We can all laugh about it now, but we sure weren't laughing that day. When our canoe tipped over, dumping the four of us into the cold March water, our first reaction was complete shock. We had been taking our two boys canoeing since they were infants and had never even had a close call. Now we were suddenly and inexplicably dumped into the icy water, with our canoe upside down. How had it happened? We were paddling lazily along the quiet pond, just a few minutes after launching our canoe from the shore. Our two boys, ages 6 and 3 at the time, were giggling about the large quantity of "goose poop" covering a little dock we were passing. Suddenly, the canoe lurched to one side and, in just seconds, tipped completely upside down. Everything that followed seemed to happen in a confused, scary blur. My husband, Ken, and I first looked for the boys. We were all wearing PFD's (Personal Flotation Devices), so we weren't in immediate danger of drowning, but that didn't mitigate the panic we felt. I grabbed our 3-year old, Craig, who was floating right next to me, screaming, and boosted him up onto the little dock we had been passing. It was inaccessible to the land - gated and locked for the season - but at least served as a place for us to get out of the water for the moment. Next came a real moment of panic, when we looked around and couldn't see our 6-year old, Jamie. We heard his muffled voice yelling and realized that the canoe had tipped over on top of him, trapping him underneath. My husband struggled to lift the canoe and free Jamie, who was crying and terrified. Soon, they were lying on the dock next to Craig and me. Ken and I were still stunned that we had tipped, and both boys were crying hard, but we were all safe. With our family accounted for, we turned our attention to the canoe - our only means of escaping this tiny dock and returning to our car. Craig was still tightly gripping his miniature canoe paddle that was tied to the canoe with a length of rope. We'd done this to prevent losing the paddle, never guessing it would help us hang onto the canoe! We weren't so lucky with our paddles, which were slowly drifting off toward the center of the pond. Ken jumped back into the icy water to rescue them. We all lay panting and shivering on the dock. The boys were still terrified, so we tried to lighten their moods by pointing out that we were now lying on the goose poop they had been laughing at a few moments before. We got a few half-hearted giggles out of them (the word poop will do that to kids, under any circumstances), and they began to calm down. Now we had to break the news that the only way to our car was to get back into the canoe. We were soaking wet and shivering in the 55 degree air that had felt so warm when we started out. Despite the boys' tearful protests, we knew we had to get back in the canoe immediately before they got much colder. They huddled near me in the bottom of the canoe as Ken paddled back to our put-in spot. Ten minutes later, they were stripped out of their wet clothes and warming up in some spare fleece pants we happened to have in the car. We returned to our camper and all got washed up and into warm clothes. Fortunately, this dunking only resulted in a good story to tell around the campfire, but it was a wake-up call to Ken and me. We had never considered the possibility of dumping the canoe before and now realized we hadn't done enough to prepare ourselves or the kids for the situation.
Want to learn from our mistakes? Here are some tips, based both on what we did right and on what we overlooked:
Buy the right type of canoe.
We bought our canoe years ago, before we had kids. At the time, we thought it was a nice balance between speed and stability - and it wasfor the two of us. If you plan to canoe with kids, go for the most stable boats you can find. These have flatter bottoms and don't tip as easily.
Always wear PFD's.
This was one of the things we did right. All of us always wore our PFD's - no exceptions. When Craig was a 10-month old infant, he hated his infant PFD. He screamed the entire time we were in the canoe, and we realized it was because the PFD was so restricting (infant PFD's have all their flotation in front so a baby's face will stay upright in the water). We gave up canoeing for awhile until he could wear the less restrictive type of PFD, rather than go without.
Keep the kids low.
Although we had no idea why we had tipped at the time, we later figured out that our older son had been sitting too high. Our 3-year old was in a booster seat (not strapped in) behind me, and his 6-year old brother was sitting in a child's plastic lawn chair behind him. Apparently, Jamie had reached to the side to help paddle; that was all it took to tip the canoe. We now know he should have been seated low, so he could reach to the side without pulling the canoe off-balance. Next season, we'll install extra seats - designed for a canoe - instead of making do with whatever we have on hand. Even better, our older son may find it more comfortable to paddle from a kneeling position with a pad for his knees.
Teach the kids what to do if you tip.
We always wore PFD's, so we thought we were adequately prepared in the unlikely event that we ended up in the water. We were wrong. In hindsight, we realized that we should have talked to the kids about what to do if the canoe tipped so we'd have had a plan to follow.
Do a wet run of your tip-over plans.
We also should have practiced tipping - in warm, shallow water wearing bathing suits first- so we wouldn't all have been so panicked when it really happened. We could have worked up to practicing in deeper water, all in a fun way so the kids would feel more confident and less frightened when it happened for real.
Bring emergency supplies.
With the cold water we were dumped into, we were very lucky to be alongside that dock - goose poop or not. Our experience could have been much more dangerous if we'd tipped over in the middle of the pond. We had a floatable rope with us that could have come in handy but not much else. From now on, we'll carry some emergency supplies - fleece jackets, food, water, rope - in a waterproof drybag.
© Suzan L. Jackson 2003