“What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation?”
— Marcus Tullius Cicero, over 2,000 years ago
In chatting with my kids a few years ago, we were talking about growing up in a paddling family. Some of the things we discussed were:
• How it was always easy to find our cars in parking lots. If you forgot you didn’t have a boat on top of the vehicle, it was confusing.
• They were puzzled by people who actually parked their cars inside their garages.
• They thought it was normal to have learned how to paddle before they could ride a bicycle.
• Their first word they learned to speak wasn’t “paddle,” but it was among their first hundred words for sure.
• Storing a kayak in the living room was normal as a graduate student.
• They learned they could sleep in a kayak with a blanket and a stack of books.
• Daddy dressed like a mudslide. Everything I wore was brown, green or brown-green. Grey was considered a stretch, referred to as “paddler camo.”
• They were happy about all of this and couldn’t imagine a different or better childhood.
Now I am fortunate, nay, blessed to have two of the greatest kids ever born on the face of the earth. They loved being outdoors from day one. As toddlers they asked for “some outside” like they asked for a cookie. So we dragged them all over creation, paddling in all sorts of crafts in all sorts of places. If it weren’t for that pesky job, we would have been nomads. My son is soon to be married to a woman who grew up outside too. Their kids are doomed to be happy.
Truly responsible parenting
My friend, Scott, took his four-year-old son on a weekend river trip a few years ago. It was the Petawawa River outside Algonquin Provincial Park in Eastern Ontario, a nice river with Class I to Class III rapids. They portaged around the big stuff, but Scott still took a raft of criticism from helicopter parents who deemed him irresponsible for subjecting his son to the dangers of wilderness river travel.
Now I’m struggling with a phrase here. That these people should “keep their opinions to themselves” is self evident. The one I want to use isn’t suitable for print in a family publication. Let’s just say that I disagree with their words, attitudes and penchant for using both at the same time.
Parenting, and indeed all mentoring, involves risk. I believe the risk of not taking kids paddling is far more impactful on their developing minds. PlayStation Pro? Mario Cart 8? Now that’s dangerous stuff.
Truth is, Scott was and is being a responsible parent. He is giving his son invaluable gifts.
Another one of my get-kids-out heroes is Jim. He doesn’t have kids, but he is an uncle to both biological nieces and nephews and a slew of adopted ones. Jim’s dad (another hero of mine; I have lots of them) got Jim out when he was a teen and took along a bunch of Jim’s friends too. I hope you’re seeing a pattern here.
The keys to happiness
Jim leads trips two or three times a year. He chooses locations based on the abilities of the children invited. He is meticulous about safety. And he is successful because of a few factors.
1) Comfortable children are happy children. A weekend with drizzle and a high of 50 is probably a good time to either pass on a trip or make sure the kids are completely outfitted with good quality gear. Putting a kid in a rain poncho because they’re cheaper might come back to haunt you.
2) Well-fed children are happy children. Being something of a gourmand (his wife, Cat, is a chef), Jim makes chocolate cakes and pizza in Dutch ovens. When a six year old sees the lid come off an oven and is hit in the face with the smell of brownies, that child has just experienced an epiphany: you need not compromise good food to be outside.
3) A properly-equipped child is a happy one. Jim keeps his eyes open for used gear and buys it so that his wards are properly attired and equipped. If he runs across a used river-runner kayak for $150, it’s added to his fleet. He has a large array of helmets in various sizes so a kid’s not flopping around inside an adult helmet. He has good gear. Not expensive or new, necessarily, but it’s all sound.
It may seem heretical to some purists, but Jim also has a heated pop-up camper complete with a refrigerator. This is a great tool, especially for the city mouse who hasn’t had the time in the woods yet and needs a buffer between walls and wilderness.
Consider a child who is cold and wet after running a section of, let’s say, the Bois Brule River. Fifteen minutes in a camper with a heater on and a cup of hot cocoa will revive the soggiest child and put them back in a marshmallow roasting mood. The child who has this sort of experience may do longer wilderness trips someday, but they never will go anywhere or do anything if they have a miserable experience.
Misery can prove epic in the retelling
And yet … I’m about to contradict myself a little. A youth group I once took on a trip complained the whole time about the food, the bugs, the weather and each other. I chalked the experience up as a dismal failure. Then I heard them talking to others after the trip. To hear them tell it, it was the best experience of their lives.
So if your kids are carping a little about the inconveniences of outside living, don’t be discouraged. The unpleasantness will fade and the story they come to tell about it will only grow into an epic adventure.
I’ll leave you with these words from Richard Louv, author of Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder: “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”
Be a Scott. Be a Jim. Share your passion with the next generation, even if they’re technically not “yours.” They all are. They are collectively ours.
Darren Bush is owner and chief evangelist of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin.