Summer sun is practically synonymous with water fun. And though the sagebrush-covered slopes around Sun Valley may scream “dry,” there’s no shortage of opportunities to paddle, float, swim and fish within a short drive. From roaring rapids and fish-filled streams to hiking to sparkling lakes or splashing around in local parks, kids can get their feet wet in any number of places and ways.
Hop a Board
What do you get when you cross a surfboard and a canoe? A stand-up paddleboard—one of the hottest new trends in water sports that has taken Idaho by storm. “Kids love it,” says Bruce Weber of Backwoods Mountain Sports, an outdoor sporting goods store in Ketchum. “It’s really fun and addictive.”
Paddleboarding doesn’t require much physical strength, so children as young as six or seven typically can do it, notes Jim Smith, owner of Stand Up and Paddle in Boise (supidaho.com). “In most cases, if you can ride a bike, then you can paddleboard,” explains Smith. While older teens may enjoy learning the technique, kids under 14 tend to be more interested in diving off the board and playing splashing games, Smith says. Either way, “they usually have a blast,” he adds.
Having the right equipment is key to making it fun. “The paddle needs to be about 10 inches taller than you are,” Smith points out. “If you’re stuck with one that’s too long, then it’ll be more difficult.” Boards with soft tops are ideal for young people because they’re typically “real floaty,” says Smith, adding “kids can jump off and bang themselves and they won’t get hurt.”
Paddleboards are surprisingly stable, but there’s always a chance that you’ll fall in—so participants should know how to swim. A personal flotation device is recommended for younger kids and less able swimmers.
Getting started: Rent or buy a paddleboard from Backwoods Mountain Sports (backwoodmountainsports.com; 208-726-8818) and haul it up to Pettit or Alturas Lake. Or head straight to the Redfish Lake Lodge Marina (redfishlake.com/marina; 208-774-3536), which boasts an impressive list of rentals, including paddleboards, paddleboats, pontoon boats, kayaks and canoes.
Ride the Rapids
Idaho may be famous for potatoes, but its whitewater is just as legendary. As most river buffs know, our state has more runnable rapids than any other in the lower 48. And just 60 miles north of Sun Valley lies Stanley—the jumping-off point for some of the coolest whitewater adventures for children ages 4 and up.
River trips on the scenic Middle Fork of the Salmon typically encounter Class 2 and 3 rapids in midsummer, and up to Class 4 in May and the first half of June, says Doug Fenn, owner of White Otter Outdoor Adventures. “It’s a little more exciting during the spring run-off,” explains Fenn, a former teacher at The Community School in Sun Valley. “In July and August, the water drops considerably, but there are still enough waves that you get splashed and the kids have a blast.”
For their first rafting experience, younger children may be best off in an oar boat, where a guide does all the paddling—leaving parents free to assist their little ones. For older kids, a paddle raft can be even more fun because they get to help maneuver the boat down the river. Teenagers (age 14 and older) who are strong swimmers may prefer the idea of navigating the river solo in an inflatable kayak.
Getting started: Contact an outfitter such as White Otter Outdoor Adventures (whiteotter.com; 208-788-5005), The River Company (therivercompany.com; 208-788-5775) or Mackay Wilderness River Trips (800-635-5336; mackayriver.com).
Row a Boat
While it may not offer the same thrill as running whitewater, canoeing or kayaking on a crystal blue lake can be a boatload of fun, too. When you’re gliding on the water, you never know what you’ll come across. A secret cove? A family of ducks? For older kids, paddling on flat water can be a great way to hone their skills in preparation for river trips.
For younger kids, canoes generally offer a stable ride with room for several passengers plus a dry bag full of snacks, sunscreen and other sundries. Tweens and teens may prefer a one- or two-man kayak. There are different types, and the ones used on flat water are usually less tippy and don’t require a spray skirt or knowing how to Eskimo roll.
Keep your outings short at first—you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew, especially with a little one on board. Regardless of their age, 30 to 60 minutes on the water is about right for kids just starting out. A personal flotation device (PFD) is mandatory regardless of swimming ability. And to avoid a, um, situation, be sure to hit the potty before heading out.
Think of fly fishing as an older person’s sport? Think again. Kids take to it like a fish to water, says Dave Faltings, head of fly fishing and guide coordinator at Silver Creek Outfitters in Ketchum. Being surrounded by nature, the sound of the water and the promise of hooking a fish can be just as alluring to kids as it is to adults. And they tend to catch on quickly: Learning to cast is often easier for them than it is for grown-ups.
Beginning anglers tend to have their eye on the prize—so it’s best to head somewhere where you’re likely to catch a fish. With younger kids, Faltings recommends starting off with a spinning reel and bobber, using salmon eggs or worms as bait at a fish-planted spot like Penny Lake. By the age of nine or 10, many will be ready to start casting with a fly rod. “That’s when they start to get into the technique and begin fitting into waders and boots,” Faltings says. Teens tend to love it and can get seriously hooked—so watch out.