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Canoeing With a Baby

By Heather Rivérun
Friend + Miles Paddled contributor

Paddling is a passion in our family. Before the arrival of our daughter, my husband, Mike, and I could be found in our canoe most weekends and were always scheming and dreaming of the next trip. I paddled (and ran bike shuttles) until I was nine months pregnant, and I will always remember the trip I knew was my last until after I went into labor.

Canoeing with a Baby

Advanced paddling adventures with our big 2-year-old.

Our daughter was born in June, and up until she was in my arms, I had thought that we would put her in the boat at some point that summer and lily dip about some peaceful stretch of water. Once she was in the world, that thought turned my stomach – she was a stone with no head control, I was certain that a freak accident would flip our canoe in a puddle and having her strapped to one of us in the case of said freak accident just felt too vulnerable. Combine my rational fears with first time parenthood and a longer than expected recovery from birth and I was okay to let the first summer slip by without attempting to paddle with a newborn. However, by the time the following Spring rolled around, it was game on. E was ten months old the first time we took her out and we’ve been paddling ever since. Here are some things we’ve learned.

It was important to me to establish a sense of individual spaces in the boat from the start, therefore I didn’t just want to plunk her in the bow with me. At ten months old she was not walking yet but could pull herself up. We knew it was important for her contentment and safety to be able to move about yet be contained. Between the thwart and yoke of the canoe, we strapped a laundry basket that she could sit, stand, and eat snacks away from our dog in. We also attached an articulating umbrella to the gunwale of the boat for sun protection. The day before our maiden voyage we did a trial run with our rig in the backyard. We had tried E’s PFD on her before, but she hadn’t really worn it for any length of time, we also wanted to gauge contentment in the laundry basket. The trial run gave us enough confidence to embark on our first canoe trip with our expanded family.

Canoeing with a Baby

The trial run.

We chose Mirror Lake due to its beautiful scenery, calm waters, and customizable trip length. We also didn’t want to deal with a shuttle for this first outing, but as you can read in the trip report, Mirror Lake has a layout that I don’t often associate with lake paddling. We chose to put in at the boat landing within Mirror Lake State Park, from there we explored the immediate lake section and then ventured into the canyon – which has always been the highlight of this paddle for me. This somewhat short trip felt like a huge success to us and gave us our launching point for continued adventures – yes, even river paddling with bike shuttles.

Canoeing with a Baby

The maiden voyage – we lived to tell the tale.

As with all things involving kids, it’s essential to everyone’s happiness to manage expectations. This first trip gave us our baseline for time on the water, breaks, snack volume (always more), and things outside of the scenery that a baby may want to engage with. Was she content the whole time? No. Did snacks and toys tied to the side of her basket eventually lose their luster? Yes. Did she tolerate her PFD? Yes, but while sitting down it annoyed her after some time. Did she stay in her basket the whole time? No, there were times I pulled her into the bow with me or needed to turn around and heavily engage her, thus leaving the paddling to my partner. Was our dog outraged that it took us ten years to buy an articulating umbrella for shade in the boat? Yes!

Although hitting the water with a baby wasn’t the same as our pre-baby adventures, we were determined to continue trying to foster a love of paddling in our family. For us, paddling is one of our favorite ways to commune with the natural world. It represents adventure, solitude, and connecting with something greater than ourselves. Mike and I fell in love with paddling together and wanted to share this love with our daughter. There is nothing like splashing about together in a cool stream on a warm day, counting timid turtles diving from logs, or watching the sandhill crane migration reflected in your child’s eyes. These moments, where the barriers between ordinary and extraordinary fade, are among the most beautiful in the tapestry of life and the essence of why we wanted to do this.

Canoeing with a Baby

The canoe crib.

That first season things changed rapidly, both in our daughter’s development and in our boat set up. She soon grew tired of the confines of the laundry basket, so we bought a bigger one. Once she learned to walk, the bigger basket was also too confining for her. There was no way we were going to trust her not to go over the edge of the boat without one of us directly refereeing her and I was doing my best to stick to establishing individual spaces in the canoe. Once the laundry basket was outgrown, we began strapping two baby gates between the thwart and yoke, parallel to the gunwales, in order to give her more space to roam yet still having her protected from going over the edge.

This baby gate setup even earned me a badge honor in my household, when a fellow parent paddler spied us picnicking on a sandbar on the Wisconsin River one afternoon. He paddled over and asked if we engineered that “canoe crib” ourselves? He lamented how he and his wife hadn’t been going out paddling together because they hadn’t found a set up that worked for them yet with their baby. It just so happens that I am known colloquially in our family as MomGyver, and yes, I did engineer that canoe crib myself.

Canoeing with a Baby

Ending the paddling season where we started it.

Throughout the first season of family paddling, we found that two to three hours on the water was what was reasonable for us. It was ideal if we had plenty of options for pit stops. If we were running a bike shuttle, typically one of us would go solo so our daughter could get some energy out after being in the boat. If all of this sounds like a lot before the age of two, it was. Laying this groundwork felt important to us and this was how we approached it. Every family and every kid are different. By the following Spring we felt confident enough to install a third seat in our boat and we were honestly impressed by how well our daughter did from the outset of that second year.

Paddling with a toddler held a whole world of new adventures: finding a stick for a paddle at the start of every trip, playing I Spy, and making up silly songs. We even did a few family canoe camping trips that were huge successes – more on that another time. I don’t know how she would’ve done at two if we hadn’t laid the foundation the previous year, but I do know it’s only continued to be more fun. We love paddling and sharing this as a family has added a new dimension that we always hoped it would.

Canoeing with a Baby

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