Originally published in Hooked on the Outdoors magazine
Titled: Outdoor Legacy
Thoughts on Handing Down an Adventurous Spirit
Standing in the hallway of my parent’s home I look into a pair of smiling blue eyes that sparkle back at me across a span of 36 years. It’s a photo of a six-year-old boy standing in the snow, next to a wooden ice axe, just below Camp Muir at 10,000 feet on Washington’s Mount Rainier. Those eyes are my own and these days I marvel at the seemingly magical soft touch my parents employed in raising me to enjoy such adventures. I was never pushed to do anything, yet my life has been filled with expeditions to great ranges, backcountry skiing, alpine climbing, trail running, paddling, fishing and a host of similar pursuits. I was given a gift that fills me up with memories of wonder and joy and that has led me to friendships and laughter and a feeling that I have followed my true nature. Now, in my own role as father and husband, I often find myself pondering the fine art of passing this love of wild places and adventurous living to the next generation.
My queries into this particular brand of parental art lead inevitably to the question of whether nature or nurture plays the biggest role. Was I simply born with this passion for the outdoors? Then what of my Olympic kayaker wife’s non-outdoorsy parents? Does it skip a generation? What about my mother, who is not interested in this sort of thing? There must be some sort of family link, but it is difficult to fathom without a PhD in genetics.
Much easier to observe is the nurture side of the equation. In my opinion it is an interesting blend of doing and not doing that seems to be the secret to this nurturing magic. The doing part is the nuts and bolts of rallying the family to turn off the Shrek video and go out into the real world. It’s the loading of the gear in the car, diaper changes in the front seat, dressing everyone warmly, and doing your best Tigger impression on the way to the ski area. It’s the overcoming of the urge to give in to the world of easy living and staying on the couch. And it’s the willingness to simply be a parent on that particular day.
But sometimes the most difficult thing to do is nothing at all. This is where the magic kicks in and where my parents delivered the gift. They found a way to give me space to discover the world on my own, to feel the power that exists in a personal relationship with the wild world. They did not let the “doing” part of parenting get in the way of the “not doing” part. My brother and I were allowed to discover. Our parents were there to guide and educate us, but they stopped short of imposing their knowledge on us. Getting muddy, falling into a stream, climbing trees (and falling out of them), and tangling our fishing line beyond repair are things that they could have done something about ahead of time, but they didn’t, and I believe I am better for such enlightened parenting.
And so here I am nearing mid-life. On the one hand is my 71-year-old father continuing to be an example to me as he books his next 3-week canoe trip in the Canadian arctic. And my Mother, secure in who she is, encouraging him to go. I can only hope to be as healthy, full of life, and as understanding in 30 years time.
On the other hand is my 3-year old son, Nils. Just now he is running down a trail in the woods toward a large puddle of rainwater. I start to call out to him and stop him from getting soaked, but I hold back...
Update - January 2012: I just read this article for the first time since it was published and my wife and I are almost 13 years into parenthood. Our son Nils has become an outstanding young person. He's been on many, many adventures since this story was written and is, right now, excited for his first winter camping trip. I'm still convinced that the "not doing" part of parenting is perhaps the most important. Onward!