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Written by Sage Donnelly’s parents, Matt Donnelly and Stephanie Viselli

Sage and Dad, Carbarton run, NF Payette

One of the things I love about having a daughter who is a kayaker is the look on people’s faces when we arrive at a put in at a river. As we start pulling our boats and gear out and begin to get dressed, we often get looks ranging from excited smiles to down right shock as they watch our daughter pull on her own drytop and sprayskirt and buckle her helmet. She picks up her matchbox size kayak and confidently walks to the rivers edge and starts to get in her boat. This is where she is always stopped and asked the big question – Are you really going to run this river? This is always followed by other questions in quick succession – How old are you? When did you start? aren’t you scared? For us as parents, we sit back and grin as Sage answers everyone’s questions, then pushes off with a wave and a smile. Sometimes these questions to her are followed up by a question to us – How did you teach her to kayak?

Sage and Jason Craig, Reno ww park.

Family on the NF Payette

Raising a kayaking kid isn’t very hard, but it does take patience, time, and a little sacrifice. We knew when we were pregnant that we were not willing to stop paddling during or after the the birth, and I actually managed to paddle until 32 weeks! At that point, a torn stomach muscle and the inability to sit forward turned me into a shuttle bunny, but I was back in the boat 3 weeks after Sage was born and the baby swapping started! The family went to river and the pool together all the time. No one was left at home. At this point, we started diligently looking for an old Topo Duo, and managed to find one when Sage was 2. Family time on the river began!

First day in a Fun 1! Lake Isabella, CA.

The first thing we did was outfit the heck out of the duo. A big foam brick was placed on the seat, hip pads galore were added, and it was topped off with a safety strap that ran from Dad’s life vest, through his spray skirt, through Sage’s life vest and tied onto her spray skirt so if the need to swim ever arouse, Dad could pull his skirt and hers at the same time, then pull her to him where he could place her on his chest while swimming a rapid. We only had to test this once and it worked perfectly! The family spent many days on rivers running class 2, Dad and Sage in the Duo, Mom in her boat next to Sage to help entertain and teach as well as lead. When Sage was 3, Jackson kayak had started making kid’s kayaks and we immediately picked one up and headed to the reservoir on a windy day and Sage had a blast riding the waves into shore. A paddler was born!

Sage, age 5, birthday party, future paddler in Canoe!

Sage, age 7, Grand Canyon

When Sage was 5, we started taking her on class 2 rivers in her own boat and had a pleasant surprise on her first down river trip, she could eddy in and out on her own! Thanks to all the time in the duo, she had learned how to read, edge and feel the water, the training wheels were off! We had a blast running lots of class 2 rivers that season as a family, and even jumped up to class 3 in the duo. The next season, we jumped back in our boats and hit the class 2 section we had run numerous times the year before, but this time, Sage flipped on her first eddy line, and although Dad quickly hand of godded her, the look of fear was in her eyes. We spent almost that entire year back in the duo rebuilding confidence and skills. There were some highlights that season though, Sage wanted to be in her first solo down river race, but was afraid of the finish line in the Reno Whitewater Park. Nick Troutman hopped in his boat and held her boat through the drops to the finish line, with the entire Jackson family cheering her on!

Reno ww park.

Sage and Mom, Salmon River.

During the winter, when Sage was 7, she asked us to teach her to roll. It took A LOT of patients and time, starting with watching EJ’s Rolling and Bracing video in her boat in the living room, wet exits in the pool without skirts, then with pulling a skirt, then adding a paddle and until finally-a roll! This was quickly followed by learning to roll on the other side and the smiles were huge. Sage asked to travel to Colorado to compete in Cadet Freestyle Comps and then paddled the majority of the Grand Canyon that summer.

Learning to roll, age 7.

Sage, age 7, Satan's Cesspool, SF American

The next year started off with a bang with Ruth Gordan taking Sage under her wing and teaching her to spin in a hole. She prepped for the Reno River Festival. The rodeo bug had officially taken hold. We spent a ton of days on the water that year, following the rodeo circuit where Sage competed all over Colorado, and ran numerous rivers in many states. It was official, we were a family that paddled together!

Sage and Dad, Grand Canyon, age 7

Looping at the Buena Vista ww park, age 10

By trial and error, we learned a lot of things that made learning to kayak easier and we would love to share that with you.

Take your time. Be patient. Build a solid base of skills. Encourage, re-enforce, and yes push at times. Be prepared to take steps back. All of this is expected in any sport, but the rewards are numerous!
Be prepared for the worst. We always had a drybag full of extra layers in case of a swim, and always had extra food, water and gear to make the trip comfortable and fun.
Don’t skimp on gear. Boats that fit your child are key (Jackson has the best kids boats). A warm, dry kid is an excited and happy kid. On the west coast, the rivers are cold, so it was important for us to make the experience as fun as possible. We purchased extra small drytops, gloves for kids, skullcap and lots of base layers and fleece as well as a kid’s paddle from Jackson Kayak. Please, find a helmet that fits.

I hope this inspires and helps you, we love to see kids on the water! If you ever have questions, are looking for gear, or want to boat with us, please contact us: HYPERLINK “”

Sage, age 8, Pit River, CA.

Sage, age 8, and Dad, Troublemaker, SF American River


Read more:
Raising A Kayaking Kid.