“Kids are natural born adventurers, just itching to get outside. Open the door and follow them out.” —from the Foreword by Mark Jenkins, author of The Hard Way
There’s nothing tame about being a parent!
Are you eager to set off with your family into the great outdoors, where wild weather, rugged roads, and creepy critters sometimes call the shots? The families in this rough-and-ready collection of true stories do just that. Whether they are just starting on the path of wild parenting or looking back at the trail taken, they don’t accept Disneyland as the final frontier.
Join them for adventures that range from braving a mountaintop windstorm to exploring underground. Shoulder your pack, take your child’s hand, and get ready to forge family ties under wild open skies.
- Strike out into the Wyoming winter with Mark Jenkins, whose idea of quality kid time is snow camping
- Share Leslie Leyland Fields’s deep gratitude as her brood safely migrates to an Alaskan island by bush plane
- Awaken to the wonder of an unborn child with Maleesha Speer in Montana’s wild bear country
- Remember that patience is a virtue as you set out on a hunt with Daniel and his dad, John Felsher, in Louisiana
- Discover secret depths inside the walls of the Grand Canyon with Michael Quinn Patton and his son…and much more
Includes a Foreword by Mark Jenkins, author of The Hard Way
by Jennifer Bové
Bright sky and towering treetops reflected in the stormy blue of my baby boy’s eyes, and I wondered how the world looked to him. To me, it was sublime: my son cradled on my lap and miles of forest surrounding us in every direction. At four days old, there’s no way I would have exposed him to any public setting where people would sneeze, cough, and reach out to touch him. But even as fresh as he was, I felt entirely comfortable having him there, amid that sacred ground, where giant firs and clear river water offered respite on a hot July day, and ripe berries dotted lush green bushes like jewels.
As I wrapped Sam in his soft cloth sling and secured him against my chest, I could hear my daughters’ chattering and laughter as they bobbed through the brush with their grandmother. Big Daddy was already off filling his bucket in earnest, hoping to bring home gallons of huckleberries for the freezer and determined to do it all on his own if he had to. For a moment, I could only stand still and breathe it in, the peace of the place and my people. Huckleberry picking, we’ve found, soothes some feral part of this family that paces its cage as we go through the motions of “normal” life. The simple act of wandering and harvesting food directly from its source reconciles us with our wild roots. The kids can scramble around for hours, playing or picking and nibbling with abandon, and at the end of the day they’re purple-stained forest critters, calm and unburdened, with just enough energy left to catch a quick river swim before exhaustion drags them down for naps. On those days, the calluses of more civilized obligations are stripped away, and our sensitivity of spirit is renewed.
I doubt our son will ever have any conscious remembrance of his fourth day, nursing amid a halo of huckleberries or dipping his tiny toes into the glacial spill of the Cle Elum River, but I know that these things are part of who he is, just as they are a part of his father, his sisters, and me. And I hope that by sowing our kids in wild country, they will internalize not only a love for nature but also the instinct to seek comfort in its fold. After all, it is their source, their mother before me.
* * *
People who love the wilderness, who get out into it and get dirty and sweaty and feel they are better for it, are drawn to it for life. It isn’t a whim that fades with age or evolves into a placid acceptance of interior spaces. It’s a blessing, and maybe a little bit of a curse, because it takes hold of you when you’ve been inside too long and yanks you by the gut, burns in your veins till you give in and get outside. If you shun it, you shun the very essence of who you are.
But even the intrepid sometimes succumb to the other undeniable force of nature: reproduction. Whether it’s the biological clock nipping at our heels, hankering, or happenstance, it befalls a good number of us. It happened to me, despite an almost manic resolution that it never would, and I admittedly had a hard time getting used to the idea. After the ready-or-not blow of finding out I was pregnant, I was awfully glad I had nine months to ruminate about me the outdoorswoman coming to grips with me the parent. Much to my bewilderment, those infamous nesting hormones kept compelling me toward the vacuum cleaner on perfectly sunny November days. And I had to shake my head once in a while to rid it of the wrestling match between soft, cuddly baby buntings and boots caked in mountain mud. How could I have both?
I don’t think I really understood the silliness of my internal struggle until after my first child was born, at which point I realized that she had no inherent interest in keeping me locked up indoors. This curious little newborn person was happy to be bundled up in a cozy wrap and packed right out into a cold winter day, curling quietly against my body as I walked wherever I wanted, until my toes complained of cold inside my beloved boots. Back home, when I’d unwrap her, she’d look up at me calmly with pink cheeks to show for our outing, and I knew that we were going to get along just fine.
* * *
When I set out to gather stories for Wild with Child, I was excited to meet so many other men and women like me who are bound by a mutual rope as they rappel the rock face of parenthood. In our own ways, we are reshaping the ancestral art of raising outdoor children because we enjoy being out there so much ourselves. We want to teach our offspring about nature and our own wild tendencies, and we enjoy learning from the fresh, bright-eyed perspectives of these small savants. But many of us also felt some degree of trepidation when faced with the prospect of modifying our lifestyles to include youngsters. Would we have to become so slow and safe that heading out into rugged country wouldn’t even be worth the effort? The answer comes back to the simple fact that the yen for wilderness will not be ignored. Like I said, no matter how many doors you close, it finds you and beckons you back. So, even though few aspects of parenting are easy—and getting outdoors is certainly no exception—there just isn’t any other option.
Whether just beginning the course or looking back at the trail they’ve taken, the writers in this book aren’t willing to accept Disneyland as the final frontier. Even the most civilized among them insist that their children grow up feeling grass between their toes and sun on their skin. It is a healthy heritage; it gives kids a steady set of bearings, makes them strong. Through trial and error, these parents have figured out that kids will rise to challenges with valor and vigor, and will thrive on time spent out of the house. The bottom line: there just isn’t any sense in staying cooped up inside once you’ve got nestlings in tow.
* * *
On the trek you’re about to take through this book, you’ll explore the diverse terrain of wild parenting, experiencing joys, trials, and triumphs along the way. You may want to bundle up, though, before you strike out into the Rocky Mountains with Mark Jenkins, whose idea of quality kid time is camping in a snow cave. Along for the ride with Karen Fisher and family, you’ll discover for better or worse that off-road family expeditions don’t always turn out as planned. You’ll also share Leslie Leyland Fields’ deep gratitude as her brood safely migrates to an Alaskan island by bush plane, and remember that a bonding experience is worth a bit of risk when you take to the river with Fred Bahnson and his boy. Maleesha Speer confides her personal evolution as she awakens to the wonder of her unborn child in bear country; Diane Selkirk’s daughter will wrap you around her little finger, convincing you that the delight is in the details; and Ana Rasmussen will lead you up the trunk of a giant pine tree in search of a sense of connection with her nearly grown son.
That, my friends, is just a taste of the adventures waiting in Wild with Child. If I gave it all away now, I’d spoil the fun. Suffice to say that if you’re an active outdoor mom or dad, you’ll find acres of common ground among these parents. On the other hand, if you’re struggling with the idea of leading your kids beyond the front door, you can certainly save yourself some scrapes and bruises by experiencing how others have done it. You’re sure to laugh, shudder, shake your head, and sigh—and by the time you’ve finished the book, you’ll feel as if the authors are old friends, even family. Adventure has a way of bringing people together—sometimes the tougher the experience, the tighter the bond. So be brave, shoulder your pack, and take hold of your child’s hand. There are wonders waiting and memories to be made. And I’ll bet you a bunch of batteries and matches and chocolate bars that you’ll agree when I tell you that it’s all worth it in the end.
Calico Rock, Arkansas
Into the Wildby Mark Jenkins
Teal is frying salami in our snowcave, as is the tradition, the primal aroma curling through the small, icy enclosure. Fried salami is her “invention.” Three or four years ago, in another snowcave, she inexplicably wanted bacon for breakfast and being a good dad I’d packed only oatmeal.
“Oatmeal tastes like cardboard,” she said, whereupon she crawled out of her sleeping bag, dug through the food, fished out a package of lunch salami and insisted I teach her how to light the little stove. She was seven years old and already a confirmed vegetarian, except during camping trips. We’ve had fried salami for breakfast ever since.
Teal, eleven, and her sister Addi, thirteen, have been winter camping since they were toddlers. And not just with me; Sue, my wife, has taken them on numerous all-girl, no-boys-allowed winter excursions. Having done two expeditions a year for a quarter century—the Andes to the Arctic, the Himalayas to the Hindu Kush, making a living from writing about these journeys—I want them to experience the joy of becoming competent campers. Every spring, when the days are long and warm and pleasantly unwinterlike, we ski up into the Rockies, burrow out a snowcave, and camp. There is no agenda. Once we spent the better part of a brilliantly sunny day following marmot tracks around in the snow. Another time we played cards for hours—Rummy, Speed, McGivers, Go Fish—while an unexpected blizzard howled above us.
Here’s a fact seemingly forgotten in our wired-wimpy-shopping-mall world: kids are natural little outdoor people. It is we, the adults, that turn them into indoor people. If you don’t get off your computer, why should they?
Being a parent (read: know-it-all) it has taken my daughters their entire lives to teach me the five basic tricks to taking kids into the wild.
One: get organized. If it takes you more than three hours to get out the door your kids will be moaning, the initial passion will have passed, and you’ll never go. Both my girls have an outdoor dresser in the basement stuffed with their own gear—backpack, sleeping bag, headlamp, survival kit, etc. Divide duties. One adult do the food, one do the camping gear, kids do their own personal accoutrement, clothes to compass (Dad’s rule in our household: only one stuffed animal per girl).
Two: give your kids responsibility. Once outside, let them lead, who cares if you get lost; it might be the best trip you ever have. Let them choose where to pitch the tent and figure out how to put it up. Let them cook, what’s a singed finger or two? Stop telling them what to do. If they want to wear shorts and get eaten alive by mosquitoes, let ’em. Far as I can tell, one of the biggest mistakes we’re making in our urban existence is not letting kids make mistakes. The great outdoors is a fine place to give them the chance to make meaningful decisions, screw up, re-evaluate.
Three: stop worrying about whether they can handle it. You want the truth? Your kid is hardier than you are. I remember Addi, at age eight, making three portages with packs better than half her weight on a weeklong Boundary Waters canoe trip. Why? Because Sue explained that the best swimming hole on the planet was at the next lake. And, because we stopped and spent the rest of the afternoon there, it was. Kids are tough. Ever witness a child take a bad digger on the playground? Without adults around, he’ll get up, consider crying, but go back to playing instead.
(One caveat: there are trips I will not take children on, namely all those in which there are too many dangers out of my control. Class III or better whitewater, high altitude peaks, high avalanche-prone terrain, that sort of thing. You can’t control nature, but you can choose your wilderness wisely.)
Four: fun. Forget your boring, goal-oriented adult approach. Kids just wanna have fun. So let them. No death marches to reach the next camp. Get sidetracked. “Waste” an hour with your nose two inches from a mountain tarn watching tadpoles. Catch a few. Play games. My girls love treasure hunts. I’ll set up a little course where they have to take compass bearings to each new clue. Ever notice that when a child is having fun, she doesn’t get cold or hungry or tired? The moment the fun stops, the whining starts.
A most important corollary to fun, is friends. One kid in the mountains with two adults is disaster. Let them bring a friend or two, you’ll thank God you did.
Finally, five: let them be wild. Gleefully throw out the rules we all live by in civilized society. I distinctly remember a marshmallow-roasting contest that got totally out-of-hand and both girls ended up with gooey smears of blackened marshmallow in their hair. (Kids adore dirt. Besides, cleanliness is a modern fetish. If they don’t get dirty camping, you’re doing something wrong.) Or the time we played chase around a small set of cliffs and pretty soon they were jumping off rocks ten feet high. Just short of injury, let ’em go. Hell, if you can’t go wild in the wilds, where can you?
Kids are natural born adventurers. Inside every one of them is Huck Finn, just itching to get outside. Open the door and follow them out.
* * *Formerly “The Hard Way” columnist for
Outside magazine, Mark Jenkins is currently a field staff writer for
National Geographic magazine. His work has appeared in
The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, GQ, Playboy, Men’s Health, and dozens of other publications. His books are:
Off the Map, To Timbuktu, The Hard Way, and
A Man’s Life.
Foreword: Into the Wild
Uphill Infinity and the Chocolate Chip Cookies
The Tender Groin of the Land
Bobble Your Stopper and Wiggle Your Piminnow
A Place Among Elk
The Facts of Life
Leslie Leyland Fields
The Gift of Artemis
Durga Yael Bernhard
We’ll Do Whitney, Right?
Quality Time Below Ground
I Want My Duckies Back
A Windstorm on the Continental Divide
The Bears Will Eat You
From the Mouths of Babes
Surviving Scout Camp
Cindy La Ferle
Hunting with Daniel
John N. Felsher
Close to Home
Amy Lou Jenkins
The Reluctant Adventurer
Learning to Surf
The Adventures of John One-Eye
The Real Abyss
Michael Quinn Patton
Into the Woods
We Should Have Stayed Home
Climbing Trees with My Baby
Resources for Outdoor Families
About the Editor
Uphill Infinity and the Chocolate Chip Cookies
by Betsy Kepes
When the trail gets tough, there’s nothing like cookies to pull you through.
In my head I am a cartoon woman. My two-dimensional silhouette has a long braid and carries a toddler in a backpack. Ahead is a steeply uptilted line with an arrow that says “Infinity.” This then is misery, hiking uphill forever with an active two-year-old on my back.
“Mom, tell me another story!” Jay jumps up and down in anticipation and the straps of his backpack dig into my shoulders. He seems to have gained ten pounds since breakfast.
“Jay, I’m carrying you up a big mountain and I’m too tired to tell more stories. Why don’t you play with your Matchbox truck?” I pull a miniature red pickup truck out of the voluminous fanny pack that I’ve reversed into a belly bag. A small hand appears at my shoulder to receive the toy and, for the moment, Jay’s bouncing stops.
It’s been fifteen years since I’ve hiked this trail in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and in that time it’s grown longer and steeper. The switchbacks curve up and up, biting into the massive mountainside above us. Somewhere up ahead is Freeman Ridge, but it will be hours yet before we get there.
* * *
This wilderness traverse had seemed like a great idea when Tom and I and the boys were still in our fire lookout tower, packing up for the end of the season. We needed to get to the Bitterroot Valley and rather than finding a ride we’d begin on the Selway River in Idaho and hike the fifty-seven miles to the other side of the wilderness in Montana. It would be our grand finale family trip after a summer of shorter weekend hikes. Lee, who had just turned ten, was an enthusiastic hiker with strong legs and it would be wonderful to show him the area where Tom and I had worked on a trail crew years before he was born. Little Jay had recently discovered the joys of small cars and trucks and he would love playing on the white sand beaches along the Selway.
Yet even in the midst of my excitement over the trip I felt a bit of misgiving. We had only four days to do the traverse and because we had finished our work for the Forest Service, we’d have to turn in our portable two-way radio. We’d be backpacking long distances through one of the wildest places in the Lower 48 with a ten-year-old, a two-year-old, and absolutely no way to call for help. “We’ll be careful,” I assured myself as I stood in our airy lookout house and baked an enormous batch of cookies, using the last of our margarine, sugar, and chocolate chips.
* * *
“Ouch! Jay, don’t pull my hair.” Jay yanks his tiny pickup truck from my head, pulling my hair again. He’s been driving the truck up and down my back and shoulders and narrating his play with nonstop verbal pretend. Jay, who didn’t say a word until age two, is now, six months later, a loquacious conversationalist. As much as I am pleased he’s overcome his early reluctance to talk, I wish he’d learn to keep a few thoughts to himself. After all, his mouth is right behind my ears.
“Tell a story! Tell a story, please, Mom!”
Do I have any stories left in me? This is the third day of our trip and to keep Jay entertained I’ve been talking until I’m hoarse. We’ve stayed on schedule though, hiking in two days the twenty-six miles along the spectacular Selway River trail to the interior Moose Creek Ranger Station. Tom carries an enormous Kelty frame pack stuffed with most of our camping gear and food. Lee bounces along under a kids’ pack heavy with cookies and other sweets, a portable snack bar. He is proud to be carrying the most delicious portion of our food for the trip.
“Jay, stop that!” I swing around, as if somehow my pack won’t go with me. “You do not pinch people! No stories for boys who pinch.”
My anger propels me up the next stretch of trail, and Jay is quiet. The silence that I had wanted so desperately now makes me feel uneasy. I am teaching my son to hate backpacking. He’ll never want to take a wilderness journey again.
“Oh, Jay, look!” Ahead of us a dark fuzzy animal sits in the trail, a black bear cub. Confused, it whines softly then climbs a small tree.
I look around for its mother while slowly stepping past the tree, turning so Jay can have a good look at the cub. I don’t take a full breath until we’re a quarter-mile up the trail. Mama Bear will know now that I don’t intend to harm her offspring.
Jay hasn’t said anything since the pinching incident. Now he reaches forward, pats my cheek, and says in his gravelly little boy voice, “This is really fun, Mom.”
* * *
Around the next corner we find Tom and Lee taking a break. Lee lies on his back in the middle of the trail, his arm draped across his forehead.
“Is Lee sleeping?” Jay asks, pushing himself up on my shoulders to get a better look.
“No. He’s just being dramatic,” Tom answers and I can hear the frustration in his voice. I bet I can persuade him to swap sons. “He thinks this mountain is too tall.”
“I am so tired.” Lee sits up quickly. “Can we have our cookies now?”
I look at my watch—9 a.m. Before dawn we left the porch of the empty ranger’s cabin at Moose Creek and shuffled carefully along the trail in the dark, trying to avoid tripping on roots and rocks. Jay snuggled against my back, his body warm in a thick wool poncho. After the new pink of dawn we sat on an open slope to eat breakfast and said goodbye to the Selway River far below us. This is our most ambitious day of backpacking—a 5,000-foot climb to the ridge, then eight more miles to our destination, Indian Lake. If we don’t keep moving we’ll never make it by dark.
“Put me down, Mom. I want to play with Lee.”
“O.K., but this is a short stop, you two.” I feel like an evil prison warden, reluctantly doling out a few minutes of recreation time.
After a couple of greasy chocolate chip cookies the boys are running around on the trail, completely revived. Tom and I sit watching and resting. I need this break too, but I glance at my watch nervously. We have so many more miles to go.
I carry Tom’s big pack on the next section of trail. It is heavier than my pack with Jay but it doesn’t squirm or talk. It’s too big for me and I have to walk with my hands cupped around the bottom of the frame, heaving the pack up now and then so the hip belt doesn’t sink down to my thighs. Still, it doesn’t yell in my ear, pinch me, or tangle trucks in my hair.
By lunchtime we’ve made it almost to the top of the ridge and in the afternoon we hike long miles through a recent burn where jagged blackened tree trunks and a vigorous growth of weeds have replaced the forests we remembered. Jay listens carefully to Tom’s stories while Lee and I, walking ahead and out of earshot, have our own, more sophisticated, conversation.
After miles and miles of ridge walking past spindly subalpine fir and lumpy meadows of beargrass, we arrive at the site of the old Freeman Lookout. Lee and I explore the ruins, poking through melted window glass, copper wire, rusty nails, and a metal box that once held the phone equipment lookouts used before radios. Tom sits perched on a rock, carefully leaning the kid carrier pack against a boulder, trying not to disturb Jay from his afternoon nap, the only time of day that our toddler is quiet.
We didn’t have much of a fire season on our lookout. Whenever we saw thunderstorms, they fizzled out before they reached our district. But now, as we leave the old lookout site we see an active storm cell approaching and this one doesn’t dissipate. From the dark swirl of cloud, lightning flashes and the thunder is so loud it hurts my ears. I flinch as down-strikes start new fires less than a mile away from us; we can see burning trees on a nearby ridge. We must get off this exposed section of trail.
I begin an awkward jog, the giant pack bending me forward at the waist. “Lee! Tom! Move as fast as you can but don’t walk together!” In my panicked reasoning it seems that if we space ourselves along the trail, some of us will survive a direct hit. I don’t want to follow that thought out to its conclusion—if Tom or I are struck we have no one left to run for help, no radio, no phone and it’s a two-day walk to the nearest road. My heart is racing and it feels as if pure adrenaline is flowing in my veins.
Lee stops and I almost run into him. He turns around with a wide grin and says, “Wow, look at that cloud! Doesn’t it look like a tornado?”
I have to admit that it does, though my reaction isn’t as gleeful. “Keep moving, Lee! Keep moving!”
Just what we need, central Idaho’s first mountain tornado. Fortunately it is only a trick of the late afternoon light. Unfortunately, the not-a-tornado cloud is filled with cold rain. It pulses down in sheets of water. We have only a few miles to go to get to Indian Lake so we push on, heads down. When we scramble off the ridge I remind myself to be grateful—we made it off the ridge with no one electrocuted—but as the rain runs down my neck it is difficult to be thankful for much.
The last couple of miles are of the infinity type, an endless up and down on muddy trail through the soggy grasslands of Horsefly Meadows and up and over a small ridge. My legs are so tired they are quivering with fatigue. Amazingly, Jay keeps on with his nap, oblivious to the deafening thunder and icy rain, with his poncho and raincoat draped over his relaxed body. And Lee actually picks up his pace, a small sturdy workhorse heading for the barn.
After fourteen hours on the trail, we hike into the Indian Lake basin. As we arrive Jay wakes up and realizes he is wet and cold and hungry and lets loose with giant sobs. Tom tries to comfort him while we look around for a campsite. In a hurry, we make do with a bumpy hollow in a landscape of burned trees. My hands are shaking from cold, exhaustion, and worry as I thud my giant backpack against a tree and stretch my aching shoulders.
“Cookies, Lee. We need the cookies.”
The four of us sit on a log, soaked and shivering, each of us gobbling a big chocolate chip cookie. I can almost feel the sugar calories flowing into my bloodstream.
“O.K.” I jump up off the log. “Lee, strip off all your wet clothes, put on long johns, wool hat, everything warm left in your pack. Tom, I’ll get Jay dry if you get the tent up.”
From the bottom of our packs we pull out our emergency bags of clothes, clothes we haven’t needed on our other, warmer and drier, summer trips. Lee, his wet hair plastered over his eyes, holds his bag like a precious treasure and muses, “Now I see why you made me carry this around all summer!”
In the last bit of daylight we crawl into the tent and smile at the luxury of warm, dry sleeping bags. Jay, who loves our nylon playroom, bounces around, giggling and climbing up the mountains made by our bent knees. Lee wants to hear more of our read-aloud but, exhausted by the long day, he falls asleep before Tom finishes the first page.
It takes longer for Jay to settle down. I let him draw in my journal and Tom plays Hide-and-Seek with Jay’s little stuffed monkey, a wise simian who speaks in a high squeaky voice and who suggests numerous times that Jay snuggle quietly into his spot in the sleeping bag.
Finally Jay closes his eyes. Tom is asleep beside him, the little monkey still held in his hand. I turn off my headlamp and through the tent screen I can see stars. For our last full day on the trail we’ll have clear weather. The route will be long, but not as uphill. No doubt we’ll have difficult moments, but we’ll also find time to go for a swim in Wahoo Creek and admire the beauty of this rugged country. The boys will make sure we stop for enough breaks, and tucked in Lee’s pack is one last bag of cookies.
I pull the sleeping bag up around Jay’s small shoulders, inhale a slow and full breath, and let it out in a long, satisfied sigh.
* * *Betsy Kepes lives in the northern Adirondack Mountains of New York during the school year and works as a piano teacher and freelance writer. In the summer she and her family migrate to Idaho where they become a wilderness trail crew and forest fire lookouts. In her spare moments she runs marathons, writes children’s books, and does historical research and re-enactments.
Jennifer Bové set out into the uncharted territory of motherhood nine years ago and has since covered a lot of ground with her family of five. They’ve moved cross-country three times, always finding their way to wild places. Whether they are elk hunting, berry picking, or splashing in a secret swimming hole somewhere, the Bové clan thrives on outdoor adventure.
When she’s indoors, Jennifer writes for MaryJanesFarm magazine and is an award-winning contributor to Your Big Backyard. She is the editor of two other anthologies, The Back Road to Crazy and A Mile in Her Boots.
After living in the wilds of Washington, Montana, and Missouri, this former field biologist and her family have nestled into a remarkably remote expanse of woods near Calico Rock, Arkansas.
Stop by for a visit at www.bovesboots.blogspot.com.