Monday, August 24, 2015

Paddling and Camping on the Columbia River with Kids

We try to do one backcountry paddling trip each summer and wanted to do a river trip this year. We knew we definitely didn't want to do a lake circuit with multiple portages (hard when you use kayaks) and we wanted something casual, fun, and safe for young kids - which meant no glacial mountain lakes! Finding an easy river float was therefore the best option for us and if we chose something that had at least a small current, we wouldn't have to paddle as much.

Easy Paddling on the Columbia River (and yes, the whole trip was this calm!)

I know many families shy away from rivers but we love the Columbia River and once you see the photos in this story, you'll understand why we chose this paddle for a very EASY overnight trip. I shouldn't admit it, but at one point I was floating down the river on a stand up paddleboard, with no PFD on, and while drinking a beer. (stop reading now if this bothers you because we were pretty relaxed with the whole trip.)

Easy relaxed paddling on the Columbia  River (yep, I did an overnight trip on my SUP board!)

Introduction to the Columbia River

The Columbia River is the largest river in the Pacific NW part of North America and starts its journey in Canada at Columbia Lake near the town of Invermere, BC.  From there it flows gently for approximately 300km to Golden and beyond to Kinbasket Lake before it turns south into Washington and Oregon, finishing its journey at the Pacific Ocean.

What families will want to know is that from the river's exit out of Lake Windermere in Invermere to the town of Golden, (a traveling distance of 120km by road) the river is perfectly calm, benign, and rapid-free.  There is not a single riffle that I've ever seen and the water is swimming pool warm.

Is it a lake or is it a river?  Hard to tell on the Columbia!

Why to Choose the Columbia River for a Family Paddling Trip

1.  Warmth of water.  While you still have to take water seriously at all times (and our kids were always in PFDs,) it's easier to relax a bit when you know that a wet exit from one's boat isn't going to be dangerous in this river. At the very most, somebody floats up beside you and plucks you back into a boat.  No danger of hypothermia, no danger of freezing to death while you sit in your boat shivering in wet clothes, and no danger of heart failure when you hit the water and suddenly go numb.

Our kids spent a lot of time in the water and that's a priority for us when we choose a river trip.

The Columbia River is Swimming Pool Warm

2.  Calmness of the River.  The question one will likely ask at several points in a trip down the Columbia is this:  "Are we really on a river?"  Along with:  "Are we moving at all??"

There are no rapids, no riffles, no waves, and no obstacles.  No sweepers or strainers, no sand bars to steer around... - nothing!  I've done several trips on the Columbia River now and I've never found a single challenge on any of our paddles.

Families still need to be aware while paddling on the Columbia River and I wouldn't take off down the river for an overnight trip with zero knowledge of how to paddle, steer, or navigate on the water. This is still a river!! And there is always danger on a river.  However, by choosing the Columbia River, the danger is significantly reduced as compared to other rivers.  Novice paddlers will feel comfortable on this river if traveling with another experienced family.

Family-friendly paddling on the Columbia River

3.  Opportunities to play, camp, and relax.  While I aspire to do more technical rivers, there's just something alluring about a river where you can relax, take it easy, and not have to always be concentrating on the next set of rapids ahead.

We stopped at sand bars to play in the mud, camped on a gorgeous little island, swam in the river, and even used my paddleboard as a jumping raft at one point.

Relaxed paddling (let me see you do this while running rapids!)

The kids could have stayed at this sand bar ALL day!!
This little guy was pretty chill on the trip.

Our Route that we Chose and Where we Camped


We started in the town of Radium Hot Springs and paddled just past the next town, Edgewater, on our first day.  We paddled for maybe 4-5 hours (hard to keep track with rest stops) at a very leisurely pace!

We camped on an island about an hour past Edgewater and then continued on to the next town, Brisco, on our second day.  This is where we took out and had a second vehicle waiting for us.

The second day was a bit shorter with maybe 3 hours of paddling.  This allowed us to wrap up our shuttle and get back to our campsite in Kootenay National Park for the evening.

Beach Camping at its finest!!
Cooking dinner on the beach
Sunset over the Columbia River

Wilderness Camping Guidelines for Paddle Trips

Doing an overnight trip on a river is similar to backpacking into a backcountry campground. The biggest difference is that you don't have to carry anything!  Follow these rules below and read the document on Leave No Trace Camping at the end.
  • Pack out everything you bring in with you!! Nobody is coming to your island or sand bar to collect garbage and clean up after you!

  • Bring bio-degradable soap for washing dishes and do not wash them directly in the river.

  • Dig a pit to use as a communal bathroom.  Put a bit of sand over your contribution to the pit each time you use it, and then cover it well before you leave. Pack out your toilet paper!

  • Bring a water filter and use it for all water you'll drink from the river.

  • Use a small backcountry stove to cook your food.

  • Hang your food up in a tree or do as we did and pull it out into the river for the night. (we had a great spot in the river to hang our food - see photo below.)

  • Don't need a fire?  Don't light one!   If you must have a fire, consider how you will get wood for it, is there a fire ban, is there an established fire ring or pit, and how will you put it out to ensure you won't start a forest fire?
For more tips on "No Trace Camping" please check out this story:  The Leave No Trace 7 Principals 

This was our campsite and we paddled our food out to the logs behind us for the night

Other Suggestions for Overnight Paddle Trips

Pack as you would for backpacking but protect things like cell phones, keys and cameras with dry bags.  I even wrap my keys and phone in a ziplock bag first.  Also, wrap anything that should not get wet in big heavy-duty garbage bags.  (think, sleeping bags and mattresses.)

Depending on whether you are using a kayak or a canoe, you may also want to pack your gear in several small bags Vs. one or two big ones.  Small bags stuff more easily into the front and back of the kayak.

By the end of the trip, we were pulling our food in our toy kayak. (should have packed differently!)

Finally, start early and plan to arrive at camp by mid afternoon (4pm at the latest.)  It's important to allow for lots of time to get to camp in case you underestimate the distance that you'll be traveling, can't find a campsite and have to travel an hour or two further to find one, or (god forbid) there's only one beach along your section of river and it's already claimed by another big group.  (This could happen!)

There was only one good  beach along our section of river and if it had already been claimed, we would have needed a plan B, which in this case, would have been finishing both the first and second day of paddling all in one day. (before dark.) Hence, start early so that you don't find yourself still hours from a campsite with darkness approaching.

It's easy to take one too many rest stops and find yourself rushing to find a site late in the day
Floating the Columbia River

Day Trip Options for the Columbia River

Want to float the Columbia River as a day trip?  Start in Invermere at the bridge that crosses over the river as you enter town (referred to as the Athalmer) and float your way down stream to the next town of Radium Hot Springs.  Known as the "lazy river paddle" in the valley, you can rent boats from the Columbia River Paddle Company for this easy 4 hour tour.  You can choose from guided tours to self-guided tours and the company will pick you up if you need in Radium Hot Springs.

To see our photos from paddling between Invermere and Radium Hot Springs, check out this story:  Exploring the Columbia Valley Wetlands - by Boat, Hike, and Bike.

Lazy Kayaking down the Columbia River

Other Activities to do While in the Columbia Valley

Check out my last story:  The Best of the Columbia Valley - From Radium Hot Springs to Invermere (and beyond) for more information on what to do, where to stay, and how to spend a week in the valley.

Family-friendly canoeing on the Columbia River
As serene as it gets on the Columbia River

Disclaimer and Safety Notes

First, this story was not sponsored by anybody and I included a link to the Columbia River Paddling Company as helpful information for my readers.  It isn't an official endorsement for the company and we have never actually used their services.

Second, I can not stress enough the importance of getting an early start on the river if camping overnight and having a back up plan in place.  We were lucky to find a place to camp on a beach, but really had no information on good spots to camp when we started.  We went into the trip blind and were definitely getting a bit nervous as dinner time approached (and we still hadn't found a place to camp yet!)

I referenced "beer" in one of the first paragraphs.  I do not endorse or encourage drinking while paddling.  We ran into another group on the river who were very generous with their beer stash and wanted to make sure we had some to enjoy.  I considered the idea of drinking on a paddle board to be "novel" and took some sips of my beer while floating down the river.  Never would I have done this on a serious stretch of water. 

We took this trip with a very relaxed approach because we are all experienced paddlers, have taken lessons, and have done this sort of trip before.  For our abilities, the Columbia River is a "walk in the park."  If you have never done a paddle trip before, have never been on a river, or have never done an overnight river trip before, you will want to go with an experienced group to ensure your family's safety.  (especially with young kids.)

Finally, of a more "how to make the trip fun" nature - I highly recommend a wide assortment of boats for the trip.   The kids enjoyed taking turns riding in the canoe, kayak, on the toy kayak, and on the stand up paddle board. If I were to pick a vessel that brought the most overall enjoyment to the group, it would be the stand up paddle board that got shared around a lot.

The Stand Up Paddleboard was a lot of fun on the trip

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