Drew Kirk introduced paddling with a simple directive in mind:
Failure was not an option.
That meant easing his daughters, Anwhei and Goldie, into kayaks at an intentionally slow place, with an eye to containing any and all variables that could derail the experience.
“So even just starting at the lake, we’d be bundled up in three layers with skull caps on,” says Kirk, a Ketchum Idaho resident who had witnessed other parents abandon kayaking as a family sport after a single cold swim spooked their kids.
Those negatives are hard to recover from, Kirk notes, adding that, “it’s all associations when you are building that hard drive in their heads, and you need to fill it with all positives.”
Sticking with the computing analogy, Kirk was resolute that he would not let his daughters — who are two years apart — program the words, or the concept, of ‘fear’ into ‘kayaking’ until they had the basic skills in place.
That outlook meant tons of flatwater paddling, creating games to keep things interesting. When it was time for moving water on the Payette River, they first simulated wet exits on dry land, and then waited to introduce the sprayskirt.
“I’d heard bad stories when kids slammed on back deck and they panicked,” Kirk says, “So we eliminated the skirt from the equation until I knew the roll was bomber on both sides, then threw on the skirt.”
From there it was ferrying drills and side-surfing practice with what Kirk calls a “fun, tight leash,” still taking slow and measured steps while working to minimize negatives, but always with an eye toward making the experience into both a social and a fun experience — exploring, collecting rocks, integrating contests — and always finding a way develop their Eskimo rolls.
That too, quickly became a game, Dad offering a dollar for every successful roll.
“It made a fun incentive,” Kirk laughs, “But then I wouldn’t have any cash.”
Once confident that his daughters could handle the rigors and combat rolls needed for moving water, Kirk began leading Anwhei and Goldie down rapids. There, he quickly discovered the importance of group dynamics with the sisters getting the chance to lead each other.
At the end of the each successful rapid, he’d help break down the decisions made, in order to boost confidence in abilities.
As the Kirk girls’ skills grew, so did the incentives.
“Every time before we’d go kayaking, they might have doubts,” Kirk recalls. “But then when we’d get off the river, they’re talking nonstop, buzzing, happy. Paddling’s a life equalizer where it gives them confidence and the independence in a boat to go wherever they want.”
With all the skills in place, confidently able to lead rapids – “the full toolbox,” as Kirk says — he was ready to let out the leash a bit for an experience farther afield, bringing them on an outfitted multi-day trip this summer down the upper Mekong River through China’s Qinghai province in what is going to be its first National Park. In pushy high-volume water unknown to Anwhei and Goldie, the conservative approach paid off, returning safely home with lasting memories and a newfound respect for the sport.
“Multi-day trips are awesome,” Kirk says. “We get to spend time together but we also get to talk about the larger environment and the impacts of dams, where I can see it become part of their identity where they see themselves as kayakers.”
With that larger appreciation, Kirk feels secure in the next rite in his daughters’ lives as Anwhei, now turning 16, gets her driver’s license in hand.
“It’s their game now,” he says.
SEE THE FULL Paddling Parents series, presented by NRS:
Paddling Parents Episode 4: Dealing with Discomfort, on Kirk and Laura Eddlemon helping their son handle hardships of more challenging paddling
Episode 3: Creating Breakthroughs, features Christian Knight’s efforts to help his daughter reach new levels of river-running confidence
Episode 2: Independent Paddling, has Bobby Miller share lessons on instilling courage in his daughter to kayak alone
Episode 1: Overcoming Fear With Fun, features Eric Friedenson’s lessons on using fun to foster a love for rivers
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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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