Sea Kayaking with Children: 10 Tips and 10 Trips

From the sandy shores of Cape Cod to the rocky, island-filled coast of Maine, few outdoor activities are better suited for New England than sea kayaking. Touring coastlines and ponds by kayak has the potential to be a superb family experience, as well, whether as part of a guided day-trip or as a regular activity.

As nature photographers and the authors of Discover Southern New Hampshire and Discover Acadia National Park, Jerry and Marcy Monkman know the special appeal of a water's-eye view. And as the parents of two children, they also understand the pleasure of sharing that perspective with youngsters. Michael O'Connor, author of Discover Cape Cod, agrees that paddling together as a family can be "an absolutely delightful experience."

Part of the trick to planning successful family kayak trips, according to these AMC authors, is knowing what to do; the other is knowing where to go. "What to do" includes boat handling, navigation, and water safety skills—information that takes time to develop. For that reason, O'Connor and the Monkmans urge novice paddlers to acquire a strong foundation of skills and experience before taking children on the water. Families can also sign up for guided tours offered by experienced outfitters.

Ten Tips for Starting Out
• Parents should know basic paddling strokes, be able to read tide charts and nautical charts, and know how to get an overboard child back into a boat while on the water.
Wear a PFD (personal flotation device) at all times. (In many states, children under 12 are required by law to wear PFDs.)
• Be aware of water temperature. Especially in the colder waters off the coast of Maine, hypothermia can set in within minutes.
• Keep track of weather. Know in advance the detailed, local forecast, and avoid trips when there are high wind or surf advisories.
• Keep close to shore, especially if you don't have strong navigation skills.
• Be aware of tides and strong currents. If you plan your trips for the two or three hours around high tide, tidal rivers can offer very pretty, easy meandering, without grounding you or requiring difficult trudges through mudflats.
• Try a double kayak. Double kayaks, somewhat like tandem bicycles, allow parent and child to be in the same boat. Some two-seat kayaks have a cargo hatch between the seats that can double as a child's seat. By the age of 12, children are generally big enough to master a double-bladed kayak paddle. Younger children can help a little, but adults should be prepared to provide most of the muscle.
• If a kayak has a spray skirt, check that young paddlers are strong enough to release the ripcord that holds it, and can quickly exit the boat if it capsizes. Nylon skirts require less power to release than those made of neoprene.
Be prepared with plenty of water, food, hats, sunglasses, bug spray, and sunscreen. A day on the water constantly exposes you to the elements. Other safety items include dry bag, first aid kid, foghorn, and cell phone or VHF radio.
• When children are strong paddlers and know how to wet-exit a kayak—typically not until they're teenagers—they're ready to safely join adults on longer and more open-water paddles.

Ten Trips

In these five family-friendly kayak trips on Cape Cod and along Boston's South Shore recommended by Michael O'Connor, tidal rivers, marshlands, and bays offer protected paddling for flat-water adventures from 30 minutes to 3 hours or even overnight. The biggest issue on these trips may be the parking!

Gull Pond, Wellfleet. This protected pond, fed by underground springs, is the largest of Wellfleet's famously clear freshwater kettle ponds. A canoe livery on the pond rents kayaks. Gull Pond is a great destination for a family's first kayaking adventure, with the promise of swimming afterward. During the summer season, you'll need a beach/parking pass, and you may want to avoid the mid-day crowds.
Nauset Marsh, Eastham. Nauset Marsh is the central natural feature in a sprawling estuary that's dotted with islands and extraordinarily rich in bird and marine life. Register for guided paddles (fee required) at nearby Salt Pond Visitor Center, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Herring River, Harwich. On the Nantucket Bay side of Cape Cod in a scenic mid-Cape area, the Herring River will take you through protected land and past remnants of old cranberry bogs. "It's the busiest part of the Cape," O'Connor says, "but you can feel as if you have that pristine environment all to yourself."
Waquoit Bay, Falmouth. The heart of the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the bay itself is half a mile wide but quite shallow, and offers miles of protected paddling. Extend your adventure overnight by reserving one of 11 wilderness campsites on Washburn Island. O'Connor cautions against breaching the outlet to Nantucket Sound, however.
North River, Norwell. Only 25 miles from Boston along the Bay State's South Shore, paddle up the North River to Norwell, a historic center of colonial shipbuilding, along a stretch of protected waterway. The Beaver, of Boston Tea Party fame, and the Columbia, which gave its name to the great Pacific Northwest river, were both built on land near to what is now part of the Norris Reservation. North River is a tidal river, so it's important to pick a three-hour period around high tide for this paddle.

New Hampshire and Maine
Jerry and Marcy Monkman have introduced their children, ages 7 and 9, to sea kayaking through short trips near their home in Portsmouth, N.H., and through summer-camp instruction. Within a year or two, they expect their children to be ready to join them in exploring the spectacular scenery around Mount Desert Island in Maine.

Pierce Island to Sagamore Creek, Portsmouth, N.H. Put in at the boat launch on Pierce Island, directly across from Portsmouth's commercial fish pier (non-residents charged a small fee). Paddle south and west through back-channel islands in a sheltered part of the harbor. Three of these islands were recently put under conservation easement by the town of New Castle. Pull up on one of the tiny islands for a break, or continue up Sagamore Creek, a tidal river, past salt marshes, homes, and forests. For a special treat, tie up for a meal at BG's Boathouse Restaurant right on the creek.
Odiorne Salt Marsh, Hampton, N.H. An easy paddle through the salt marsh that surrounds two creeks, Berry's and Seavey. Add hiking at nearby Odiorne Point State Park or a visit to the Seacoast Science Center—great places for kids to stretch their sea legs.
Mt. Desert Narrows, Acadia, Maine. A sheltered trip in the first national park east of the Mississippi, this outing gives you the chance to see nesting bald eagles, seals, and porpoise. The narrows includes several islands, including the tiny and well-named pair, The Twinnies, but Thompson Island provides the only island landing spot. Paddle during high tide or risk being beached by the extensive mudflats around Thompson.
Jordan Pond, Acadia, Maine. Jerry Monkman recommends a paddle in deep freshwater Jordan Pond as part of a perfect outing that hasn’t been improved on in more than a century. Paddle mile-long Jordan Pond from south to north, passing below steep granite cliffs on Penobscot Mountain and watching for loons and mergansers, which nest on the pond. At the pond's northern end, pull out for a short—about 0.5 mile—trial hike to the top of The Bubbles, two pink granite domes. Your Jordan Pond adventure isn't complete, Monkman says, until you've ordered tea and popovers at the Jordan Pond House, which has been serving afternoon tea since the 1870s.
Seal Cove toward Pretty Marsh, Acadia, Maine. The Monkmans describe a 10-mile roundtrip paddle from Seal Cove to Pretty Marsh in Discover Acadia National Park—probably too much for young paddlers—but there's plenty of beauty in a shorter trip along the shoreline. Round the corner heading north from Seal Cove for a view of bigger water: islands, starting with nearby Moose Island and blue ocean beyond.

Learn more
- Cape Cod: Video of Michael O'Connor, author of Discover Cape Cod, paddling on Gull Pond
- Maine: Maine Association of Sea Kayak Guides
- Southern N.H.: Portsmouth Kayak Adventures for rentals and instruction

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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