The minute we stepped out of the car, the cold bit thru our mittens and boots. It was minus six degrees, Mars glowed bright above the pines, and the snow glistened with moon-lit crystals in a meadow just north of the Never Summer Mountains. I plopped a pumpkin pie in my son’s hands, grabbed a duffel full of turkey dinner left-overs, and we trekked to a backcountry yurt.
By now our two boys are used to alternative holiday celebrations and remote get-aways. From the time they were tiny, my husband John and I decided that high on our list of parenting priorities was to get the kids out in the wild. We’ve encountered some challenging times in the backcountry. Once the kids spent several hours hunkered down under their ponchos through a pelting rain storm as we rafted the Green River; they’ve helped us pitch our tent in a surprise Labor Day snow storm after we backpacked to an alpine lake; they’ve paddled hard against headwinds that twirled our canoes around backwards through red rock canyons.
But these adventures have taught them lessons about preparation, resilience, and fortitude. They’ve instilled the idea that when we encounter difficult circumstances, our attitude can shape our experience; that creative thinking instead of complaint moves us forward; and that all we really need to stay warm, well-fed, and content for a few days can be stuffed inside a pack. Above all, these outings have shown them that our country is blessed with a fascinating array of mountains, deserts, prairies, forests, canyons, and sea shores — fragile gems of the natural world that beckon us to break out of our routine, stretch ourselves, and explore.
I believe that our kids need wild spaces and that wild spaces need our kids. The phrase “nature deficit disorder” hints at what happens when we deprive ourselves of intimate acquaintance with wilderness and the stillness, adventure, perspective, and beauty that it offers.
When they’re at home, our sons are normal teenagers — wrapped up in their gadgets. We’re always looking for ways to nudge them away from their screens and out the door. And once we’re hiking up a mountain trail or paddling down a river, they don’t seem to begrudge the fact that their electronic contraptions are left behind. In fact, I recognize a gradual calm overtake the whole family as we retreat from the hectic schedules and constant distractions of civilization and enter the wild. Open spaces become an oasis where we soak up the moment. And some of our best family moments have been together in some beautiful wild space: watching puffins dart from cliff walls towards our kayaks as we examined purple starfish clinging to rocks at low tide; slipping through the night on skiis, our headlamps lighting just enough of the forest trail; leaping from our canoe into cool river water and floating past sculpted sandstone.
Will these places remain whole and healthy for my grandchildren? I’m not sure. Now our boys relish our trips as much as John and I do, and I’m hoping that their continued explorations will nurture a connection to the natural world and a passion for saving it. More people, less space, political wrangling — they point towards an uncertain future for our public lands and the diversity of life that shares our planet. It will take more than a sense of moral urgency to preserve them. It will take a new generation of kids who will become the voice for these wild lands because they know and love them first-hand.