It wasn’t until the leg of our motor snapped off on a rock in a shallow North Arm channel that we decided to attempt a family canoe trip. I love to paddle, and have done long multi-week trips in the past. But with kids? A million worries flooded my brain – how would we all fit in the canoe? Would we tip? Would my toddler stay still? Would our pre-teen be miserable? Still, I wanted to try.
In our motorboat the work of route finding is left to my husband Pierre, while the rest of us nap, snack and read books. Canoeing, however, is participatory and physical. Everyone is involved in problem-solving and decision-making. There is definitely no napping.
So here we are ready to go: my one-and-a-half-year-old son Lucas, my 12-year-old step-daughter Symone, our overly excited husky Super Nova, my strong and steady partner Pierre and my outwardly optimistic, inwardly anxiety-ridden self. Destination, Hidden Lake with two other families. A bumpy 45-kilometre drive down Ingraham Trail, then three lakes and three portages to peace and tranquility.
We toss our bags into the pickup truck and I start to feel a sense of dread. Lawn chairs, dog treats, a baby backpack, four dry bags, 10 cloth bags filled with snacks, books and toys. This didn’t seem right. Why are there so many bags in the truck? We were only going for two nights, not two months.
At the launch site (the Powder Point Day Use Area) we begin to put our gear in our canoe. “Where do we sit?” Symone asks. Hmmm. Good question. Camp chairs and toys are thrown back into the truck. We rearrange, we pile, we stuff, but it is clear that we are acting like we are still in a motorboat.
Cautiously, we clamber into the canoe, arranging ourselves between the ominous towers of bags; Pierre in the stern, Symone at the bow and Lucas and I squished behind Symone in the middle. It’s a tippy situation but everyone is excited. Lucas is squirming, Symone’s long legs are bent up to her chin. Super Nova is displaying all the reasons we should have left her at home: standing, turning, jumping, barking, leaning out over the edge. “SIT DOWN NOVA!!” We all take turns yelling.
Our friends Mike and Andrea, semi-pro at paddling with kids, take pictures of us. “You should see yourselves,” they chuckle smugly as they glide by with grace, their children paddling peacefully while they all sing voyageur songs in four-part harmony. Their dog appears to be meditating. Our family grins and tracks a winding path behind them, leaving a cacophonic, airborne trail of whining, nervous laughter, barking and yelling in our wake.
There are just three portages into Hidden Lake. The first is a quick 60 metres, the second is 300 metres and the final 600 metres takes you into Hidden Lake itself. But we must do multiple trips for each portage because we brought so much gear. Tired and hungry, tensions start to grow. Our friends Tom (carrying their canoe), and Alyssa (six-months pregnant and carrying their toddler), take pity on us and hoist a few of our bags on their shoulders. We gratefully accept.
In our last stretch of water before the campsite things go sideways. I try a cross draw stroke to avoid a rock and accidently smack Symone in the head with the paddle. Then amazingly it happens again. Symone works to restrain herself from giving me a return blow and I try to move us out of the shallows but realize we are too weighted down. Beyond all reason, I jump out of the canoe. Up to my waist in chilly lake, I walk the canoe back through the shallows and into deeper water.
Standing on a rock five minutes later, I carefully squish myself back into the canoe into my middle spot with Lucas. My clothes are soaked but at least we have forward movement. I relax and pick up my paddle, taking strokes on the left side. Lucas is happily playing with a ball to my right when I hear a sudden splash and realize with gut-wrenching horror that my biggest worry about our family paddling trip is coming true. My baby has leaned over and fallen face-down in the water.
I manage to grab his foot, but my awkward cramped and cross-legged position has disabled me. I’m not able to lift him all the way up. Time alters and the brief seconds play out in painfully slow motion. I try again and again to lift little Lucas up without dumping the rest of us in the lake. “Let go of him, I’ll grab him!” Pierre says. Let go?! Pierre might as well have asked me to turn into a butterfly. It wasn’t going to happen. Finally, I am able to get more upright and reach the glorious life-jacket hook. I try again to lift him this time with two hands. Why is my toddler so heavy? Did he turn into a baby walrus when he hit the water? All of my movements seemed weighted and sluggish. “Let go of him!” Pierre says again as Lucas watches fish swim by from his underwater viewpoint. Panicked I lift again. I can feel my wonder woman cape unfurl behind me as Lucas comes up sputtering and crying out of the water.
I wrap Lucas in my sweater and hold him close. He is crying but settles quickly. For a few moments we are all a bit stunned and quiet. Even Nova has taken a minute to be still and reflect. Our peace doesn’t last long and soon Lucas is squirming out of my arms to point at a loon swimming nearby. Symone makes a silly loon call and we all start to giggle, releasing some of the nervous tension out of our bodies.
Fifteen minutes later we are at our campsite. Lucas is in dry clothes, happy and playing with his friend Sarah. Symone is doing gymnastics on the rocks. We set up our tent, build a campfire and marvel at the peaceful and beautiful spot we have found. I finally relax and reflect on how grateful I am that tiny life jacket did its job, that my reflexes are somewhat quick and that Lucas doesn’t seem to show any lingering ill effects from the dunking. We feast all weekend on our excessive food supplies, proudly sharing some of our extra gear (knife sharpener! tarp!) with our semi-pro paddling friends who had packed so lightly. There is a lot of laughter, fireside chats, elaborate campfire food experiments and fresh air. It is wonderful.
The return trip two days later is uneventful until we near the final portage. Suddenly we find ourselves stuck on a rock just before shore. Unable to go forward the tail of the canoe swings back towards the small set of rapids a few feet downstream. Nova decides to save herself and tries to jump out of the boat to shore. “SIT DOWN NOVA!” we all yell in unison as our canoe precariously wobbles back and forth – half in water, half on shore. The thought of pulling my toddler out of the water a second time is all the panic I need to find myself once again in the lake pulling us up on shore.
As we cross the final stretch of water towards our truck it begins to rain. No one seems to care. We are that lovely mix of stinky/refreshed and happy/tired. “What did you think of the trip?” I ask Symone, somewhat nervously, remembering the paddle-to-her-head incidents three days earlier. She takes a moment to think. “Well, it was a real adventure that’s for sure!” We all smile and laugh and begin a list of things not to take on our next canoe trip.
5 Things I learned from our first family canoe trip (plus a few tips from the semi-pros)
- Plan your meals carefully. Take some time to make a chart of the meals you want to eat. Try for lightweight ingredients, think uncooked pasta; not cooler full of steaks. (Pro Move: dehydrate your meals ahead of time. )
- A toddler backpack is unnecessary. If your toddler is keen to walk, let them. If you toddler refuses to walk put them on top of your shoulders and tell them to hold on. You need your back to carry gear, not kids. (Pro Move: Book a massage when you get home.
- Mini paddles. Don’t be cheap – go get the mini paddle from Overlander Sports. Your toddler is unlikely to be satisfied with a stick when everyone else is using cool paddles. (Pro Move: Tie the mini paddle with a rope to the gunnel.)
- Leave the toys at home. One or two toys for inside the canoe is all you need. Kids are so excited to be out for an adventure with their parents that they will quickly forget about their stuffed Paw Patrol collection. (Pro Move: a bucket of stones to drop one-by-one into the lake.)
- Snacks. Put snacks in every pocket you have available. (Pro Move: Bring a box of smarties and make an elaborate show of dividing them out equally between everyone. Watch kids magically turn happy for a few more hours.)