Reflections From a Father on Raising River Kids

Reflections From a Father on Raising River Kids

My firstborn, Miles, was born in early 2002. In the summer of 2001, I was anticipating his birth and, as an obsessed whitewater kayaker and river runner, I was already fantasizing about running rivers with my son.

At our local whitewater festival, one of my kayaking heroes, Eric Jackson, was in town. EJ is a legend of whitewater kayaking. A multiple-time world champion kayaker who blended his passion for whitewater kayaking with his family by traveling around for years with his wife Kristine and kids Emily and Dane. They traveled in an RV going from river to river to compete, teach clinics, and became the most recognizable ambassadors for whitewater paddling our sport has ever seen.

EJ's kids have gone on to have incredible careers themselves. Both Emily and Dane have won world championships of their own. I figured if anyone could give me sound advice on raising kids to be river rats, EJ was the man. So I asked him very plainly what his advice was for a new father. What he offered was both strikingly simple and equally challenging. EJ said, "It's got to be their thing. You can't force it." 

Kayaks are great substitutes for pack and plays when you need to keep your kids contained. 

23 years later, I've come to understand that advice well.

So much of parenting is having the self control to both offer your kids opportunities to be exposed to the things you love... while balancing not making those opportunities feel oppressive.

Getting your kids into being on the water is no different than my Dad wanting to teach me to fish so we could fish together. At the end of the day, they have to love it too. 

3 Lessons I Learned Raising Kids Who Became River Rats

Zack and I founded this company as young parents. Zack's daughters are teenagers now and my kids are both in their 20s, but all four of them love the river just like we do.

They each have their own unique approach, but sharing the river as a family is central to the culture that we have aimed to create with Badfish. In honor of Father's Day, here are some tips and lessons we've learned about raising kids who want to be out on the water with you — regardless of whether you're paddling on a lake, running rivers, fishing, or surfing.

Zack with his eldest daughter Izzy when Izzy was young and learning to surf. Izzy is now one of the best female river surfers on the scene. 

1. It's not about you.

When introducing a kid to the water, you have to allow your ambitions and goals to take the backseat. East to say. Hard to do.

Let go of your expectations and whatever timelines you have and try to see the experience through your kid's eyes. Tiny little waves used to entertain my son Miles for hours. Low flow runs down the river in October were not what I wanted to do, but his excitement to be out there made it exciting for me.

Think about what you need to make it fun; food, warm gear, or shade depending on the day. Be ready to meet them where they are. Think of any time out on the water with your kids as an investment. It will pay off down the road when they're running safety for you when you're old and gray and still psyched to charge some rapids. 

Miles Harvey as a young tike perfecting that frontside turn on a micro wave on the Arkansas River. 

2. No Pressure.

You remember what it felt like to be a kid and have your parents tell you what was best for you. Has that approach ever worked in the history of time?

I always think of what another of my heroes, Gary Lacy, told me one time. Gary raised two incredibly talented and stoked river runners, surfers, and explorers, Mason and Spencer Lacy. He said, "I always make sure I am having more fun than my kids and their friends so they want to come along with us".

Paddling is fun, being on the water is fun, river trips are fun, surfing is fun. You can model your stoke without making it feel like there's any pressure for your kids to feel the same way. Offer them the chance to come along and let go of any expectation that they will be as stoked as you every time. Most kids want to have these experiences as long as they don't feel like they're mandated from above.

When Zack was teaching his youngest daughter Maggie to surf he made sure to include her friends so she would have a stoked crew to rally with and make it their own thing. 

3. Keep it simple.

The first time I took my kids on a "surf trip" to Mexico it was an utter disaster. Both kids got sick immediately. Turned out my daughter hated sitting on the sand. They both got eaten alive by mosquitos in the (cough, cough) "budget" accommodations I was used to on these types of trips in my younger years.

A few days in my wife and I would have paid almost anything to abort the mission and head home.

The point is that sometimes our ambitions get in the way. I have drug my kids all over the world to paddle and surf, but most of the best times, especially when they were young, were close to home. Remember that things that seem mundane to you are fresh and new to kids. The local pond holds so much potential for fun.

Being a Dad is greatest accomplishment of my life. Sharing the joy of paddling, surfing, running rivers and exploration with my family has comprised the best moments of my life. Today I am grateful that my kids have their own relationships with these pursuits that I love and that while I introduced them and continue to share experiences with much of their time on the water now is without me. So on this Father's Day here's hoping you get outside with those that mean the most to you. 


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