A 9-year-old boy’s attempt to become the youngest person to whitewater kayak through the Skykomish’s notorious Class IV rapid Boulder Drop in Washington might lead to chaos on the river and in the family — but that’s all par for the course for Christian Knight, a former editor for Paddler magazine who doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to instilling a love for paddling in his kids. (And some of those punches just might come from his pissed-off wife.)
They might not quite be the Jacksons, but they’re close and getting closer every stroke, swim and high five. Watch his video “Between Two Swims” on the feat and then read on for a special Paddling Life Q&A with the parent all spouses — and social services personnel — love to hate.nbsp;
Q&A with the Champ
So how bad wereyou in the doghouse with your wife after his swim?
I feel like every family kayaking run is an opportunity to lose a little bit of the credibility I have with them—especially with my wife Veronica. Lord knows how many glares I’ve gotten from each of them for taking somebody on something that was just too big or hard for them. Ultimately, though, I’ve gotta say that I’ve been impressed with Veronica’s perseverance—both as a mother of young kayakers and as a kayaker, herself. I think she recognizes what an incredible parenting tool whitewater can be.
How psyched was Ivan when he ran it successfully?
Ivan, now 10, felt a lot of pressure to redeem himself. He knew his older sister, Tilly Jane, was watching him closely. He knew his mother was worried. He knew his father had his own credibility on the line. He knew his oldest sister, Eleanor, would, in so many ways, remind him that she had succeeded on her first attempt and that he had failed on his first two. So I was a little surprised Ivan wasn’t a little more animated when he finished Boulder Drop. I mean, in the Pacific Northwest, Boulder Drop is sort of the gateway rapid. Once you start feeling confident in Boulder Drop at a variety of flows, you can really start exploring some amazing rivers. But that’s just the way Ivan is. He doesn’t really get too high. And he doesn’t really get too low.
Has kayaking brought your family closer together?
A lot of people center their family life around religion. And from that religion, they get purpose, ritual and a community. We get the same from whitewater. Our family’s immersion in whitewater gives us all something to work on and work toward together. But also, it’s really fun. Aside from skiing, I can’t think of a better family sport. That being said, we were tempted early on to follow the herd and dedicate our children’s athleticism to basketball and soccer. Each of them excelled at those sports in their elementary school years. And I suppose, if we had really invested in those ventures, they could probably be playing on varsity high school teams. Maybe. But the return-on-investment just didn’t make sense when whitewater could offer them a way to explore the world for the rest of their lives—and do it while becoming integral parts of a pretty amazing community.
How do you balance the age ol’ risk vs. reward question with them as a father?
The most pressing risk is that they’d have such a traumatic experience that they’d never want to kayak again. To give up on something that is so fulfilling because of one bad decision would be a horrible waste. I know I’d be in the middle of an existential crisis. And I’m sure my child would, too. So when my Ivan, Tilly Jane or Eleanor asks whether or not she/he should run it that’s what thinking about.
And the answer is never easy. I mean, it’s hard enough to look at a new, challenging rapid and know, for certain, whether I have the skills and confidence to navigate it. It’s even harder to look at a rapid, and my 9-year-old child, and know whether he has the skill and confidence to run it. Regardless, all three of my children defer regularly to my judgment on whether they should attempt a rapid or river. My metric is simple: Fun. If the rapid looks a little scary, but mostly fun to them, then I’ll say ‘go for it.’ If it looks more scary than fun, then I’ll tell them to walk it. And they are usually relieved.
Any advice for other parenting paddlers?
Two bits of advice, for what it’s worth: No. 1. You’ve gotta really love kayaking and really love your children. And I think your primary motivation for teaching young children to kayak has to be focused more on developing a shared love and a new way of interacting with them than on developing skill. Focusing on their progress when they are young will only lead you to frustration.
I started Eleanor, now 14, and Tilly Jane, now 12, kayaking when they were each 5. I started Ivan when he was 4. I spent three years on Class I – II. Each of them learned to roll in a pool or an eddy when they were 8 or 9. And they didn’t get reliable battle rolls until they were 11. Ivan was 9 when he got his. That’s when they started to get good. They were free to surf, splat, stern squirt and flip over running something that might have been a little bit too hard.
The other bit of advice is this: If you are teaching your child when she/he is young—like 5, 6, 7 or so—don’t expect him or her to wet exit on his or her own. They will most likely wait for you to come and save them. All three of my children waited for me to rescue them when they flipped over for the first time. And, all of my friend’s children waited for their parents to rescue them for the first time. My guess is the child is thinking: ‘Okay, I’m sort of in an emergency situation. My mom and dad are always there for me in emergencies. So they’ll be for me in this one.’