Editor’s Note: When EasternSlopes.com’s Ace Gear Tester Max Goodin outgrew his Jackson Fun 1, (a miniature kayak designed to get really little kids into whitewater kayaking), Jayson Seaman took it to teach his daughters how to paddle in whitewater. His intention was to write a review of the Jackson Fun 1 from the point of view of a seasoned whitewater kayak instructor. Instead, it became a much larger story about how to introduce children to the active outdoor sports you love. Enjoy!
June, 2015: I couldn’t have been more excited when I bumped into EasternSlopes.com’s Executive Editor Tim Jones on the Pemi one day. He’d just throughly enjoyed a roller-coaster ride down the Class II run below Ayer’s Island Dam, while I was helping to teach a Whitewater Rescue class in the final drop of that section. Tim and I were talking about learning whitewater skills in safe increments, when I mentioned that I was anxious to bring my three little girls– then 7, 5 and 5 – into the sport. He offered me an indefinite loan of a Jackson Fun 1 kayak which in exchange for a review of the boat.
I’ve been paddling for 18 years and am a whitewater kayak instructor/trainer, but this would be my first foray into teaching young children to paddle a whitewater boat. Parents out there can probably appreciate the mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation I was feeling. I set out to review the boat, but what I find myself able to write is more of a story of my efforts over the past year to introduce my daughters to paddling.
An Overview of the Jackson Fun Series
The Jackson Fun Series was Jackson’s first whitewater play boat series, and has always been a great design. The Fun Series now comes in five sizes from the tiny Jackson Fun 1 (5’3″ long for paddlers up to 80 pounds), to the Super Fun (7’1″ long for paddlers up to 300 pounds). I have paddled and taught in these Jackson boats and they make a great choice for beginners, particularly those who are keen to start learning to play on river waves and holes while still being able to do longer whitewater runs.
Google “Jackson Fun 1” and you’ll find countless photos of little tykes shredding all kinds of whitewater. I personally remember seeing Dane Jackson doing blunts and loops in his Jackson Fun 1 at Pushbutton on the Ottawa River when he was still small enough to fit into the boat. He was (and still is) impressive. (You can see Dane doing this in some of the Google pics – look for the name on the helmet). So in many ways, you don’t need to read a review to grasp the capabilities of this boat or its appropriateness for very young beginners. This is all apparent in the photos.
Baby Steps: Introducing (Reluctant) Kids To Whitewater Paddling in The Jackson Fun 1
Summer 2015: What isn’t obvious from the pictures you see of little kids kayaking whitewater on the web, however, is all the preliminary steps it takes to get your son or daughter to the point where they can paddle safely and effectively in current–or even just do a wet exit, which is the way you get out of the kayak if it’s suddenly upside-down. You need to know how to do a wet exit before you can safely paddle in swift currents.
“No problem,” I thought. “I’m a seasoned kayak instructor who has successfully taught loads of people to paddle. My wife and I have paddled multi-day trips on Class V water together – surely we have heredity on our side, like a home court advantage.
Ha! Heredity is no match for three daughters who don’t have much apparent interest in paddling and only recently have started putting their faces in the water.
A month after getting the boat from Tim, and after acquiring an Aquabound paddle, I convinced Eliza, my oldest daughter, to try the boat. I did everything I was told by other instructor friends to make her comfortable. First we just let her just sit in the boat, then paddle it around a little bit in a safe environment. Then we filled the boat with water and let her climb in and out of it, make a game of it by submerging it and letting it slowly roll over so she gently spills out. Lots of smiles so far. Enough for the first day.
This went well enough for a while even on the second day. I repeated many of the activities from the first day, and decided she was ready to try and wet exit the boat. Learning how to “wet exit” is a critical skill for any whitewater kayaker. If the boat flips unexpectedly, she has to know how to get out and swim away to safety.
We tried it first without a spray skirt. I talked her through what would happen, had her practice holding her breath a few times, and held the boat as it tipped over and she came out. Success!
Downhill it went from there. On her second try, Eliza did the classic doggy-paddle and arch-your back-to-catch-some-air-near-the-back-of-the-boat. Of course, she bumped her head on the deck ( not hard, but sometimes it’s the thought that counts). I suggested (again) that she wear a helmet for our learning session, and she (again) refused. But, she was game for another try.
Same outcome. After a third time, tears ensued, and that was the end of the Fun 1 for the 2015 season.
Winter, 2015-16. The Fun 1 sat in our garage, and I felt guilty for not being able to complete a proper review. Tim assured me it was OK because I had two other kids who might be more interested. Patience.
Summer, 2016. We headed back to camp the first week of August with the Fun 1 stowed int he back of the minivan. All three kids assured me they’d try kayaking again. Incidentally, or so I thought, I had also ordered an NRS Earl 4 inflatable SUP earlier in the spring, which had seen some limited use (mostly of the splash-and-giggle variety), and we toted this along too. Because I am on the bigger end of the Earl’s capacity, especially with kids riding along, I had also purchased an NRS Adventurer SUP; both of these SUPs were on closeout so I got a good deal on them.
After a day of swimming and frolicking and adjusting to camp time, I decided it was time to hold my kids to their commitment to try the Jackson Fun 1 again. Eliza’s was first up: Uh, oh! she doesn’t fit anymore!! Frustration commences and she hurls her PFD on the ground. (This is a bit of her nature.)
Next up: Carrigan, the eldest of the now 6-year-old twins. This summer, Carrigan had made great strides in terms of being comfortable in the water, but she is still reluctant. She climbs in, with some significant room to spare, yet she’ll have nothing to do with any submerged boat and insists that she begin by paddling around with her hands. OK, fine. This lasts a few minutes until she’s undone by an errant boat wake which rocks the tiny kayak.
Next up is Moriah, the younger twin and my last hope. Moriah is usually up for anything. Her nature is “ready-fire-aim.” She’s waaaayyyy more comfortable than Carrigan, but has similar room to spare in the boat. She goes right for the paddle and quickly begins handling the boat – expertly, if I may say so – in the protected swim area. We do this for a bit then I try the submerged boat drill. She likes it! The first gentle underwater capsize goes well. On the second try, she “scrapes” her leg on the cockpit coaming and complains slightly. This happens again on the third try and this time its gets the better of her. She becomes inconsolable (also part of her nature) and refuses to get back in the boat.
At this point you might be thinking I’m the kind of overbearing father who, in his eagerness to turn his kids into the next Dane Jackson (or, more appropriately, his sister Emily, who is also a world champion) pushes his kids hard so he can live vicariously through them. Let me assure you this is only a little bit true. In reality, I know enough about child development, paddlesports instruction, and general parental sanity to understand this is inevitably a dead end. The most important thing is to promote enjoyment, maybe sneak in some moderate skill building, and end with a willingness to try again. But any parent who has tried to teach their own kids to ski or paddle or mountain bike, knows that even the most patient instruction has built-in limits when it comes to your own children.
Assessing the Jackson Fun 1
So here is my assessment of the Jackson Fun 1, which, at this moment, is sitting cockpit-down on the shoreline in front of me. It is a great boat for children who WANT to learn to kayak in whitewater. It’s the perfect first step in that progression. It just didn’t work for my girls this summer.
For those of us who have (possibly forever) unrealized fantasies of seeing their kids donkey flipping to a world cup whitewater kayaking title, it will take more than a Jackson Fun 1 and all patience and knowledge, I was able to muster this time around. Or maybe it will take someone who is not the parent of said kids. Or maybe it will just take time. Or maybe my daughters will never be paddlers. For now, at least, my dreams are on hold.
Epilogue: Paddleboards To The Rescue!
As I said earlier, my real attitude toward youth sports – including paddlesports – is that, above all, they should promote a sense of self-confidence and a willingness to try again that might one day turn into genuine enthusiasm.
Here’s what happened with the SUPs. We started small, in the protected swim area with Eliza, and quickly she learned that, wearing her PFD, she could venture out past the invisible swim boundary (with me hovering close by on the other board, I assure you). She even took some brief instruction from her dad on how to turn, propel, and correct her craft. Within 30 minutes she wanted to paddle the ¼ mile to the other side of the pond. We made it! And we made it back! Eliza is nothing if not self-reflective of her own learning processes; “Dad,” she said, “I’m really proud of myself for making it across!”
As soon as we got back, Moriah (the ready-fire-aim twin) demanded to try it and successfully maneuvered in a circle around the raft floating 50 yards from shore. Carrigan started first on her knees and then out of the blue the next day was determined to paddle all the way to the other side just like Eliza (Carrigan is a little competitive with her big sister.) She made it too.
My point here is, the goal I had with the Fun 1 was actually accomplished with SUPs ( which I was reluctant to embrace as an inveterate kayak and canoe snob). But the fact is, is that the SUPs are really good for kids and actually kinda fun. They’ve gotten used every day on our vacation. For space-challenged parents heading off on a vacation, you’ll be happy to know that all these inflatables fit into the back of a wagon or minivan and store in a closet at home.
Post script: Lest you think we’ve crossed some kind of magical paddling threshold, yesterday we tried to paddle the SUPs in a little bit of wind, and it ended in tears and an unnamed child being sent to her room for yelling at her parents. So, what started as a promise to review the Fun 1 ended up as a small, more general reflection on parenting and paddlesports. Even the photo shoot that produced the pics shown here was fun but after a minute turned into a little bit of a battle over who would paddle what. They were genuinely enthusiastic, at least.
PPS: My family will be visiting the Deerfield River in a couple weeks, and I’ll be doing the math on how to get everyone down the easy Class I-II Fife Brook section in a ducky or maybe a nice, safe raft.
Happy paddling, folks – see you on the water!