In honor of Katmai’s fourth birthday (today), Lituya’s second (last month), and my fourth year as a wilderness parent.
(Read First Year in the Woods, Second Year in the Woods, and Third Year in the Woods).
Passing on an Obsession
Katmai: “I want to hike all the way to Graduation Peak! I want to go farther than Graduation Peak.”
“When can we hike to the top of the mountain with the Sounding Board?”
“I want to walk the whole way to town!”
These are the plans our son makes all the time — with a mixture of plaintive whining and enthusiastic determination. These are our everyday outings: Striding up the steep and slippery trail behind our yurt, always failing to reach the snowy summit of Graduation Peak, an icy 3,000 feet and six miles away. Always starting out again with same charmingly unrealistic ambitions. Always having fun along the way.
The whole way to town is only three miles; downhill from home, uphill returning. This he really does do, anytime we’re willing to take him, gleefully skittering over ice or plowing through deep snow in the clearcut, then adamantly refusing every proffered ride on the road.
“Are we getting close, mom?”
“No, it’s still a quite a ways farther to home.”
“That’s OK. We’re always getting closer and closer if we’re walking!”
Sometimes he surprises me with a downhill dash, or while mimicking a particularly speedy dinosaur. But at barely over three feet tall, small for his age in clunking boots and winter clothes, Katmai’s usual pace reminds me more of the awkwardly crawling prehistoric fish he often pretends to be. But he goes. And goes. And goes. And goes.
Good. We have big plans for him. I may be his doting mother, but I am also his ruthless trainer — grooming him to keep up with mom and dad, beaming with overdone pride at each glimmer of adventurous ambition.
He falls, and claims it was on purpose. He happily postholes through waist deep snow. Sleet, cold, and rain barely phase him. Wet feet don’t either. He handled last September’s storm-battered visit to Grewingk Glacier with more grace and aplomb than most of the film crew professionals we were traveling with.
He’s four. Setting off for a 30 minute jaunt without a bag of snacks can spell disaster. Someone else walking in front of him when he wanted to “lead the way” can spark a tearful tantrum.
But overall, he amazes me. After carrying him for hundreds of miles, and coaxing him — agonizingly — for dozens, I’m left to step back and wonder. How did we get to this? Nature? Nurture? Watching him in the woods, I can see pieces of my own stubbornness, perseverence, and caution — and pieces of his dad’s unruffled stoicism at any physical discomfort. I can also see the ease borne of days, weeks, and months in the wilderness — more time in his four short years than many adults get in a lifetime.
Lituya, on the other hand, just turned two. An age of exploding language, reasoning, imagination, and physical skills. And of falling flat in the snow.
Her stamina for moving forward in a given direction is barely a few hundred yards at a stretch. Her mittens must come on and off at five minute intervals. Napping gets harder, and not napping is worse. After a slip, she flails on her back in the puffy awkwardness of snowpants and coat, a plump blue cherub with an angry red face.
She can love the snow. Packing wet globs on a snowman or sledding down the hill… Until all of a sudden she doesn’t, with only seconds marking the line between giggling fun and screeching frustration. For longer stretches, she can enjoy riding on my back. Except when she doesn’t. But with a second child, each difficult phase feels far less permanent. Within a year, she may love the winter woods as much as the summer.
I want to believe that any kid can.
Future Ground Truth Trekkers
Which is why, every Friday, we find ourselves with a handful of other adults and several handfuls of zero to six year old children, herding cats in the snow. I mean herding kids in the snow. Or on the ice. Or on the beach.
It used to be a weekly ritual for just my family, transformed into an official community event that happens even when we’re gone. The structure is minimal. Meet at 11AM, at a location Hig and I pick out a couple days before based on weather, snow conditions, and tides.
Sometimes we have 10 people. Sometimes 20. The kids stop for snacks and snow angels. They lose track of our goal to climb and slide and roll on the hills, and to lose their boots (often) in snowdrifts. We go one or two miles. Often, some of the kids turn back halfway. But all of them go further than they thought they could. And as we see some of the kids come out over and over again, I watch even the most reluctant hikers begin to transform into kids that love the outdoors.
Why Bring Kids Into The Woods?
Because they might scream and whine for half an hour while you struggle to set up camp and start the fire? Because they might sleep on your lap for an hour while you perch on a seat of knobby rocks, looking out to sea and slowly succumbing to the chill of the frozen morning? Or because they might gleefully hunt for anemones by headlamp in the darkness of a low-tide snowstorm? Crow with delight as the packraft slips into a cave hung with icicles? (All of this happened on Sunday night’s camp-out)
Bringing them into the woods is a lot of work.
Selfishly, I do it because I love both my kids and the wilderness, and refuse to give up one for the other. Visiting a city last fall, I enjoyed movies and restaurants and aikido classes. My kids enjoyed playgrounds and Christmas lights, and children’s museums. Unlike these city pleasures, Nature is something we can share. Walking through a snowy forest, even at 4 year old speed, even with a 2 year old on my back, I’m not just experiencing joy through the eyes of my children. I’m actually enjoying myself.
Philosophically, I do it because I think they need it. To run, explore and discover in some place real — in an environment that hasn’t been designed just for them. To imagine and observe. To feel their own strength and power in the face of the difficulties and discomforts that come along with nature.
I think the world needs it too. Needs people who know both how to plug in and unplug. To talk and to observe. Who realize that they can thrive in situations far beyond what they ever imagined. Of course, you think I’m talking about the kids here. Which I am. But I’m talking just as much about the parents. Parenthood can feel so overwhelming and intimidating, that sometimes it can suck you right “into the box” of doing exactly what you think you’re supposed to do, or what everyone else is doing — rather than what’s best for you, your family, or the world.
The Next Three Million Steps
If Katmai’s stride length is around half of an adult’s, the 800 miles around Cook Inlet will be made of three million steps. But the steps I’m thinking about right now are the ones we need to do before we leave.
Training the four-year-old to cheerily hike long distances is something we’re accomplishing all the time. Training the two-year-old to be happy on those long hikes is something we’re still working on. Training the adults to plan for an expedition without a heap of procrastination and last-minute stress is a hopeless cause. We’ve barely started finding, fixing, making, and buying the gear on our gear list, and our potential resupply points in western Cook Inlet, are still, for the most part, gaping holes in our knowledge.
But we’ll get there.