It’s become a yearly tradition that when my oldest child’s birthday rolls around, I write a post reflecting on our year in the great outdoors. So this is in honor of Katmai’s fifth birthday (today), Lituya’s third (last month), and my fifth year as a wilderness parent. (Read First Year in the Woods, Second Year in the Woods, Third Year in the Woods, and Fourth Year in the Woods).
“This is my horsie, and I need to ride him a little more,” my daughter informed me, bouncing up and down on an alder branch as I shook the tree, the tips of her boots just brushing the snow. Somewhere beyond us, I listened to the crunch of small snowshoes, disappearing down the hill, across the tiny creek, and then up the other side.
“Mom! I need to pee!” my son yelled from somewhere out of sight in the forest.
“Can you handle that yourself?!” I yelled back.
The crunching sounds paused for a minute. Meanwhile, I’d coaxed Lituya down off that particular alder branch, and she was busy climbing up another–on track to catch up with her brother maybe sometime next week. How could I hurry her along!?
I began to open my mouth into an impatient ultimatum. Then I shut it again. Katmai had asked me which patch of forest we were heading to, and then he’d snowshoed right to it. He would be fine playing until we got there.
Last year’s time in the woods was all about passion–passing on an obsession with big adventure to Katmai, while working to help Lituya love the cold and slippery world beyond our walls. This year has been about competence and habit, growing into a life where the outdoors is simply a given.
After all, we spent more than a quarter of the year outside. We left home at the end of March, to walk and paddle 800 miles around Alaska’s Cook Inlet. We were gone for three and a half months. We navigated blizzards and mudflats, cliffs and bears, fish camps and busy streets. My son hiked hundreds of miles. Meanwhile, I wiped his bottom, tied his shoes, and carried his sister.
Repetition builds a habit. Habits build a life. Staring out my window at the volcanoes on the other side of Cook Inlet, I can hardly believe we walked there. In the view, it seems so large and grand. In my memory, it’s a series of snapshots–some harrowing, some mundane, some magical. Just a hundred little days outside.
For the kids, it was as normal as anything. Wake up, eat breakfast, play as mom and dad pack, then start traveling along the coastline. Sometimes on foot (or on mom’s back for Lituya), and sometimes in the raft. Later you play, eat, and travel some more. You throw rocks, draw in the sand, watch beluga whales, and jump off logs. You repeat this pattern until camp time, then ‘help’ with the tent stakes and firewood.
And of course it wasn’t normal. You were a mammoth, stomping through snow in the coldest ice age. You screamed at a blizzard and retreated into the forest, huddling by the stove while mom and dad saved you the last of the food, rationing until some better day to travel. Hand-in-hand with dad, you jumped from ice floe to ice floe across a slough in a massive mudflat. Landing in surf, you were dunked in the ocean. You watched the bears fish. You climbed a mountain.
Back at home, my kids don’t wake up begging to go outside (at least not in February). Or begging not to (except for the usual grumble and dawdle over snowpants and coats and mittens and boots). I don’t think it’s occurred to them that the plan would ever change. We go out pretty much every day, in snow or rain or sun, for an hour, or two, or three. To the woods, to the beach, to a snow-covered lake. It’s not exciting, exactly. Just part of how things are.
We’ve built them a habit. And habits build competence. Lituya has spent around a sixth of her life on expeditions. Katmai, around an eighth. For me, the equivalent would be four to five years of wilderness life (more than twice than the two years I’ve actually spent on expeditions).
And that doesn’t even count our everyday excursions.
“Come on Lituya, we’re almost home!” She shoots me a pouty look, then continues inching up the last steep hill, each crunch of a little red boot marked by an over-long pause.
She climbs, she sings, she plays “mama and baby” animals at every available opportunity. And she gets there. She is slow–often painfully slow. Barely a month into being three, this is the first winter she hasn’t been carried. The youngest walker on every hike, she’s always out with kids a year or two older than her–and always closer than you’d think to catching up.
Ahead of us, Katmai breaks through the snow crust–plunging thigh-deep into a gap between the bushes. “I’m stuck! And I lost my boot!”
Both comments were cheerily upbeat, mere announcements of his reality than cries for help. He wriggled himself out, fished his boot back out, put it on, and walked the rest of the way home. Laughing at her brother, Lituya forgot she was supposed to be pouting, and followed along behind him.
Three and five is still very small. But not too small to be competent outdoors people. Soon enough, I hope they’ll be leading me.