Steady As She Goes

I hadn't planned on taking my daughter canoeing, but Jen offered, and the boat was there. So I zipped 18-month-old Amelia into a toddler-sized lifejacket and lifted her into the canoe.

"Out," she said.

I should have listened. But we were in a sheltered marina, and I really wanted this particular father-daughter bonding experience. I paddled slowly away from the dock, taking care to keep the canoe steady. It worked. Before we'd gone 50 yards, Amelia was looking over the gunwale into the still blue water, dragging a hand. She looked up at me and smiled.

That was all the encouragement I needed to paddle across to the bait barge, where we'd be sure to see pelicans, and maybe sea lions. I could see the water ahead scaling in the breeze, and as we left the lee of the last big motor yacht I took a wide stroke, anticipating the gentle push of the wind. I failed, however, to anticipate my daughter's reaction to this wider, rougher, scarier part of the bay. She howled and came right for me, heaving herself over the canoe thwart, getting stuck momentarily, hands on the floor, belly on the thwart, legs waving wildly. I helped her over and she snuggled into me, tears beading on my life jacket.

The next time I tried to get her into a canoe she cried at the mere sight of the thing.

In paddling, we think of first descents as the ultimate experience, precisely because you don't know what's around the next bend. You put on the river and deal with whatever it brings. Just like parenting. When Amelia came into this world, I didn't have a clue how to be a dad, but I knew that I wanted her to share the things that give me joy. Paddling is at the top of that list. Now I'd pushed too hard, blowing the entry to the metaphorical crux rapid on the cosmic river trip of fatherhood. I needed to square up, find my line and run clean.

So I put my canoe in the front yard and placed the princess cook set—a pink plastic combination castle/oven that my wife found for five bucks on Craigslist—inside the canoe. And I waited. A day or two later, Amelia clambered in. Soon we began to take our breakfasts in the canoe, sitting side-by-side on the bow seat. A month later, when we met two other families for an overnight canoe trip on a local lake, Amelia did just fine. When she asked to go canoeing again a few days after we got back, I knew we were in the clear.

Jeff Moag is the Editor in Chief of Canoe & Kayak magazine. This essay first ran on Recreating with Kids.