This post originally appeared in the the June 20, 2015 edition of the Alaska Dispatch News.
Water in any form is intriguing stuff. Salty, fresh, or frozen, water is a sensory highlight for children, whose curiosity is piqued by the many opportunities for splishing and splashing. In Alaska, many of those experiences center around boats, large and small. It’s no wonder, since the Last Frontier has more coastline than all the other states put together, nearly 6,500 miles of it, and three million lakes, so access to water is by nature part of most Alaskans’ lives.
Children are drawn to water, be it through stomping in mud puddles or drawing a canoe paddle across a placid lake. It’s a delightful way to spend time, and Alaska families are fortunate to have a diverse and accessible list of options appropriate for even very young kids. While motorized watercraft provide big fun for many, employing human power to generate forward momentum across a stretch of water is a great way to teach kids new skills and become aware of their surroundings.
Dan McDonough, father, grandfather, and owner of Lifetime Adventures along the shores of Eklutna Lake, has been renting kayaks to eager boaters for more than 20 years, and knows what water does to children. “Water is mesmerizing. Kids watch the swirls, the way their paddle dips in the water, and how the boat glides. It’s out of the ordinary scope of daily life,” he says.
Indeed, many children, especially smaller kids who aren’t old enough to paddle long distances, sometimes fall asleep to the delicate cadence of a canoe or kayak slicing through the water, drips of water tap-tapping against the boat. My son, 10, finds paddling a test of his pre-teen strength and gangly balance as he learns just how far he can push the envelope of our Old Town canoe before it wobbles and scares his mother.
Alaska is full of lakes and slow rivers ready to welcome family searching for places to introduce children to kayaking or canoeing. A helpful starting point is visiting your local Alaska Public Lands Information Center, with four locations in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Tok, and Ketchikan. Designed as resources for the enjoyment of Alaska public land, the centers offer maps, passes, and trip-planning advice for those interested in exploring the watery trails of our state.
Alaskans like Casey Ressler, marketing and communications director for the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau also have favorite locations for dropping a boat into the water. Fortunate to live and work near the scenic Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area, Ressler and his family have spent hours canoeing and fishing the stocked waters of several lakes formed by glacial depressions. Formerly known as Kepler-Bradley State Recreation Area, the park is now open year-round with fishing, boating, and biking providing a wealth of family fun. “Canoe Lake is my personal favorite,” Ressler says. It’s easy access with a canoe or kayak, and there are a ton of grayling in that lake. It’s where my daughter caught her first fish, in fact, during a canoe trip.” Located along Mile 36.4 of the Glenn Highway, boaters will arrive at the entrance to Matanuska Lake, where a campground at the lake is available for those who wish to extend their adventure with an overnight stay. That’s part of the attraction of this area, says Ressler. “It’s so easy to introduce kids to boating with an experience here. Kepler Park rents paddle boats, canoes, and PFDs, so it’s a great starting point for those who don’t have their own equipment. And camping is a nice bonus.”
Other family-friendly spots for kayaking and canoeing fun include:
Anchorage Parks and Recreation system (http://www.muni.org/departments/parks/pages/lakes.aspx). Many a newbie boater has found accessible and calm waters at locations like Goose Lake, Cheney Lake, Jewel Lake, Beach Lake, and Mirror Lake parks. Perfect for families just learning about small watercraft, these spots are also close to home, and great for an evening paddle before bedtime.
Eklutna Lake, Lifetime Adventures (http://www.lifetimeadventure.net/eklutna-trips-and-rentals/). Owner Dan McDonough has a flotilla of double and single kayaks for rent upon the turquoise waters of Eklutna Lake State Park. Morning is the best time to paddle here, as afternoon winds can and do make boating a bit of a challenge for the less-experienced boater. Two hours for $40, reservations recommended.
Swan Lake/Swanson River Canoe Trail system (http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Kenai/visit/visitor_activities/swanson_river.html). This Kenai National Wildlife Refuge series of canoe trails and portages is considered by many the crown jewel of multi-day freshwater trips, and is perfect for the older child or teenager who wants to experience the thrill of paddling and portaging between this series of scenic routes.
Nancy Lakes State Recreation Area Canoe Trail System (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/nancylk/nancysum.htm). Lynx Lake Loop is an eight-mile canoe trail among a chain of smaller lakes that require some portages (overland travel with your boat), but are still suitable for families comfortable with boating and camping. Most often traveled in one leisurely weekend paddle, but hardy boaters can accomplish the loop in a day.
Denali State Park/Byers Lake (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aspunits/matsu/byerslkcamp.htm). Canoe and kayak rentals are available at Byers Lake Campground through Southside River Guides (www.denaliriverguides.com), and the lake provides a quiet place for new paddlers to explore this scenic area, including great views of Denali on clear days. Located 147 miles north of Anchorage along the Parks Highway, Denali State Park is often overlooked by travelers heading north to the national park.
Chena River, Fairbanks (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/chena/river.htm). Depending upon where you choose to put in, paddlers can make their way from Chena Hot Springs Road to the downtown area, meandering through this scenic state recreation area. Be aware of log jams and low-hanging branches, known as “sweepers” everywhere along the river, but particularly in the upper section.
The Knik Canoers and Kayakers Club offers group paddles, classes, and informational meetings that enhance a paddler’s experience on Alaska’s waterways. Find out more by visiting http://www.kck.org/about.html.
NOTE! “Kids Don’t Float”
All children under the age of 13 are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device (PFD) in an open boat and on decks and docks. Kelli Toth, education specialist for the State of Alaska’s Office of Boating Safety, reports that five out of six boating fatalities occur in sudden, unexpected events. “Sudden capsizes or falls overboard leave no time to locate a PFD prior to entering the water,” she says. “This is why wearing a life jacket is critical.” The popular “Kids Don’t Float” program is a statewide effort and national model for water safety in response to Alaska’s high childhood drowning rate. Originally developed in Homer in 1996 with “loaner boards” of life jackets available for use, the program now offers classes, materials, loaner boards, and educational opportunities around the state.
Toth suggests parents implement family rules that include wearing life jackets on all docks or when playing near water, adding that the presence of a responsible adult is a best practice. And, she says, grownups should not be exempt from the PFD rules. “Without PFDs, the risk of a higher risk of drowning in Alaska’s cold water becomes a reality, no matter one’s age, experience, or swimming ability.”
The Office of Boating Safety provides a wealth of information, including boating safety training and kid-friendly activities, at many events around the state. Groups can also request a class tailor-made for a specific age, where topics range from self-rescues, capsizes, rescuing other people, and life jacket performance tests. www.AlaskaBoatingSafety.org, or call 907-269-6042.
Erin Kirkland is the author of “Alaska on the Go: exploring the 49th state with children,” and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska’s only family travel resource. She is currently working on her second book, due out next year.