Last summer, at first light, I parked along a gravel bar on the Castor River for a wading trip for goggle-eye. I had the place to myself. Then, around noon, a family settled along the river, close to where I had parked. A young couple in swimsuits sat in the shallows at river’s edge. A little boy, 2 years old at most, sat on the man’s lap. All smiles, he kicked and splashed in the water. Further out, a boy of about 8 worked at casting a night crawler toward a downed log on the far bank. A short ways upstream, a girl, just a bit older, was catching crawdads with a small dip net.
“Looks like you all are having a fine time,” I said to the couple as I walked toward my truck.
“No better way to spend time with the wife and kids on a warm day,” the man replied.
Amen to that, I thought.
I received my introduction to the outdoors along Missouri’s creeks and streams. So did my wife. We used the same venue for our own three children. If you have a child you would like to introduce to the outdoors, you will find no better setting than Missouri’s creeks. Here are some proven tips to help make a creek outing a memorable adventure for any kid.
Tailor the Trips
Creeks offer a variety of activities that you can adapt to a child’s age and inclinations. Even babies enjoy creek time if you match outings to what they like. Babies love attention from people and, by the time they are 4 or 5 months old, they also enjoy toys that fit in their hands. Spread a blanket in the shade on a gravel bar, bring toys and play with your baby, just like you do at home. Pick a warm day, perfect for water play. In the shallows, just inches deep, sit your baby in your lap and let him splash like he does at home in the bathtub. Laugh and make a big fuss over him. With this kind of introduction, by the time kids are 3 or 4 years old, time spent on creeks will often be one of their favorite activities.
For preschoolers, buckets and shovels to dig in the sand are a must. Include inner tubes and water mattresses to float around in the water with your kids. Bring along dip nets for catching tadpoles and other creek critters.
Missouri’s clear creeks team with life, providing an ideal place to spark a kid’s interest in nature. Tadpoles and crawdads will entertain most kids for hours. A real find might be a softshell turtle hatchling. Help your kids make a little holding area, surrounded by rocks just off the edge of the creek, to contain the animals they catch (don’t forget to release them when you go home!). Bring a butterfly net to catch and admire swallowtails that come to the gravel bar to sip nectar.
Creek rocks come in endless colors and shapes. Most kids find them captivating. Spend time exploring gravel bars to see who can find the most unusual one. At the end of every trip, let your child take home a favorite rock or two.
By age 4 or 5, most kids are ready for their introduction to fishing. Clear creeks provide peerless places for first fishing lessons. There’s no boredom of sitting and watching an idle cork—you can see the fish.
First, trap minnows using jug traps baited with crushed crackers. Kids often enjoy this part as much as the fishing. With minnows trapped, bait a small hook with a piece of a minnow and fish for longear sunfish. Longear sunfish are aggressive feeders; often a half-dozen or more will swarm in and try to take the bait. Watching this fish action is exciting. On these first attempts at fishing, do all the baiting, casting and hook setting (assisting adults need a fishing permit). Once you’ve hooked a fish, hand the pole to your child and let him reel it in. If you catch some large ones, and your child is interested, clean a few and take them home for a special meal.
As kids grow older, continue tailoring creek trips to their interests. By the time they are in middle school, they may want to invite a school friend or two. By this age, kids start developing a sense of independence. Though your kids still enjoy your company, place yourself in the background a bit. By high school, they may still enjoy creek trips with you, but including a school friend will most likely be a must—a normal thing as kids grow up.
Plan for Safety and Comfort
Water poses a drowning hazard. Creeks are no exception; however, the right creek and proper supervision keep these outings safe and fun. When planning a creek trip for small children who do not yet swim, choose creeks that offer no rapids in the immediate area and minimal current. Also, pick spots that offer shallow water, good for wading. Require that small children wear life vests. If you buy one that sports a character from one of your child’s favorite animated movies, chances are good they will enjoy wearing it. Use common sense and avoid any scare associated with water. One bad experience can turn some children away from enjoying water play for life.
Many kids like to throw and skip rocks. Ozark creeks offer a limitless supply. Though lots of fun, young kids need close supervision for this activity. I’ve seen kids try to throw rocks, but release late and throw the rocks behind them. When it’s rock-throwing time, be at the child’s side to supervise, direct aim and keep all others out of the line of fire—a good 30 feet away in all directions.
Always bring along and use plenty of sunscreen. Today’s sunscreens can protect even the most light-sensitive skin. Though most sunscreens are water resistant, after swimming for 45 minutes or so, apply more. Severe sunburn can leave a kid with a negative impression of time spent outdoors.
Wildlife generally avoids contact with humans. Yet some, like horseflies and deer flies, seek us. We represent a meal. Horseflies and deer flies lay their eggs in moving water and, unfortunately, are common along Missouri’s creeks. When these flies bite, it hurts—enough to ruin a child’s creek trip. To discourage these persistent pests, use insect repellent.
Another way to handle these biting flies takes nerve, but it’s highly effective. When horse or deer flies first land on a person, they are wary and difficult to swat. They often fly off before you can swat them. To counter this defense, let it land and then wait. As soon as the fly shuffles its legs a bit and lowers its head to bite, swat it. At this time the fly is focusing on feeding and is far less wary. Teaching this technique to a nervous kid is sometimes tough, but it works almost every time.
Be Good Stewards
As kids learn to enjoy the outdoors, they also need to learn it is their responsibility to take care of it. Creek outings offer perfect opportunities to do that. At the end of a trip, as you collect gear and load up to go home, have the kids patrol where they played to make sure they left no trash. Join in and help with the patrolling. If you find trash left by others, pick it up and let the kids know that it’s good to leave a place in better shape than how you found it.
Creek trips, done right, develop in children a deep respect and love of the outdoors—a shared interest that offers you and your children a common bond that lasts a lifetime.