Kayaking During a Thunderstorm: Parenting Using the Forgotten Technique of Mortal Terror

Kayaking on Lake Cayuga, NY

I meant for it to be a fun kayaking trip; I really did. I thought, ‘It’s a warm day, we’ll get in the water, splash each other with paddles for a few hours, head home with a stop for ice cream on the way before the thunderstorms roll in. Dad’s the hero again.’ I checked the weather first thing in the morning, then when I saw the rain was going to hold off for the morning, I’d take them to the science center too. Double whammy, I rule. By the time we left the science center, the rain had been taken out of the forecast until bedtime, but the temperatures were approaching the 90s. Well, we’ll just throw in some extra splashing and I’ll make their ice creams a double

All went according to plan. We got in the water by 2:30 and started heading toward Cayuga Lake out of Ithaca. By 3:00 I started seeing clouds over the north end of the lake, and they were looking ominous. When I say “ominous”, I mean it by every stretch of the word. Frodo heading toward Mount Doom could not have been more perturbed by clouds than we were. I looked to the West and saw it was cloudy, but no approaching death could be seen over the mountains. The funny thing about mountains, they block a lot of your view. It wasn’t ten minutes later when my phone rang and the Kayak place informed me that there was a major thunderstorm developing and was on its way. I looked up over the mountain, and sure enough, black clouds were flying into the valley.

We had completed about a mile going downstream leisurely, which had taken forty-five minutes, and we had maybe fifteen minutes to make it back upstream. Well, that didn’t happen. We had maybe 200 yards to go when all Hell broke loose. The winds picked up all of a sudden, thunder rolled fairly constantly, and my two oldest had fallen behind, though not far. Maybe just twenty feet, but you would have thought that Cerebus himself was breathing down their necks. Luckily I spotted a restaurant with a dock. As luck should have it, the kayak shop owner happened to be looking for us and was right next door at another dock he owned. We pulled the kayaks up in the torrential downpour, my kids shaking with both fear and adrenaline, and I got them inside. They calmed down in short order, their terror over far quicker than my protective Papa Bear mode. I triple-checked they were okay, then ordered them each a soda and went outside to talk to the kayak shop owner. He offered to take us back, but by the time I got back to the kids, they were willing to take the boats the rest of the way, a whopping 15-20 yards. By the time the rain stopped, they were all laughing and ready to do some more. That evening, as they related the story to their mother, they were mostly all smiles about it, though they didn’t appreciate the knowledge that the owner offered to get us the first time they called. All too often we get too caught up in protecting our kids, keeping them from serious harm, but I think subjecting them to experiences where they face a little terror, a scary but controlled situation, or moment when they have to make a hard, and possibly dangerous choice, is actually good for them. It lets them know that they can handle these situations and gives them the confidence to handle other less terrifying obstacles, like making a new friend, or trying out for a sport, or asking that boy/girl out on a date.

Growing up, I had either been put in dangerous situations or put myself in them, whether by choice or an unfortunate cuck-up. It was usually the former, because like many kids, I couldn’t seem to learn by being told; I had to experience the awful in order to learn my lesson. I had gotten lost in the woods as a six-year-old boy on a guided 4-H hike, and had the police combing the woods for me. I had to find my way home after I forgot to bring money to call my parents to pick me up after playing in an away football game. Ok, actually, I spent the money on snacks after the game. Oh, and for you Millennials or Gen Z readers, there used to be these things called “Pay Phones” before cellphones, and you either had to pay a quarter or two to call someone locally, or call collect and my dad had that feature turned off. And once, my dad took us fishing at the farm where my mom kept her horse, where we were warned that it was the mating season and the bull, I think his name was Mack, was out in the field feeling restless. It turned out predictably, with my brother and I crying and running toward the fence while my dad laughed manically while running in the other direction trying the lure the bull away from us. And it worked, except he was much faster than us and reached the fence before we did. He athletically vaulted over it, while our chubby little legs still scurried toward safety. I looked over to see the bull look toward us, and screamed at my brother to run faster. We dove/crawled under the fence, sure the bull was breathing down our necks, and turned around to see the bull was lazily sauntering away from the spot it nearly gored my father, never having run toward us at all. Within minutes we were all laughing as we waited for the bull to leave so we could get the fishing gear we ditched while running. That moment, in particular, was in my mind as my kids and I tried to outrace a thunderstorm in kayaks, my daughter yelling they were falling behind. That’s what made me stop and turn toward the closer restaurant dock instead of the launching dock that was so close but felt so far away. That and I also felt maniacal laughter bubbling up in me before the clear terror in their voices brought me up short.

Those, along with dozens of other life endangering moments in my life were terrifying, but they absolutely were character-building. However, here’s the problem, I don’t want my kids to fear for their lives. We’re supposed to be doing better for our children, and for the most part, we are, and putting them in dangerous situations does not fit that model. But there’s a very particular confidence you get from finding yourself in a stupid or dangerous situation and getting out of it unscathed that I don’t know how to replicate. My wife often remarks how I have a stupid amount of unearned confidence, and that’s part of the reason why: trauma I’ve survived. So, until we figure out how to get our kids lost in the woods or chased by a bull in a safe, non-scarring way, we try new things and different experiences that expose my kids to novel stimuli and situations that I don’t fix for them or tell them how to do. It forces them to think creatively and critically, giving them confidence in themselves. And yes, every once in a while, they get caught in the middle of the proverbial, or literal, storm, and when that happens, my wife and I are there to show them the way without someone almost dying, though they may feel like it was that close.

In fact, this week the kids are preparing to cook us a meal they planned themselves, that they will cook and everything. So here I am again, as an adult, back in mortal danger. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, and that’s no bull.

Seriously, it’ll be stuffed portabella mushrooms and not angus burgers or beef ribs. I may prefer being chased by Mack.

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