Canoeing with kids is an adventure for all, writes Justine Costigan.
Seven adults and seven children aged six to 15 need a lot of stuff. As well as tents, clothes, sleeping bags and cooking equipment, there's all the food we'll eat for three days, including enough trail mix to make sure we finish this trip never wanting to see a cashew or a dried apricot ever again.
Standing in front of five double canoes and one single kayak, it seems impossible that we could fit all this stuff in the small barrels provided for every craft. The luxuries are abandoned first; pillows, who needs them? Somewhere to sleep, dry clothes and food are our priorities.
Three days on the Glenelg River, stopping at a different campsite each night, is not exactly a holiday. With seven children in tow, we know it's going to be an adventure. But we're prepared. Ross Atkins, who has been running Paestan Canoe Hire for 16 years, has organised plenty of families and school groups.
Atkins has planned an easy up-river trip for us, so we'll avoid the winds that canoeists travelling downriver towards Nelson often have to face. Each day we'll cover only a few kilometres, about four to five hours on the river, including stops for lunch and a rest. The campsites we'll be staying in have a pit toilet, a fire pit and a large flat area of grass. The second campsite also has a large wooden table and benches. Even though it's a busy long weekend with lots of groups on the river, Ross thinks we'll probably have both campsites to ourselves.
He says anyone can go on the river, which is known for being slow moving and gentle, but he doesn't recommend overnight trips for children under seven. Our youngest, Clyde, is six but he is already an experienced camper and his parents aren't worried.
For the four children under 10 on this trip, paddling is not really an issue. While they all have paddles, none of them is really up to paddling for more than 10 or 20 minutes at a time. It's the adults who literally have to pull their weight, the canoe, the overloaded barrels and the younger children.
On the first day, I'm paddling with my nine-year-old daughter and I've soon got aching shoulders and arms. Until you get the hang of it, it's hard work. I seem to have misheard or misunderstood Ross's simple instructions and I spend the first hour or so paddling all wrong. Fortunately, a more experienced canoeist in our group comes to the rescue - I've been holding the paddle wrong, sitting in the wrong position and I didn't know any of the tricks for turning and guiding the canoe. As soon as I start sitting properly, my back stops hurting and we move faster. While I've been struggling, nine-year-old Sophie has been trailing her fingers through the water and munching on snacks. For the smaller children, canoeing turns out to be much more like a royal cruise than a workout.
Surprisingly, on all three days the river itself is strangely quiet and empty. As we paddle upstream, there's no birdsong, the water is still and even the wind has died down, leaving a strange quiet that's unexpected in the bush. On the river bank we see the occasional bird but we generate almost all of the noise and activity on the waterway ourselves. Canoe races, seed-pod (plucked from low branches overhanging the river) fights, water battles and conversations telegraphed from canoe to canoe have possibly scared the wildlife away.
When we do stop, the kids can't wait to actually explore the river. Fishing, swimming and playing in the shallows are the priorities.
Despite a scare when Isla, 8, discovers an engorged leech on her arm and it takes some minutes to staunch the blood, which flows all over her clothes, the creatures quickly become a subject of fascination. The children learn to flick the tiny leeches off their skin before they attach. There's too much of interest in the muddy banks of the river for them to be deterred.
Mud crabs make the shallows their home and there's nothing like poking about with a big wooden stick trying to coerce one of them out of hiding. Small birds and fish also can be found but it's catching a glimpse of a platypus swimming in the river at dusk that provides the real highlight of the day.
When all our gear is unloaded and we're setting up camp for the night, the older kids take turns using the single kayak. Without its loaded barrels, it's easy to manipulate and they're keen to get it out on the river on their own. Fishing off the jetty may not get us anything to eat for dinner but it's lots of fun.
On the first night at camp, we eat sausages, potatoes and salad. Two packets of marshmallows are toasted over the fire. A bottle of wine (deemed a necessity when we were rationalising our luggage) is oh so welcome. Sleep never felt so good.
Before we left Winnap for the river, we drove one car loaded with provisions to the campsite in preparation. When we come off the river on day two, the car's waiting and we have more fresh food, including a prepared curry in a cooler, and more wine.
On our third day, the plan was to paddle in the morning before Atkins collected us and the canoes. But everyone is tired and the kids are happy just to play on the river. We decide to pack up our camp and head home. It's cold and the lure of a hot shower is pretty hard to resist.
The kids are happy to go, too, and I'm curious about what they made of this wilderness adventure. "It was cool, mum. Can we do it again soon?"
Paestan Canoe Hire is on the Winnap-Nelson Road at Winnap, near Dartmoor in south-western Victoria, close to the South Australian border. Winnap is about five hours' drive from Melbourne.
When to go
The river is suitable for canoeing year round but camping is not recommended from late May to mid-August as the sites are very wet and muddy.
Double canoes and kayaks start from $44 a day and each craft includes hire of two paddles, two barrels and two personal floatation devices. Hire of single kayaks and accessories start from $40 a day. Pick-up and drop-off costs from Winnap to the river start from $44 return. Parks Victoria camping fees and permits apply. Paestan Canoe Hire can organise these permits for you.