Guppy love

It was just too cute to resist.

Much in the same way citified folk drool over baby Burberry or tiny Land Rovers, there was something about that shiny, rotomolded hunk of yellow plastic that pulled at the maternal heartstrings. Maybe it was the little smiley face logo (not quite so cute on the adult version) or the fact that it was the exact, miniaturized replica of my own, but I had to have the kiddy kayak.

Never mind that at the time, my eldest could barely doggy paddle in the climate-controlled safety of the Rec Center pool, let alone self-rescue in a frigid, rockstrewn river. I would carefully stow it away in the garage until he was old enough, all the while dreaming of his first combat roll in Smelter or a Kahuna surf sesh with his old lady.

Granted, there were some vicarious motives at play. See, I didn’t start dabbling in whitewater until my late 20s, practically ancient in river years. Needless to say, by then I had already become painfully cognizant of my own mortality. Add a couple of kids, a nagging lower back and a mortgage to the mix, and I’d suddenly become more conservative than Rush Limbaugh.

But just because I had turned into an overly Cautious Cathy, didn’t mean my kids had to suffer the same fate. Get ’em started young, when they haven’t had the fear of god pummeled into them, and they’re practically naturals. You know, like babies born in water who immediately start swimming or that little kid on Youtube who can French inhale.

Anyway, all my good intentions – going to the pool for roll sessions, paddling on the flat water, getting him a skirt that didn’t fit like a circus tent – never quite materialized over the course of the next several months. Needless to say, I found myself wracked with maternal guilt last week at the pathetic sight of the little yellow boat, abandoned in the dark recesses of the garage, yet to even touch water.

So much for a civilized christening into paddle sports, I decided. We would go for baptism by fire. Sink or swim, baby.

“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” the boy complained, looking up at me with his hand-me-down purple tie-dye helmet cocked to one side. “And what am I supposed to do with this?” he asked as he helplessly raised his arms, and the baggy neoprene skirt dropped to the sand.

“Buddy, I think it’ll be fine,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant, mostly because I didn’t want to let on that a 7-year-old possibly had more sense than me. On the other hand, it was a brilliant, hot, summer afternoon. The river was that clear, aquamarine color of mid-summer and warm as bath water. Come to think of it, it was about deep as bath water, too. In my mind, it was the perfect day for the little yellow boat’s maiden voyage.

“But what if I turn upside down,” he continued to protest as he stuck his skinny legs into the hull and the skirt was slipped over the cockpit, as if to seal his fate.

“You won’t flip,” I promised, which was mostly true. Breached maybe, but flipping would be extremely difficult at that low flow.

And then, without so much as a wet exit practice (too scary, we decided), I handed him his paddle and gave him that loving but firm push into the water.

OK, so maybe it sounds a little Joan Crawfordish. But I assure you, I was right beside him (didn’t have much of a choice, seeing as how he was clinging to my boat like Barnacle Boy.)

Anyway, I soon realized that paddling a foreign vessel down a moving body of water is not quite as intuitive as, say, swimming or inhaling. Nor is it particularly easy to explain to a wailing 7-year-old that it is impossible (well, nearly impossible) to drown in half a foot of water surrounded by thousands of your new best, almost naked, friends.

Be that as it may, mom, the instructor and human life buoy, was forced to revert to a crude mode of one-sided hand-paddling and slow-speed mini-boofing. (For those unfamiliar with the term “boofing,” it has nothing to do with eighth-grade locker room humor but is a reference to some sort of advanced move that I have never been able to master that involves bouncing off rocks. Or in this case, duckiers and tubers.)

“We’re gonna crash!” he screamed as we pinballed through a maze of rocks and assorted human flotsam going backwards – in complete control, of course. Fortunately, the rock garden soon ended, delivering us to the placid confines of “The Lake” – a literal sea of humanity and inflatables.

The boy finally relaxed long enough to relinquish his death grip on my boat and quit howling. I even coaxed him into taking a few, tentative, forward pulls of the blade across the glassy surface. Things were progressing slowly but surely when it was as if a light went on in his 7-year-old head. He sat up straight, put on his game face and took a few confident but wobbly strokes on his own. Something had clicked.

Or should I say “chicked.” Suddenly, I saw the focus of his determination: a bevy of black-rubber beauties who had caught his eye. Ever eager to impress the female flotilla, he suddenly went into down river mode. He soon caught their wake and was not so accidentally floating in their midst. Call it guppy love, but it wasn’t long before they noticed the young tadpole and offered him a few friendly words of encouragement before going their separate ways.

Anyway, true to my word, there were no flips or unanticipated swims that day (although there was a close encounter with the Main Avenue bridge, the bane of my river existence.) In fact, my heart soared when we ended that day’s mission with a smile and he asked if we could go out on the river again soon.

“But this time, in a tube,” he requested as my happy heart took a dive. “We were the only ones kayaking. It was sort of . . .”

He spared the broken paddle in mom’s heart. But I knew what he wanted to say. It was embarrassing.

Chalk up another chapter in the “What not to do Parent Handbook.” In my selfish quest to expose him to my idea of cool, I had inadvertently turned him on to girls, beer and tubes. Which I guess was bound to happen sooner or later – preferably much later, like when I was dead. But then again, no one ever really gets hurt tubing, and let’s face it, the equipment outlay is a lot easier on the pocketbook. And, it can be bad ass in its own way. I know a girl who knows a guy who tubed the Upper Animas.

Plus, these things have a funny way of coming full circle. Maybe we just have to ride rubber before we can river run, so to speak. I guess it’s a good thing hope floats.

– Missy Votel