Dragonflies buzzed by, turtles sunned themselves on logs in the water, and leaves fell from the trees on this sunny, perfect early fall day. The beaver didn't seem to notice us at all. It was like the peaceable kingdom out there.
Peaceful, yes, until my son Jimmy leapt up in the boat, threw his paddle in the water and screamed, "Spider! Huge spider!"
It was only my husband Alex's cat-like reflexes that kept the two of them from tumbling into the water in their shared kayak. Just as traveling with kids is an utterly different experience that traveling alone, so is kayaking with kids. Not any less fun, but definitely less tranquil. In fact, it might be more fun. Just don't expect to be out there on the river meditating.
Saluda Shoals Park, just outside of Columbia, rents out kayaks year-round. The helpful staff of this amazing park will set up your family in either single or two-person (tandem) kayaks, complete with paddles and life preservers, for a leisurely paddle down a calm and still part of the Saluda River. There's enough of a current that don't even really need to paddle. You can just float, if you want. They'll also pick you up down river and transport you back to the park. It's a truly perfect set-up for families.
While that first beaver we saw dunked under the water, never to be seen again, as soon as the spider emergency erupted, the animals didn't stay away for long. We saw another five beavers, possibly an otter, two red-tailed hawks, and at least 50 turtles. There were so many turtles that it became something of a game to see who could paddle closest to them before they plunked into the water. We zig-zagged across the river to look at interesting things on either shore, like the tunnels of over-hanging boughs and exposed tree roots, and then back across the river again to see the beaver's house.
My daughter, Mary Frances, and I, in our big, sturdy, tub-like plastic kayak, and Alex and Jimmy in theirs, splashed each other with our paddles until we decided we were getting too cold, and then had to relax in the sun to warm up while the river's current pulled us downstream.
We pulled our two boats together and shared some Skittles and crackers. We let our hands dangle in the cold water. My son let his feet dangle, too. Two tiny, almost not there, sections of rapids (they were really only a few rocks under the water) were enough to give the kids a thrill. As we approached the first one, Mary Frances got nervous. "How we will we ever get through?" she asked. "We need to get out of here!"
But I told her to just keep paddling and be brave. About 20 seconds later, we were past the ripples. She turned around to look at them with a huge grin on her face. "I can't believe I did it!" she yelled and held her paddle in the air.
All to soon, we came to the place on the river where we had to pull out the boats and wait for our shuttle from the park. (Don't worry about not seeing the pull-out. The park staff gave us great landmarks to recognize it.) The kids asked to go again while we were still pulling the kayaks out. And even with all the excitement, I still felt so peaceful as we sat on the riverbank and watched the water flow by.
Saluda Shoals Park is located at 5606 Bush River Road in Columbia. Entry is $5 per car. Kayaks can be rented at the Environmental Education Center every day between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Kayak rentals are $38 for three hours or $48 for all day.
Insider Tip: Bring plenty of water and some snacks. It's not that you'll work up a big appetite. It's just nice to float in the middle of the river together and share some food.