Wilderness Canoeing with Your Kids
We believe it’s essential to pass on our love of canoeing—especially wilderness canoeing—to our kids. Not only because they’ll be the next ones to protect those wilderness areas, but because these times are transforming for them.
Kids will usually paddle in small spurts. Don’t push them too hard, but also don’t discourage them from helping, even if it’s counterproductive. Weston (8) in the bow and Rohan (4) in the middle (Alton Lake, BWCA 2018)
Ben Strege, founder of Paddle Planner, is a huge proponent of getting kids into the wilderness. He himself experienced many wilderness canoe trips growing up with his family. And he and his wife have prioritized those same kinds of trips with their boys.
Here’s our conversation with Ben about the hows and whys of wilderness canoe tripping with kids from their family’s experience:
BRANCHES: What have you and your wife done to raise your kids to love the outdoors, and specifically canoeing?
BEN: The first thing is we’ve not lived in the city! Both our kids were born in North Dakota where our closest neighbor was a mile away. When we moved to Minnesota, we looked for a similar place where we could be out in the woods. One reason we live there is the quiet, but also to help them appreciate nature and the natural world around us.
When we lived in North Dakota my wife and would take at least one Boundary Waters trip a year, and sometimes up to four. We’d drop our kids off at my parents’ place on the way.
One year something came up and they couldn’t watch the kids. So it was either cancel our trip or take the kids with us. We decided to take them along—our oldest was four and our youngest was six months old.
The first family trip. From left to right, Rohan (6 months), Auralee, Weston (4), Ben (Wood Lake, BWCA 2014)
We had to do a very different trip than what we had planned. On the portages my wife carried the baby with our 4-year old in tow and I carried everything else, and it took a few trips.
After we got off the portage, we paddled about 15 minutes and picked a campsite—kids don’t necessarily like being in a canoe for a long time! So our expectations had to change, but that trip ended up being absolutely perfect.
That made us realize we could bring little kids on canoe trips that can be successful and fun. It’s not the same type of trip but it’s still a fun trip.
After that we brought the kids every year, and now I bring the kids on several trips every year with me. I don’t have many trips that are “my” trips! They’re my kids’ trips. We also like to bring another family that wouldn’t otherwise have the chance.
My kids get to plan and choose their own trip to do with Dad. Weston (the oldest) has been wanting to go the Quetico, to “Secret” Lake—the trip my dad took me on when I was young. So we finally got to do that last year. And Rohan just likes to fish, so that’s what we do.
Rohan (8) with the biggest walleye he has ever caught. He is very proud of it! (Wood Lake, BWCA 2022)
BRANCHES: You mentioned your dad—this sounds multi-generational.
BEN: Yes, and it goes back further. My grandpa (my dad’s dad) was canoeing in the Quetico before the Boundary Waters existed, in the 1940s and 50s.
Then my dad and his brother went every year for probably 30 years into the Boundary Waters and Quetico. I kept begging every year, “Is this the year I can go, Dad?” He said when I was 12 he’d take me, so when I turned 12 I was so excited!
I think they were a little skeptical. It was a long way and they didn’t change the trip at all for me. It was a 14-15 hour paddle to get in.
I can remember every detail of that trip, and it was almost 30 years ago. The most memorable part was coming out when it was so windy with big rolling waves. And when we looked to the north there was smoke—coming from the same direction as where our truck was parked!
Ben’s first canoe trip with his dad and uncle (12 years old): fishing with Dad, learning how to read a map (Quetico 1995)
The next morning the smoke was so thick on the lake we had to use a compass to get out. We got back to the Ranger Station and, indeed, the fire was where we had parked. For readers who know, that was the 1995 fire that burned Stanton Bay.
My uncle went to get the car, and the fire had jumped the parking lot so the vehicles were okay. (He has his own memories and stories about retrieving his truck with the ranger.)
So that was my introduction to canoeing. I absolutely loved it!
After that my dad realized he could take the family, and I have three younger sisters. So we went to the Quetico every year—not the same trip, as I don’t think we could’ve handled a 15-hour paddle. We would just find a campsite and stay on the first lake.
One of the last Strege family trips before everyone had families of their own. From left to right, Ben (22), Allison (15), Carolyn (19), Katherine (21) (Pickerel Lake, Quetico 2004)
My mom is not necessarily the outdoors type like my dad is. I asked her once, “Why did you go with us when you didn’t normally enjoy things like that?” She said, “Because your dad made it easy for me.”
This applies to kids as well.
BRANCHES: What tips do you have for other parents?
BEN: Make it easy for them. You are going to be doing all the work! But involve them as much as they can do. If they want to help paddle don’t discourage them, even though it’s counterproductive sometimes! Let them have fun. It’s not your trip.
The Number 1 thing I tell people when they ask me, “Should I bring my kids?” is, “Yes, bring your kids! But it is going to be a very different style of trip. It’s not your trip, it’s the kids’ trip. So you have to change your expectations a little bit.”
Give kids the opportunity to learn. Weston (7) learning how to build a fire. (Perent Lake, BWCA 2017)
Rohan (8) wanted to try paddling in the stern. It took some rearranging of the cargo to get the canoe trimmed right, but he was able to do it. Rohan found out how hard it was to keep the canoe going straight (we were zig-zagging down the lake), but he loved the opportunity to try. (Wood Lake, BWCA 2022)
A short trip is okay. You don’t have to go for a week. When I take the kids, it’s two nights max. That’s about all I can do, it’s so much work. And I’m okay with that. It keeps them wanting more and it keeps me from going crazy!
Involve them as much as you can. I let my kids pick their own destinations with a little guidance. After nine years of doing this with my kids I know what they’re capable of and what they’ll like to do.
I give them a packing list and double-check everything but they pack their own stuff. They help with paddling and setting up camp as much as they can. They help with the cooking and cleaning up as much as they can. But a lot of it still falls on you.
When our boys were younger we’d bring small games and a couple books for the tent, especially if it’s raining.
Kids love swimming. Finding a place they can safely swim and have fun is one of my kids’ top priorities. Rohan (5) is jumping off the rock surrounded by his cousins. (Caribou Lake, BWCA 2019)
Wilderness Canoeing Safety with Kids
BEN: When Rohan was six months old he wasn’t mobile yet, which was great. I’m a bit more leery about taking toddlers. But I have had friends take their toddlers. As long as you pick an okay campsite and have them wear their life jacket (even at the campsite) in case they fall into the water, they’re okay.
My wife does come on a few of the trips, but I usually take them by myself. And if something happens to me the boys need to know what to do. We have a satellite messenger. I tell them, “If something happens to me and I'm unresponsive, press this button, okay?”
Weston, now, is really good. He can portage a lot more stuff than I could when I was his age. And he could theoretically get us out by himself as well, but when they were younger they couldn't.
For his birthday present, Weston (10) just wanted to go on a canoe trip with his dad. (Cross Bay Lake Entry Point, BWCA 2019)
So I made sure they knew what to do in case I was not capable. It also changes your perspective on taking care of yourself, not taking risks.
One big thing is to keep them warm and pack more clothes than I’m used to packing for myself. They get dirty, they get wet and they’re more sensitive to the clothes they’re wearing, to wetness and things like that. So pack warm clothes, a winter hat and gloves even in the summer (it’s cold in the mornings). Bring multiple changes of socks for them.
BRANCHES: Why is it so important for our kids to learn to appreciate and enjoy nature and wilderness?
BEN: Nature and the wilderness is a disappearing commodity. Once it’s gone, we can’t get it back. We need people to protect what wilderness we have left. If no one appreciates it, no one protects it.
When I and my generation are not around anymore, then who's going to be left? It's going to be the people who grew up appreciating and loving it. That's at least one of my reasons that kids should learn to appreciate nature.
Kids are curious about the natural world. Showing the kids a garter snake. Adults from left to right, Ben, his sister Carolyn, her husband Todd. (Caribou Lake, BWCA 2019)
BRANCHES: Tell us about a few specific memories that stands out.
BEN: I have many memories growing up with my sisters and my parents going canoeing. One of them was when I was about 14. We were on Pickerel Lake, 12 miles across. We always left at 5:00 in the morning to try and escape the wind. One trip, though, the wind and waves never died down. I was in a canoe with two of my sisters, and my dad, mom and my third sister were in the other canoe.
My mom was terrified because she thought she was going to lose her three kids in the other canoe. But my dad said, “Don't worry, they're with Ben. He knows what he’s doing.” Can you imagine what that did for me, for my confidence and self-esteem? That was one of the defining moments of my life.
So another reason I take kids canoeing is so they can learn they can do hard things.
On the very first trip I took Weston on by himself he was five years old. We went to Bald Eagle Lake, and the trip begins with a long portage, over 200 rods. When we were coming back I had three or four trips to make.
I knew if we were going to get out on time I’d need to move fast, so I asked Weston if he could just follow the trail to the parking lot. He said yeah, so I went ahead and dropped off stuff. As I came back I found him crying—he thought he was lost.
So I walked him back to the car, gave him some food and something to do and got him settled. I still had to go back for our last load, and I knew it would take me a half hour. A half hour is a long time for a five-year-old sitting by himself!
As I started to head back, I saw someone coming with my last load. It ended up being an employee from a local outfitter. I thanked him, and later sent an email out to the outfitter thanking them, too. They didn’t know how much it would mean to me and my son.
Now fast forward seven years. Same entry point, now Weston was 12. We took another family with us so we had five boys and two dads. We went to Bald Eagle Lake again. We had a fun trip and were on the return 200-rod portage. We saw another family—a husband, wife and infant. And they had a ton of stuff like I did on our very first family trip. And he had to carry most of the gear so was making trips back and forth, because the mom had the baby.
Weston, now 13, can handle pretty much anything the wilderness throws at him. Finishing up the last portage of his 20th trip. And it was a tough one! (Nym Lake, Quetico 2022)
And I told Weston, “You know, I think they would appreciate some help.” And he said, “Okay!” So he ran back and grabbed one of their packs and took it all the way to the parking lot. So from that first trip where Weston was crying in the middle of the portage and someone helped us, now he was able to bring that full circle and help out another family. Wow.
One more memory I’ll share is mostly about my younger son, Rohan, who was six at the time. This was one of our least successful, but in another way our most successful trips. We started off by getting a flat tire on the way in the middle of nowhere.
Our trip wasn’t long but it had six portages, including one about 90 rods what would be Rohan’s longest so far. This portage wasn’t well used and it had rained so the grass was really tall and falling over the trail. Now Rohan is really little—in the 2nd percentile for his age. So for him it was like going through a tunnel.
At this point in their lives they were used to me going and dropping off stuff and going back, and he was carrying what he could. I started back and found him in the middle of the portage crying. So this was a bit traumatic for him. Then at the end of another portage he stepped into water that looked shallow, but wasn’t. He went in up to his waist!
A thunderstorm rolled in next. It was like everything that could go wrong went wrong. I’m thinking this is ending up a terrible experience for all of us.
But then the rain ended, it was nice and calm on the lake. And one of the best things I’ve ever experienced on a canoe trip is watching my two sons paddle together. So I let Weston take Rohan out. Rohan loves fishing and Weston loves paddling, so it works out!
Weston (10) paddling Rohan (6) around the lake while Rohan fishes. (Swan Lake, BWCA 2020)
We had planned on two nights, but we left the next day and had to go back through those same portages. This time Rohan did not cry. He successfully completed that 90-rod portage and was so proud. He talked about it for days. He got home and told mom, “I did this portage!”
So kids learn to do hard things. And now Rohan has done a few 200 rod portages, and he just turned nine.
Give kids just enough to keep them challenged but not discouraged. Rohan (8) finishes the 220-rod Wood Lake portage. It wasn’t easy! Note: This length portage is usually too much if the kids have never gone before. This was Rohan’s 14th trip, and I had worked him up to portages of this length. While each kid is different, I generally recommend the first trip to have no portages or very short ones. (Wood Lake, BWCA 2022)
I make it a point with myself to let the kids try, struggle and challenge themselves. The wilderness has a power to bring out the best in us.
Weston (10) taking Rohan (6) on “The Grand Ride” as they called it. Weston paddled Rohan around the little bay. (Brule Lake, BWCA 2020)
Thank you for your time, Ben, and your dedication to the canoeing community!
All photos courtesy of Ben Strege.
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