sack; ashes were dumped in the river. For our “outhouse” we dig a small, communal cat-hole; each person takes two toilet-paper bags to the hole with them, one containing fresh paper, the other used. When we leave camp we cover the hole and place a large rock on it.

When the #$& hits the fan:*
We carry a satellite radio. Many wilderness places have cell-phone reception, but make absolutely sure, if that’s your only way out. Inform others of your date of departure and expected return time.

Books to read:
From Cradle to Canoe: Camping and Canoeing with Children, by Rolf and Debra Kraiker, ISBN: 1550462946
Kids in the Wild: A Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation, by Cindy Ross and Todd Gladfelter, ISBN: 0898864472