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HomeArticlesRaising Outdoor Kids: Learning to paddleboard in the Sonoran Desert

Raising Outdoor Kids: Learning to paddleboard in the Sonoran Desert

Paddleboarding on Tempe Town Lake. Photo courtesy of Lisa Van Loo.

The air was cold. The wind was calm. The skies were clear. And it was January, so there was a high likelihood we’d have the winter water almost to ourselves. It was a perfect day to teach the kids how to paddleboard.

A barrage of questions started as we walked toward Tempe Town Lake’s marina: What if we fall in? Won’t our feet be cold? Will we need towels? Shouldn’t we be wearing swimsuits?

Since I had made stand-up paddleboarding a habit in recent years, it was easy for me to tell them to relax. This was an adventure that was owed to them, left over from a fall birthday surprise, and it was time to punch the ticket.

“I take you to do things I know you can do,” I told them, which seemed to temper their concerns.

They had seen stand-up paddleboarding and were familiar with it from photos of my time on the water and from visits to the California coast. They knew what they were in for, which is probably what triggered all the questions. That, and they thought for sure they were kayaking, which must have seemed less daunting, for a still undetermined reason.

Stand-up paddleboard is not something most people think of when considering outdoor recreation in the desert. Yet, there are many opportunities to do it, each with a unique landscape as a backdrop. And I’m told sunset paddles are magical.

We could have gone to Canyon Lake, driven up to Prescott or paddled at Lake Pleasant. But Tempe Town Lake provides a wake-free proving ground for kids who have not yet received a primer on the finer points of paddling. Plus, it’s close! Here are a few takeaways from our maiden voyage, where everyone stayed dry.

• They can do it. I already knew they could, but they proved it to themselves by leaving any hesitation on the dock and climbing onto their boards with spirited curiosity and a giddiness that only comes from stepping outside your comfort zone. Josie is 12 and Dominic is 10, and both had the physical strength, stamina and ability to balance on and paddle the boards. I got onto my board first, which I would recommend with kids, so they could see how to do it. I stayed on my knees for a bit, as did they, and then we all popped up, paddles in hand.

• Bring a pack. Whether you’re paddling alone or with kids (probably especially with kids), it would be helpful to bring a daypack. Just one. Use it to carry everybody’s flip flops, your keys, a water, and possibly a dry bag for your phone — just in case you do tip. While we usually advocate for kids to carry all their own gear, they are required to wear life vests while paddleboarding, and a backpack on top of that would be a real drag. If you don’t want a pack, some docks offer storage lockers.

• Paddle on dry land. We failed to go over paddling basics before we got on the water, because they were so focused on how to stand and remain balanced. More than once, I found myself having to coach one of them through a U-turn, which can be confusing on the water. Show them the basics before you step off the dock, and be sure to include the benefits of a reverse paddle, which will get them turned around quicker. Don’t panic if they float away from you. If you panic, they will, too. Just paddle their way and get them straightened out.

• Show them how to stop. Despite bumping into each other and the lake wall a few times, these two never lost their balance. They were lucky. Before getting into the water, show them how to use their paddles to avoid a collision with each other or something else.

• Let them be kids. For sure, they need to follow the rules of the marina or lake they’re in, but there is no doubt they will discover their paddles do more than move them. They are also vehicles for splashing. Let them. Let them go ahead of you or behind you. Let them explore the water and their own strength. Let them laugh and holler to each other, even if it’s loud, because they can use their “outside voices.” They can be their own little navigators, especially once they learn that they can do it. That they don’t need towels. Or swimsuits. Or answers to every question before they get in.

Canyon Lake, Arizona at Sunrise just off of the Apache Trail Hwy 88
Arizona’s Canyon Lake is a beautiful spot for stand-up paddleboarding. iStock

Arizona spots for paddleboarding with kids

Tempe Town Lake. The calm waters of Tempe Town Lake are great for learning stand-up paddleboarding. Rentals start at $25. Visit the marina at Tempe Boat Rentals, 72 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe.

Lake Pleasant. This body of water is relatively calm, but not as calm as Tempe Town Lake. Keep an eye out for the many paddling adventures offered here. Rent from Go Paddle AZ, 8708 W. Harbor Blvd., Peoria. Rentals are $25 for the first hour and $15 for each additional hour.

Canyon Lake. If you can’t transport your own board, rent right from the dock at the Canyon Lake Marina, 16802 N.E. Highway 88, Tortilla Flat. The scenery is spectacular, but the water is only as calm as the number of boats on the lake, so it might not be the best spot for a rookie ride. Rentals run about $25 an hour.

Watson Lake. Enjoy an amazing landscape and interesting rock formations paddling Watson Lake. It’s a short drive to Prescott, and it’ll be worth it. Stand-up paddleboards (SUP) rentals run $20 per hour or $75 for the day.

Salt River. The Salt River is relatively calm, and candidly, it feels like an escape from the Sonoran Desert. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a few horses or cows at the water’s edge taking a quick drink, and you might even spot beavers that call the water home. All-day rentals cost $40 at No Snow SUP, and include use of temporary roof racks to transport the boards.

Lisa Van Loo is a freelance journalist. Ron Abelar is an avid outdoorsman and photographer. They are parenting five children in Gilbert. Follow them on Instagram @RaisingOutdoorKids


Lisa Van Loo
Lisa Van Loo
Lisa Van Loo is a Gilbert freelance journalist. Ron Abelar is an avid outdoorsman and photographer. Together, they are parenting five children. Follow them on Instagram @RaisingOutdoorKids



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