Taking to the lakes -- or rivers -- to keep cool

By MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL
Special to the Union Leader
July 13. 2018 7:48PM
A young kayaker paddles from the front of a tandem boat. Tandem kayaks are a great option for younger or inexperienced paddlers, especially on longer excursions, like this one along the Androscoggin River. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)
NH kayak resources
There are myriad places throughout the state to rent kayaks (and canoes and stand-up paddleboards), and many outfitters also offer guided tours, shuttle services and instruction — along with local knowledge.

Here's a small sampling of outfitters around the state:

Northern Waters Outfitters, Errol: rentals, shuttle service, trips on the Androscoggin and Lake Umbagog (beoutside.com)

Great Glen Trails, Gorham: guided half-day and full-day wildlife kayak tours (greatglentrails.com)

Saco River Canoe Rental Co., Conway: kayak rentals and sales, self-guided tour suggestions, shuttle service (sacocanoerental.com)

Wild Meadow Paddle Sports, Moultonborough: rentals and guided tours in the Lakes Region (wildmeadowpaddlesports.com)

Contoocook River Canoe Co., Concord: kayak rentals and sales, instruction, guided tours on the Contoocook and Merrimack rivers (www.contoocookcanoe.com)

L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School: Various courses, including several free clinics through the West Lebanon store (www.llbean.com)

Portsmouth Kayak Adventures: Kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, tours for all ability levels as well as kids programs, on Sagamore Creek and other tidal waters around Portsmouth (portsmouthkayak.com)

In the heat of summer, my family spends lots of time splashing around - in or on the water. From the time our kids were mere tots, my husband and I snugged them into our kayak cockpits as we paddled around local ponds and lakes.

In recent summers, the kids have taken on the paddling responsibilities themselves. While I have visions of a multi-day canoe and kayak camping trip, where we paddle our gear to some relatively secluded site and fall asleep to the wild calls of loons, for now the reality is that we don't need to go far - or expend much effort - to have a good time on the water.

One of our favorite spots is just down the road, at a town-owned pond. It's an easy commute, there are small islands to explore and fantastic mountain views, and we usually spot a turtle or two along with myriad feathered creatures, from red-winged blackbirds to giant great blue herons.

We did branch out earlier this summer and took a wildlife kayak tour through Great Glen Trails in Gorham, paddling along the slow-moving Androscoggin River, so maybe some summer I'll fit that kayak camping trip in.

Whether we have an hour or a full day to spend on the water, like with any family outing there are several factors to consider when planning a kayak trip.

A proper introduction

There's no right age to introduce kids to paddling, but there are plenty of right ways to do it. For younger kids, consider a tandem kayak. These two-seaters allow a child to sit up front, with his or her own cockpit and paddle, while Mom or Dad paddles from the back cockpit. If junior gets tired, it's fine to take a break, sit back and watch the water drift by.

For kids ready to paddle solo, it's a good idea to make sure the boat fits the paddler. Even an athletic kid may have a hard time paddling an adult-sized kayak, which tend to be deeper and wider - making it harder for shorter people with shorter arms to make efficient paddle strokes. And a frustrated paddler is not likely to be having fun. If you're renting or taking a guided tour, the outfitter should be able to help find the right fit.

As with hiking or biking, it's also important to consider endurance and attention span when planning a family water excursion.

"You've got to start off really small and short," said Stephen Custer, the program supervisor for L.L. Bean's Outdoor Discovery School. "If you go out and do this long, exhausting paddle, the kids will never want to go again."

Destination important

While it may be that life is a journey, not a destination, that adage doesn't necessarily hold true for kayaking with kids. Having a cool destination can often save the day. For longer excursions, this could be a place you'll arrive after paddling for a couple of hours. But the destination may also be an unusual tree near the shore or a small island 50 yards from the put-in.

"Islands are the best," said Custer, who has been paddling with his own kids, now 9 and 10, since they were toddlers. "You can paddle around the island and look at it before stopping. You can't lose a kid on an island. And islands are the perfect places to have a picnic."

My kids love to park the kayaks at an island's edge and hop out to take a look around. We've found birds' nests, logs gnawed by beavers and hidden wildflowers. And sometimes it's just nice to get out of the boat and stretch for a minute before moving on to the next stopping point.

The view from a kayak - even without an island stop - offers a unique perspective. Paddling along the shore of a pond and into hidden coves often reveals turtles sunning themselves on logs or rocks, or families of waterfowl with ducklings or goslings in tow.

During our Androscoggin adventure, our guide Ben Lewis, who is a registered Maine guide, led us to a view of a bald eagle's gigantic nest - some 10 feet deep and 15 feet across, perched in a tall white pine tree. As we admired the enormity of the nest, one of its residents circled nearby, its white-feathered head bright against the sky.

We also encountered a muskrat, a mallard duck and her clutch of five ducklings, an osprey, and - just as we were nearing the end of our journey - a loon, who played peek-a-boo with my daughter, diving under the water and reappearing in an entirely different spot.

Be prepared

Beyond the absolute necessity of wearing a properly-fitted personal flotation device (PFD), there are some other must-have items for a successfully fun paddling excursion.

One of these is local knowledge, gained either through personal experience, with a good guide book (Custer recommends the Appalachian Mountain Club's "Quiet Water" series, which includes a New Hampshire/Vermont edition), or by talking with an outfitter near where you'll be paddling.

That knowledge is important not only to make sure the outing planned is appropriate for the paddlers, but can also help parents put together a scavenger hunt to engage kids along the way. Knowing a bit about local landmarks, flora and fauna, Custer said, can make the trip educational in a fun way.

When his kids were younger and not yet paddling on their own, Custer also packed whiteboards and dry-erase markers. Younger children can entertain themselves by doodling and coloring, and older kids can note what they've seen along the way.

Food, water and sunscreen are on the must-bring list, along with a change of clothes. Paddlers might be most comfortable in a bathing suit and other quick-drying clothing - no cotton. Water shoes or sturdy, waterproof sandals are also a good idea.

Custer recommends bringing along a phone - preferably in a waterproof case - both for snapping photos and in case of emergency. Everything should be kept in drybags, which are waterproof and will float if they somehow end up in the water.

Another good add-on with young paddlers is a tow line. When one of my kids tired after paddling into a headwind on the Androscoggin, Lewis simply attached the smaller kayak to his own and provided a tow - and a few minutes of respite for the tired paddler.

One key to a safe trip is something left behind: a float plan. Custer said paddlers should always let a loved one know where they're going and when they expect to return, just as hikers would when heading onto the trail.


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