Most parents of a sports-loving 10-year-old might feel proud when their kid hits a home run, scores a touchdown, or tickles the back of the soccer net.
Not Tommy and Polly Hilleke of Glenwood Springs, CO. Their moment came this fall when their son Bodie, at just a decade old, became the youngest person to kayak the entire Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.
It helps, of course, to have the pedigree. Both kayaking icons in their day—Tommy a legendary extreme kayaker and perennial winner of the coveted Green Race, and Polly an accomplished kayaker as well—the paddling parents took their family kayaking down the Grand Canyon this October, including Kelly, 14, Daniel, 13, Dax, 11, and the youngest, Bodie, 10. The brood of boaters kayaked the Grand’s 280 miles in 18 days, with Bodie setting a likely world record in the process (paperwork is currently being filed with Guinness World Records).
For fifth-grader Bodie, the run was the pinnacle of a paddling season that included kayaking trips down Idaho’s Main and Middle Fork of the Salmon, Utah’s Westwater Canyon, Yampa Canyon and the Arkansas River in Colorado, plus numerous laps on his hometown section of the Colorado River through Glenwood Springs—all as training for his trip down the Grand. Eight of the 16 people on the trip were kids, ages 8 to 14, giving Bodie—who started kayaking at age 5—plenty of campfire camaraderie.
“It was pretty inspirational to watch,” says Ian Anderson of Carbondale, CO, who joined the trip rowing a raft with his two kids. “Bodie ran the meat in every rapid and crushed it.”
Below, the Hilleke parents, Tommy and Polly, liken the lessons they’ve learned along the way into situations other parents might find themselves in.
On motivating them to get outside (and off their screens)
“We just don’t give them the choice,” says Tommy. “We just say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go climb a mountain or paddle this river.’ We just get them outside.” Adds Polly: “Just make them go. We always told them, ‘This is the plan for the day.’ They’d whine, but by the time we were all out doing whatever activity, they wouldn’t want to come home. Everyone’s happier when we’re being active outdoors as a family.”
And the harder the activity, the better, says Tommy. “If it’s something that requires focus, they don’t even think about it. If it’s a mellow trail or something, they might not want to go. But if it’s technical, like climbing, skiing or kayaking, they’re all over it. I think kids can learn a lot from being uncomfortable outside and then persevering and getting that reward, whether it’s an untracked powder field or nailing a line in a rapid. You can’t get that from school.”
On gummy bears as bribery
Sometimes, the couple adds, as with many parents, they’ll resort to bribery. “Bring plenty of snacks,” advises Polly. “We use them to keep them going.” Adds Tommy: “They’re like little Labradors—we’ll give them snacks like gummy worms to keep them going. On the Grand we used those Izze drinks. I might even let them split a Red Bull here and there—one of the small ones.”
On keeping them on kid time
Parents have their schedules, kids have theirs. For the Hillekes, they defer to the latter for all of their family outdoor outings. “That’s our overarching theme,” Tommy says. “We make sure we’re not on a schedule to be done by a certain time. We let it take what it takes. If that means stopping at a beach for a while, then so be it.” Adds Polly: “Don’t be in a hurry and let them get dirty—stop to check things out. We called it ‘exploring’ not ‘hiking.’”
On staying with it
Bodie had a breakthrough earlier this summer when, after missing his roll and swimming at the bottom of Warm Springs rapid on a five-day trip down the Yampa River, he just made the decision that he wasn’t going to swim anymore. “He hasn’t swam since,” says Tommy. “He was pretty upset about that and super mad that he swam. So he practiced it a lot over the summer and got better.”
On dealing with adversity
“On the Grand, we stopped at a jump rock and all the boys did backflips except Bodie. He got super mad about that as well. But a lot of it is just the youngest brother trying to keep up with the big kids. But he’ll probably go back and practice that as well.” The older siblings have learned from adversity also. When Tommy took his two oldest boys down Class V Gore Canyon of the Colorado River, Kelly “got beat down” in Tunnel Falls rapid. “Daniel then ran over him when he came over the falls and knocked him out of the hole,” Tommy says. “Dax and Bodie haven’t learned that yet. Dax wanted to run the ledge hole at Lava Falls on the Grand, but I said, “That’s not a good idea right now.’” Says Polly: “Give them the opportunity to fall, fail, and get back up.”
On organizing gear
For most parents, getting their kids to grab their shoes, coat, backpacks, notebooks and everything else for school is a chore. Add skis, boots, poles, helmets, goggles and gloves to the mix, or, heaven forbid kayaking gear, and the ante gets upped considerably. “We push them to take care of themselves,” Tommy says. “When we’re going boating, I’ll check that they have everything, but they have to get it all together. We put it on them. When we’re skiing, they have to carry their own stuff. If they forget their jacket or gloves, they get cold and have to get one from the lost and found. It teaches them.
“But we’re a full-on junk show wherever we go,” he adds. “At the Glenwood Wave this year, everyone had their own gear bag but Bodie forgot his afterward and it got stolen. He was super pissed. We made him pay us by doing chores to work it off. We try to do that with all their gear. A kayak for their birthday is one thing, but if they want another one or something, they have to help pay for it somehow.”
On risk vs. reward
It’s the age-old parenting dilemma: When do you take your hand off the bike, let them swim solo in the pool, or plunge off the rope swing into the water? For the Hillekes, such a moment came after the trip was over and they decided to run the pulsating Pearce Ferry rapid a couple miles below the takeout—harder than anything the previous 280 miles. “We did the whole process of getting out, scouting it, finding our line and setting safety,” Tommy says. “There’s a big hole you have to miss and at 65 pounds you don’t have a lot of mass to punch through it. But they all did great and learned a lot from it.”
It also brought up the question of risk versus reward, however—something all kayakers are familiar with. “I was having a hard time wondering if this was loose decision-making for a parent,” he says, equating it to times they take their kids backcountry skiing outside Aspen. “I don’t know where the line is in believing in their ability level and trying to keep them safe, but I think I was pretty close right then.”
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