If you want your little ones to love the outdoors the way you do, there is one magical rule. When things start going downhill, you can repeat this rule as a mantra to help you through and ensure that your child won't be traumatized by the experience and shun the outdoors forever.
Keep it fun.
I can't stress enough the importance of this rule. But it encompasses a lot of smaller things - like safety, planning, and mental preparation. Many of these go hand in hand with parenting (and canoe tripping) in general, but here are my best tips for making canoe tripping with kids a fun experience. Happy kids doesn't always mean happy grownups, but unhappy kids almost always means full on insanity for everyone.
How young can they go?
This may seem strange, but it is easier to take babies canoe tripping than toddlers. Babies stay in one spot, need less snack variation, and tend to sleep more. Salus makes an excellent lifejacket for infants 9 - 25 lbs (the Bijou) which we used for both our boys. Our youngest was 4 months old on his first canoe trip.
In the canoe
Where does everyone sit? Big question. When you've got a baby or toddler, you are going to want them in front of the bow person. This is usually Mom - especially if she is breastfeeding. The canoe is narrower here so the child can lurch from side to side without affecting trim too much, and you can play/feed/soothe them as needed. It's awkward to paddle with this arrangement but face it: the bow person will not be paddling much anyway.
For older children it's important they have their own comfortable spot. Thwarts are not that great. We have used a variety of solutions, from small plastic deck chairs to a custom bench that fits two kids side by side (until they start fighting). The bench is fantastic; it's a board with angled edges and hardware that hooks onto the gunwales. You can put it right in front of the stern paddler or right behind the bow paddler. We have found there is less fussing if the child is up higher and able to see over the edge of the boat better. And give them a paddle - even if you have to tie it to the canoe.
Whatever your arrangement, go for practice paddles first before launching on your week long trip. Start short, then go for longer paddles so the kids get used to spending time in the canoe.
There's no getting around this: you're going to be tired. With such a change in lifestyle, the excitement of the trip and the late-setting summer sun, you're little one will have trouble getting to sleep. I don't know if your kids are like ours, but they end up all over the tent each night. It's not uncommon for one of us to wake up draped with a sleeping child that we are terrified will wake up; we've spent hours in this exhausted but wakeful state of not moving a muscle - just to prolong that blessed sleep.
The best system for us has been to strap our sleeping mats together (so you don't get cracks) and sleep all four of us under sleeping bags that have been zipped together. Dress your little one in a sleeper (and toque if it's cold) to protect against drafts. This system keeps our bedding to a minimum and there is lots of space to move around.
Going back to the Rule - keep it fun - it's important to relax here. I'm a stickler for nutrition at home but I admit I bring "fun food" on canoe trips. I'm not above Kraft Dinner and hot dogs. When presenting healthier options that may not be as appealing, it's important to offer a lot of options. Offer your lentil stew with a choice of grated cheeses and other toppings, or with Goldfish swimming in it.
Bring desserts for every lunch and supper. They can be healthy - just sell them as "dessert". Sometimes a juice box can be the biggest treat going.
Pack lots of snacks, then double that amount. You can never have enough variety. GORP, dehydrated bananas, yogurt covered raisins, nuts, Sesame Snaps, Eatmore bars, figs and BabyBel cheeses are some of our favourites. Oh, and chocolate of course. That's more for the grownups' mental sanity than anything.
Kids usually hate these, so start them early if you can. They are essential. Our kids had to wear them around camp unless someone was willing to devote their time to watching them. We also put bear bells on each child's lifejacket when they were little so we could hear where they were at all times. Give them a whistle and teach them it is only for emergencies.
Bugs, sun, and bad weather
The only trip we had to abandon was due to bugs. Despite all precautions, sometimes the bad overwhelms the good. When the kids were small we brought a bug shelter - half tent, half mesh - which allowed us to be at camp without being relegated to the tent. Mosquito coils do a decent job but need to be watched around children. There are now various bug repellents that are safer for children's skin, and you can get Bug Shirts in small sizes. Make sure the child has a wide brimmed hat to keep the mesh off their faces.
That wide brimmed hat also keeps sun and rain off. If it doesn't have a chin tie, sew one on. Long sleeve button up shirts are great for sun and bug protection without being too hot. Make sure to bring two sets of rain wear for each child - one for paddling in and one to change into at camp. Despite being heavy, rubber boots are another must for kids. A pair of dry Smartwool socks and rubber boots can perk up a grumpy wet child in no time.
An umbrella may seem ridiculous to bring, but it's not. Kids can create a dry little spot for themselves in the canoe and keep their hoods down for comfort and visibility. We've also propped an umbrella up over sleeping babies to keep the sun off. They are something extra to pack, but they can bring welcome relief when it's needed.
It's a given - you are going to take more trips over that portage trail. Give older children their own pack to carry, and their lifejacket and paddle. Expect to carry smaller kids. We usually send one adult over the trail followed by walking children, then the other adult brings up the rear. When everyone reaches the end, one adult goes back for another load while the other gets snack time going.
The smaller the children, the more clothes you need to bring. Bring at minimum two sets of rain wear and cold weather wear. No matter the season, bring toques and mittens. I always bring a large bandanna along - it's great as a quick drying towel, a sunshade, or a cloth for messy faces.
Let your child pack their own pack. They should have a few toys, their GORP bag, hat, and water bottle. As for toys, bring as few or as many as you think - our staples were a bucket, a long handled bug net, some good books, a flashlight or headlamp for the tent, and action figures to have adventures. I think there is still a Superman somewhere out at McLennan Lake.
We always bring along one daypack-sized dry bag as a "dump bag" - as we near a portage, all the loose items in the canoe (toys, sunscreen, umbrella, snack bags, jackets, bug nets...) get dumped in the bag and it's easy to carry. This bag has all immediate essentials in it and is kept close to one paddler in the canoe for easy accessibility. (Might as well be the bow person, as they don't get to paddle much anyway.)
One item I consider essential when canoeing with children is a camp chair for each person. I don't mean the ones with a metal frame, I mean the kind with side webbing straps that you sit on the ground with. You can unfold them flat for padding in the canoe, sleeping at a lunch spot, or changing a diaper. They are great around camp so you can cuddle your child yet still get some back support, and they rock almost like a rocking chair.
Lastly, bring surprises. These get taken out as needed for morale boosters during the trip. They can be edible treats, or other things like fancy bandaids, glowsticks or a mini-toy. One of my favourite things to do with kids is to create a Smarties hunt at camp. Each child gets their own colour and this keeps them running around for up to an hour.
Go disposable. It's far more painless for trips. You can burn them in a fire, but they require hot coals because of all that mysterious gel inside (toxic, I'm sure). We found it easier to have a diaper garbage bag. It's great for wagering with - whoever loses has to carry the bag the next day. The stakes get higher as the trip goes on.
It's worth it
Keep it fun. Let them help. Let them get dirty. Make space for them - in the canoe, around the camp, in the tent. Help them feel a part of everything. Tell stories about the past trips you did with them, so they feel special. Kids need nature just as much as we do, and nurturing that relationship is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. In turn, they will give you the best memories you ever had.