Caring for our Kids

We all have lessons to learn from rivers—and how kids and pets navigate both the potential risks and the sensory joys of interacting with the water.

Caring for our Kids, Caring for the Columbia

Jamie Melton Staff Photo
Jamie Melton

Like many of you, I once was a kid who fell in love with the Columbia River, and my parents and childhood dogs played a significant role in the formation of that relationship. As I reflect on family and what it means to support, interact, and learn from the younger generation and our pets, I have a deep admiration for parents who are doing the work to care for and inspire the next generation of activists through direct interaction with the water. 

We all have lessons to learn from rivers—and how kids and pets navigate both the potential risks and the sensory joys of interacting with the water. Sitting down with some of Columbia Riverkeeper’s kid- and pet-parents struck a deep curiosity as families set out to embrace the exuberance of playing along the banks of the Columbia and its tributaries. 

How does your work on the Columbia River impact your relationship with your human or pet children and your approach as a parent?

Miles Johnson, Senior Attorney: My children raise the stakes for my work to protect the Columbia River for everyone. I want my kids to grow up to be able to catch and eat salmon from the Columbia. I want them to see the river, and more broadly the outdoors, as a space where everyone is welcome and safe (or, at least, safe from other people). I can't take these things for granted when I look at my children playing on the beach. 

lorri epstein with son, photo by modoc stories
Lorri Epstein with her son, photo by Modoc Stories.

Lorri Epstein, Water Quality Director: Teaching my kids how to be safe on the river and to respect it is a priority. Rivers have been some of my best friends, and I have gotten to know many quite well. I really love creating opportunities for my kids to connect with the river to get to build a relationship with it. 

When I am heading to the river to swim with my family, I am so thankful for the knowledge of the water quality status at swim beaches. I am more than happy to be a resource for friends and other families that check in with me (or the Swim Guide, I appreciate that we have information that can help keep my kids safe when swimming so I can enjoy my time on the water without worrying. My kids love being on the water and at the river; it is a place where we are at our best.

Simone Anter, with dog, photo by Modoc Stories
Simone Anter with her dog, photo by Modoc Stories.

Simone Anter, Staff Attorney: I interact with the river so much more because of my dog. It’s a fun way to not only connect with Hoku, but to also see how other people are interacting with and valuing the river. It emphasizes that our work in protecting our waterways is essential for everyone.

Alex Smith, Membership Specialist: It is the strongest force of motivation. Our collective future is on the line. I want my child and other children to have a chance to experience this beautiful bioregion without pollution and life-threatening heat. 

Liz Terhaar, Communications Director: I have more of an appreciation for the Columbia River working on the issues it faces. When I spend time at the river with my family and dog, I marvel at its beauty and why it's worth protecting so my daughter can swim in the river, my dog can drink the water, my husband can fish in the river and we can eat those fish knowing they're safe to consume. I hope to impart that we're a part of the natural world and not something separate from it—that how we live our daily lives impacts our environment. We can’t take clean water for granted, and that influences how I parent. 

Keeping both fun and safety in mind: What advice do you have for parents who aren't sure how to introduce kids (or pets) to the river?

Simone: Let pets approach the river at their own pace if they aren't comfortable. Pay attention to their body language. Bring waste bags to clean up after your pets and follow a “leave no trace” mindset.

Lorri: Check Swim Guide before you go to make sure the water quality is safe, avoid algal blooms (when in doubt, stay out), and know your limits. Rivers have cold water, swift currents, and uneven, dynamic river beds. Even though my kids can swim they are always in life jackets on the river. Many public accesses have life jacket loaner kiosks if you don't have your own.

Liz: Go for it—start them young and don't be afraid to get messy! Playing along the river is the ultimate sensory play. There's water, sand, rocks, and plants, all opportunities to explore and learn. I set boundaries with my daughter along the water where it's okay to play, and where she needs an adult to help. On some visits she's more willing to listen, others, not so much! My advice is to keep trying. With practice, they become more aware of places you visit over time.

Siobhan with family, credit Modoc Stories
Siobhán O’Halloran with her family, photo by Modoc Stories.

Siobhán O’Halloran, Operations Manager: Plan ahead with water, snacks, and sunscreen. Check the weather forecast and the Swim Guide app for water quality. 

Miles: I often make the mistake of trying to do too much in an outing. My kids are one and three; they are usually perfectly content sitting by the river throwing rocks in the water 20 yards from the car. For little ones, just being outside in a nice place can be an incredible experience, even if they aren't "doing" anything specific. And that helps me slow down and appreciate the river as well.

What are your favorite activities to do with your kids and pets on the river?

Alex: Simply being at a beach is often enough for my malamutes and toddler. My son dipping his tiny toes in the water and playing in the sand is the calming, centering experience our family values. 

Siobhán O’Halloran, Operations Manager: We enjoy taking our kids to swim, kayak, and fish.

Lorri: We swim, SUP and kayak, fish, and play on the beaches. My dog will fetch sticks in the river ALL day long.

Newsletter Issue 2, 2022



Take a stand for clean water and healthy communities. Your membership protects and restores the mighty Columbia River now and for future generations.