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For almost as long as I have paddled, I’ve helped get kids into kayaking. It wasn’t on purpose, and I’m not even really sure how it happened. I didn’t really start paddling until I was in my late teens/early twenties, so maybe it’s because I was one of the only “kids” my age learning to kayak. Or maybe it’s because I’m short and seem unthreatening. Whatever the reason, somehow, no matter where I am, the kiddos seem to find me, or I find them. Stands to reason then, that I shouldn’t be surprised that after a few years in the Gorge, weekly roll sessions and Thursday night paddles with the Columbia Gorge Junior Kayak Club were some of the highlights of my summer and our regulars became some of my favorite people to paddle with.

Paddling with the Columbia Gorge

I want to give a huge shout out to Anna Wagner, Sam Swanson, Kristin Alligood, and Naomi Elyard, among others, who have donated countless quantities of time, love, and energy (and couch space) to make a kids’s club happen here in the gorge. While for ages, Anna and Sam, among others, had been helping facilitate getting local youth out on the water, once Covid hit and schools shut, Naomi and a few friends took it on themselves to make things official, building a website, getting 501c3 status, and, most importantly, recruiting and supporting kids in getting out on the water. As things continued to grow, I’ve been fortunate to join the team as a volunteer instructor and serve a term on the club Board.

Paddling with the Columbia Gorge

This summer, we had between 5-15 kids (sometimes more!) per session. On Wednesdays, we worked on rolling and other basic skills, from getting comfortable upside down to different rescues techniques, in the Hood River Pool. On Thursday, we would do a weekly float down the local Grade II+ section, the Lower White Salmon. Kids that had a solid roll in the pool and who had done some small dry-land school on river knowledge and basics could paddle hardshells and those who didn’t could come along in a series of inflatable kayaks generously donated by NRS. The stoke on those Wednesday and Thursday nights as the kids discovered and fell in love with whitewater was infectious.

Paddling with the Columbia Gorge

It’s hard not to love paddling with anyone who fully puts themselves out there, who wants to learn and have fun. From silly games like paddling through rapids with as many rocks on your bow as possible to trying rolls, stern squirts, and hand paddling, these kids made the most of every minute on the water and remind me to, too. Being in an instructor/mentor role makes me look at the river differently. I’m constantly trying to find new challenges that will push the people I paddle with outside their comfort zone without dramatically increasing risk, and the trust that builds as you watch someone discover what they are capable of is something special. I also love the quiet moments spent in eddies getting to know each of the rad humans that take part in the club and catching up on what’s been happening in their lives. Paddling, more than anything for me, is about connection. Whether that is the connection we forge with nature and the river or the way the sport connects us to others and builds community, it’s impossible to leave a night of kayaking and feel disengaged from the world around you.

kids paddling

I’m so proud of all the kids this summer and have seen so much growth in their skills and confidence. Many went from not wanting to flip over to trying rolls in the eddy to trying rolls in current to confidently surfing waves and trying stern squirts. Others lead their first rapids, nailed their first hand roll, improved at scouting, or sat in a hardshell for the first time. This progress makes it easy to find the stoke—I dare you not to be fired up after watching anyone hit their first (or second, or third) combat roll. But there were also many teachable moments, from swims and failed rescues to finding better ways to communicate what we see when we look at whitewater. This is the beauty though: instead of failures, they were teachable moments that we all took something away from.

I can’t speak enough to the value of creating a space for kids (or anyone) to connect with like-minded friends of similar ages on the water. I wish I had more advice or tips to offer, but at the heart, I’d say keep it fun and keep it non-judgmental. Try not to get too bummed or discouraged at small (or large) setbacks and find ways to celebrate and reward small victories. Remember that everyone learns at a different pace, in a different way, and has different comfort zones. Use daily, quantifiable goals to build confidence slowly. While I frequently suggest things and offer support for a challenge, I try real hard to leave the ultimate decision of when anyone feels ready to step it up up to them. Be consistent with boundaries, rules, and your safety chat to build good habits—these are foundational skills and attitudes that can have a life-long impact. Rather than lecture or tell kids what is happening on the river or what they need to do, make it a collaborative process. Try to make sure anyone you are paddling with can tell you what’s happening and put the important things back in their words. Get gear that fits and keeps kids warm: wetsuits are the perfect layer. Most of all, always take a moment without an agenda and just enjoy being out on the water.

upside down in the water

We’re lucky to have a well-organized club with a lot of support and volunteers. To find and support a kids club near you, check online or visit local paddling clubs. If you have older (or smaller!) gear sitting around your garage, donate it! It can be hard for families to finance full sets of paddling kit for kids that are growing, or to want to invest heavily not knowing if your kid will love the sports. If you can volunteer your time—even if it’s just a day—do it. You won’t regret it.