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By Chris Egan
Have you ever gone kayaking? It’s glorious. Kayaks are swift, lightweight, highly maneuverable on the water, and easy to transport when you take them off. Years ago, several of my friends each bought one and it looked like fun so I got one too. While it was new and exciting, we would take them out as often as we could—almost every weekend during the summer, usually to local rivers. One by one, most of them abandoned the hobby and sold their vessels, saying they were bored with it, didn’t have the time, or needed to clear the clutter because they were moving. Eventually, all of my original paddling partners moved on, but I held on to mine. I knew eventually, a new kayaking buddy would come around.
My son was born two and a half years ago and I’ve been waiting for the day that we could finally enjoy and appreciate the outdoors together. Sure we’ve played outside, at parks, hiked, and explored nature together countless times, but on the day I introduced him to kayaking, it just felt different.
It was mid-morning when we decided to go, mostly on a whim. I wanted to involve him in the work that happens before the reward, not just the joyous moment of pushing a kayak off the shore. So he accompanied me, held things, handed me things, and helped me drag the bright blue, 10.5 ft. kayak outside to give it a quick sprucing up before heading out. We hosed out the inside, still muddy from my last river adventure, and made sure we had collected all the tie-downs before hoisting it up onto the car.
My now 2 1/2-year-old son would normally have begun to lose interest a few minutes in but—showing his enthusiasm about the idea of “riding in dad’s boat”—he maintained focus a little longer this day. He held the straps for me while I stood the kayak on end and leveraged it onto the top of the car. Then he handed me each strap as I tied it down, tending to the slack with a daisy chain.
His patience shown again at each stop on the way—first for gas, then for a toddler-size life jacket, then for food. We finally arrived at the lake almost two hours after deciding to go.
I decided we should go to the lake instead of a river for multiple reasons: First, a lake is safer because, for the most part, you are in full control and don’t have to worry about a river’s current. If anyone falls out, or if it tips over, there shouldn’t be anything or anyone to chase. Secondly, if my son should decide at any given moment, as a two-year-old may, that he doesn’t like kayaking, or if he should get scared, just head back to shore and we’re done. No need to finish the river run to get back to our car, or a shuttle.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day—hot enough that the water felt refreshing, but not so hot that you need constant relief. The sun was out but so were the big fluffy cumulus clouds—scattered ever so perfectly across the sky that the when the sun did disappear, it was only gone for a matter of seconds. Everything was balanced. The landscape was dazzling.
We had a quick lunch, sitting in the shade of our hatchback, then suited up and ventured out. I have a single-seat kayak so my son was on my lap, but there was plenty of room. We took turns paddling for 15 or 20 minutes, just circling around a small area of the lake where we put in—it was a big lake, but I didn’t want to go too far out in case he suddenly got scared. After 20 minutes, so not to bore him, or overwhelm him, I asked if he wanted to take a break, and we went to shore.
We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming, collecting rocks, chasing fish, and taking little 15 minute excursions on the kayak. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had with my son.
We didn’t bring any toys.
There were no tantrums.
It was one of those times that I think I entered into a new experience with the right mindset—letting him explore things and trying not to force it.
In a world where we are always trying to control our kids and confine them to one area—the playroom, the table at the restaurant, the backyard—it feels good as a parent to just take them to a big piece of land and say, go, be free. That’s what it felt like to me that day. Maybe the confining cockpit of a kayak isn’t the best metaphor for being free in nature, but I didn’t feel like I was forcing my son to enjoy my hobby. I invited him and followed him into the boat and onto the water.
Sometimes I set unreasonable expectations for myself as a parent and my son as a toddler. Striving too much for order and perfection only stifles that amazing childhood spirit. Taking to the water and immersing ourselves in nature, if only for an afternoon, was a good reminder that sometimes I need to let go, let my son explore his own curious nature, quit trying to lead, and learn how to follow.