Kids Up North: Paddling the Crystal River in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

MyNorth: You and your husband Mike have five children, making you first-hand experts on parental comfort levels when it comes to floating down a river.  On a scale of 1-10, how would you rank the safety of the Crystal?

Becky Sutherland: Definitely a 10.  We do have to portage over a road, but that’s the only thing that factors into a safety need.  This summer, we hope to have a high school student posted at the road to help people cross.

MyNorth: Sooo….A road isn’t even technically part of the river. 

Becky Sutherland: We tell people if they fall in the Crystal River, don’t forget to stand up.  It is extremely shallow—rarely deeper than two-feet—and it is crystal clear, removing some the mystique of what’s underneath you.  The river is also not too long, it’s narrow, and it isn’t fast, although you still get the benefit of water that flows with you.  I call it the ‘River of Empowerment.’

MyNorth:  Sounds like you see the river through the eyes of a mom.  How does it morph from a peaceful waterway into this source of liberation that you mentioned?

Becky Sutherland:  In my house, we use the saying ‘You are your own captain.’  On the river, this can literally be true, as it’s ideal for young people of all ages to (deep breathe, parents) get into a kayak on their own.  Anytime you give a child the ability to make a decision—something as simple as do I paddle left or right—it is empowering.  In today’s world there is so much structure that we can miss elements of success in the little things.

MyNorth:  For all the moms and dads wringing their hands a bit at the thought, what about getting tired or scared or not knowing how to actually paddle a boat?

Becky Sutherland: The art of letting go; it’s something we parents must deal with everyday, at every age, and we can continually grow from it. We make sure there is a lot of paddle practice at the dock, and we send along a tether just in case someone gets tired along the way.  It’s pretty rare anyone actually ends up needing it though (laughs). We also tailor our kayak and canoe rentals to each family.  We can do one or two hours or five or six.  We can even send you down river with a cell phone and you can call us to pick you up along the way.

MyNorth: The Crystal River is safe and slow, but also fascinating and fun for families with kids of all ages?

Becky Sutherland:  I’ve never once heard a child say it’s boring—I couldn’t even imagine to be honest—there is plenty of intrigue along the river.  There is the whole environmental aspect of it (Sutherland’s family offers eco-tours and also free putt-putt to any child who brings in three pieces of trash in an effort to teach stewardship).  Five miles of the river are within the borders of Sleeping Bear National Park, and I love to see children’s faces when we ask who owns that space (we all do!).  The wildlife is a whole other aspect, with lots of otter and deer sightings.  It’s all an incredible learning experience that’s centered on fun. 

To rent a canoe or kayak, go on a guided eco-tour or to find out more about The River, call Sutherland 231-334-7888 or visit theriverglenarbor.com. Crystal River Outfitters on M-22 around the corner from The River also offers family-oriented canoe and kayak trips. 231-334-4420, crystalriveroutfitters.com.

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Find lots more Kids Up North ideas here, including how to grow a pizza garden, a video of kids picking and cooking with leeks and some great car facts for the trip to Mackinac Island.

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