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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Spotlight: Kid Stuff

Primers for Parents Who Paddle —
And for Other Adults Who Work with Kids

By Farwell Forrest

July 15, 2003

In the grim years following World War II, George Orwell— the man who made nineteen eighty-four a year to remember — wrote a regular weekly column under the title I Write as I Please. It was a good name for a column, and usually a good read, too, full of unexpected treats: an honest and very funny account of the unhappy lot of the professional book reviewer ("Until one has some sort of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are"), a lyrical defense of nature writing ("I know from experience that a favourable reference to 'Nature' in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters"), even an elegy on the declining quality of English murders ("a crime which can…excite pity for both victim and murderer").

While writing as he pleased, Orwell once took up the cause of "good bad books," a term coined by the English novelist G.K. Chesterton to describe books which, though "quite impossible to call 'good' by any strictly literary standard," nonetheless remain readable (and widely read) long after more ambitious works are consigned to the dustbin of students' summer reading lists. It was amusing stuff, and perfectly true. Even diehard literary snobs will find it difficult to refute Orwell's conclusion that "native grace…may have more survival value than erudition or intellectual power."

When discussing Bruce Lessels' and Karen Blom's Paddling with Kids (Appalachian Mountain Club, 2001), however, I find it necessary to go Orwell one better. Paddling with Kids cannot be called a good book. Nor is it a good bad book. No. It is a bad good book, instead. What do I mean? Simply that it is an attractively-packaged volume on an important subject, written by a pair of expert paddlers and experienced teachers, with the imprimatur of an organization that has produced some of the best outdoor guides in print — and yet it is all but useless.

Nevertheless, it may be worth buying. Paradox? Possibly. Contradiction? Maybe not. But before I explain, let's take a look at the need for such a book.

Parents come in many types. At one extreme, some adopt what evolutionary biologists call an "r-strategy." They invest a minimum of care and attention in each individual kid, preferring to let nature take its course. Their kids are thrown into life at the deep end, so to speak. After that, it's sink or swim, with mom and dad watching from shore and cheering the survivors on. Such parents need no help from this or any other book.

At the other end of the spectrum are parents who follow what the biologists have labeled a "K-strategy." Here the emphasis is on nurturing: K-strategy parents are Nurturers with a capital "N." They make large investments of time (and money) in each kid. They're hands-on folks, too. You won't find them watching passively as their children struggle in deep water. They believe in the value of education, careful preparation, and graduated challenge. In short, they're the parents who'll turn to volumes like Paddling with Kids for guidance.

But I've just suggested that they'll be disappointed, haven't I? Why? To begin with, it's important to understand that Lessels and Blom are trying to do two jobs at once: assist parents who want help "encouraging their kids to paddle," while at the same time describing "some basic paddling techniques" that "will help get kids started in the sport." As luck would have it, though, the first job is probably unnecessary. Most kids old enough to wield a paddle already have a pretty good idea what interests them and what doesn't, and they don't need to be encouraged to do what they want to do. In fact, it's all but impossible to hold them back. What are we to make of parents who lament that their kids "aren't interested in anything," then? Perhaps only that their kids don't share their interests. This is unfortunate, to be sure. What parent doesn't want her children to follow in her wake, after all? Still, kids' fancies often thrive or wither in ways that defy either analysis or direction. Adults can only invite their children to join them. They cannot compel — not for long, at any rate.

Lessels and Blom fare no better in their second self-appointed task. To their credit, however, they readily acknowledge their book's shortcomings as a paddling primer. In fact, they refer readers looking for a comprehensive discussion of paddling techniques to "the many [other] how-to books available." It's good advice, and wise parents will lose no time in acting on it.

All right, then. If the authors' encouragement is unneeded and their primer incomplete, what's left to capture the reader's attention? Only a hit-or-miss collection of hints, tips, and paddling anecdotes, unevenly edited and badly illustrated. Here's a brief sampler of some of the more noticeable lapses:

Too Many Pictures Tell No Story

Of the forty-seven photos, more than half are little better than holiday snaps. Most of these could be omitted without loss. And what of the others? Some are merely perplexing (a badly-lit shot of a "low-head dam," for example). A few, however, are downright misleading. In a picture purportedly illustrating "an all-purpose tandem canoe preparing to set out on whitewater," for instance, the reader searches in vain for any sign of flotation, spare paddle, or bailer — and soon notices that the knot securing the trailing bow painter appears to be coming adrift, into the bargain. "Preparing"? Maybe. But certainly not prepared. No way.

Better by far to substitute line drawings for some of the holiday snaps. The book has just one such drawing, and it's excellent.

Waste Happens, but What Then?

Except for a cryptic admonition to "dispose of waste properly," Lessels' and Blom's "Leave No Trace" guidelines are silent on the subject of sanitation, a matter of considerable practical interest to parents and children alike. A photo caption stresses the importance of "staying well hydrated," and the accompanying text cautions that properly hydrated kids "should urinate frequently throughout the day." The rest is left to the reader's imagination (and ingenuity). That just isn't good enough.

Is It Safe?

Safety is every K-strategy parent's primary concern, of course, and Lessels and Blom make the expected cautionary and reassuring noises. Unfortunately, though, they leave the most important truth unsaid: risk can be managed (a favorite, if somewhat misleading, term), but it is always present. Even skillful, well-equipped paddlers can die on the water, and death is no respecter of age. The British author Alan Byde pulled no punches in his advice to instructors: "[D]on't ever say to an anxious parent [that] 'Mary, or Bill, will be perfectly safe whilst canoeing.' They won't.… [L]ife is bound to end with a fatal experience. It is just a matter of where, when, and how.… Don't deceive yourself.… A good maxim is to ask oneself, before beginning a session in charge of other people, "What would I say to the Coroner?"

Such blunt — some would say brutal — talk is unfashionable on both sides of the Pond today, yet it bears repetition. Canoeing and kayaking yield many pleasures for parents and children alike, but these pleasures always come at a price. That price may someday be the life of the paddler, even when that paddler is a child. No parent can afford to forget this. However scrupulously risks are "managed," nature always has the last word, and nature cares nothing for sentiment. Sometimes love just isn't enough.

The Oracle Speaks

Pedagogy breeds obscurantism as naturally as road-kill breeds flies. That's of no consequence to educators, for whom the professional jargon soon becomes a second language, but it often comes as a bit of a jolt to the rest of us. What is the reader to make of things like "Teaching is not merely the practice of presenting material, but rather ensures that learning will occur"? This all too representative morsel is attributed by the authors to Becky Molina, whose "overarching principles," we are assured, "have proven to work well when teaching kids." Dorothy Parker would have had a suitable rejoinder on the tip of her tongue, I'm sure. I do not. But I know that I prefer simpler fare in a primer — plain facts, plainly told, without the need for oracular circumlocutions, let alone "overarching principles."


Enough. Paddling with Kids is a bad good book, but there are plenty of seeds to be found amidst the chaff. If the kids in your care are starting to show an interest in paddling, therefore, and if you have a little time on your hands, you may well find that Lessels' and Blom's thin volume repays a quick read-through. (The book's lack of an index makes any other approach impractical.) If not — if time presses, or if you simply lack patience — turn to your local library, instead. Bill Mason's Song of the Paddle (NorthWord Press, 1988) contains an excellent short chapter on family canoe camping, and Barbara McMartin's Fun on Flatwater (North Country Books, 1995) has plenty of no-nonsense advice in a section aptly titled "Getting Started." Do you need more? Do you want practical help teaching your kids the elements of boat control and related arts, perhaps? Then hunt down a copy of Alan Byde's Living Canoeing (2d edition, revised; Adam & Charles Black, 1973). It's a British book (so "canoeing" means "kayaking"), long out of print and somewhat dated in consequence, but you still won't find a better primer anywhere. The line drawings are superb, too.

See you — and your kids, I hope! — on the water.


Adults have Deliverance. But stories for kids with an interest in paddling are few and far between, and good stories are rarer still. Next time, in "More Kid Stuff," I'll take a look at some of the best books of the last 150 years for web-footed kids who also like to read. Come to think of it, there might be something in the pile for us adults, too.

Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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