Trip Report: Paddling With a Toddler on the Wisconsin River

by Cory Ritterbusch

My wife and I have canoed the lower Wisconsin River for years now. After we welcomed our son, we continued to go (thanks to wonderful grandparent babysitters). We enjoyed our time, but missed our son and wondered when he would be ready to join us. Internet searches didn’t fully answer the question of when a toddler was ready to embark on such a journey. Sitting in a canoe, sleeping in a tent and being away from their comfort zone for two days can be stressful for a little one. This year, we decided that our son was ready to join us, just shy of his third birthday.

Paul proved himself as a capable outdoors toddler during the past year. He tags along with us on our many pursuits outside. He has spent many hours on the water on a pontoon boat, enjoys wading in shallow creeks and even fishes with his Spider Man fishing pole. We decided to go for it and take him on an eight-mile trek with an overnight stay on a sand bar. He passed with flying colors.

canoeing with a toddler

We watched stream gauge information more closely to insure the water levels would be safe. We decided a shorter trip the better and picked a route closer to civilization. If he did not like the cramped quarters of the canoe, we could adjust. The Wisconsn River, known for its endless sand bars and shallow waters, made this the perfect river for our test and we dropped in at Blue River. Our chosen craft was my 16’ Old Towne. This is a 1978 model and one of the first Royalex canoes made by the Maine maker. It was sufficient for three and our gear but an 18’ would have been preferred.

At Canoecopia 2013, we bought Paul a small Sawyer paddle and tethered it to a thwart; it was a good way of making him feel involved and one of us. He dipped his paddle in the water but didn’t really paddle. He had no problem sitting in the canoe with a foam pad for his knees. He would sometimes stand but learned quickly his balance was compromised – thank goodness for heavy gear and a featherweight toddler! He would point out birds and look for fish; we kept him interested as we went along, pointing out other interesting wildlife. Twice he grabbed his fishing pole and cast it into the river, which was no problem once we adjusted paddling on our appropriate sides.

After the first hour or so on the river he was getting antsy so we pulled onto a sandbar for lunch. He was able to wade in the water and play with a little rake and shovel in the sand. After an hour there we continued to find our spot to overnight. Again, he was good but got impatient as we scoped out potential spots to set camp. We included him in choosing our camp site to inject a sense of purposefulness.

canoeing with a toddler

As we set up camp Paul kept busy playing on the shore, fishing and letting watery sand slip from his hands to his knees. One of us was always close enough to help, but let him explore. We included him to gather firewood and the tent became his new fort. Once the fire was going and dinner was cooking, he stayed close by and was aware of the fire’s heat. After dinner he commented, “It’s quiet out here.” We talked about watching the stars, but his long (nap-less) day proved too much as he fell asleep in his Mother’s lap. Now, Mom and Dad could enjoy their night on the river. Unfortunately, Paul missed a beautiful night sky, complete with Milky Way swirls, under a nearly new moon.

Paul enjoyed the campfire breakfast of bacon and eggs and amused himself as we broke down camp. We even enjoyed some family fishing and took a “river bath,” before heading back on the water. We had a short paddle to the next landing site, which included seeing some fishermen. Within an hour we were loading our gear. As we left, Paul said good bye to the river as if it was a friend. On the way home he said he had fun, but wanted to get to his house. As soon as we pulled in the drive, he asked about going again “tomorrow.”

For us, the experience was most enjoyable. There was never a moment of regret or alarm. We know this trip was the beginning of a great family tradition. The pleasure of seeing him enjoy an activity that we enjoy so much made for a great memory. Here is a list of things we found helpful for him to enjoy the canoe trip includes:

• Know your child and how they handle the outdoors and unfamiliar settings
• Have them in a well-fitted PFD
• Bring familiar (small) toys for them that can get grimy
• Make sure you are close to civilization should something happen
• Scout out hazards at the camp site, navigate them together, and set boundaries (campfires, moving water, fishing lures)
• If he has a paddle (which we encourage), tether it
• Try to be out of the diaper stage for overnight trips (carry out what you carry in – where do you put those bulky, wet diapers?!)
• Set up his sleeping spot so he becomes familiar with it and so it’s ready when he’s ready
• Make him part of the trip (Should we picnic here? Where should we camp?)
• Make sure the weather will be nice and water levels are safe
• Give them jobs to help

canoeing with a toddler

Read more about canoeing with kids by reading Cliff Jacobson’s essay, Let’s Go Canoeing. >

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