Nature, on Their Terms: Letting Kids Shape Their Own Relationships with the Outdoors
Seriously? You need to invent a whole new paddling style a half-hour into the trip? I look over my shoulder at Ethan, my nephew. He’s doing this weird stirring thing on the water, pretty much ensuring we’re not going anywhere but in circles. I’ve always heard that it’s a bad idea for couples to get tandem kayaks, but it didn’t occur to me when I rented ours that I’d be caught up in a grudge match with a wildly independent (and apparently imaginative) nine year old.
His sister’s ahead of us, trying to get a better look at the beaver lodge on the bank. A furry snout emerges from the water just twenty feet away from her own boat. “Give him some space, Lydia,” I say. She knows how to paddle. She backs up, then shrieks as the animal starts bee-lining for her. I’m on the edge of freaking out when it smacks its tail on the water and dives under. Soon, Lydia’s alongside us, grinning. “I’m SHOOK,” she says. She is, but she’s thrilled, too. I smile back, tell her she handled it well. I look at Ethan, and wonder if he’d even noticed that his sister could have cashed out at the ripe old age of twelve. Nope, he’s oblivious.
“Maybe keep clear of that area, Lyd,” I say. “Give him a little room. Our spot’s around that peninsula.” We continue on, my niece pulling ahead once more as her brother continues to be a sea anchor. When we get to the mouth of the inlet and I point out the beach where we’re camping, Ethan perks up.
“Can we set the crawdad traps here in the middle?” He’s already reaching for the stern deck.
“Let’s wait until after we set up camp. The hot dogs are in your sister’s boat, anyway.” Ethan looks crestfallen, but as we scootch up to the bank, he’s suddenly Mister Helpy Helperton. He hops out and grabs the bowline as I haul myself out of the kayak.
“Will this work?” He’s kicking a sun-bleached log well above the waterline, making sure it’s stable. I give him the thumbs-up and a smile, and he takes on the job of unpacking our gear.
Digging in at camp
This is a well-established campsite, so I fudge the 200-feet-from-the-water rule a bit and set up the tent above and several yards beyond the bank. Through a narrow strip of trees, a trail leads to a meadow on public land. Seventy paces from our campsite, I set down a five-gallon plastic tub containing a camping trowel, towelettes, sandwich baggies, hand sanitizer and a cheap battery-powered lantern. I’ve also stashed about a half-dozen glow-sticks in there; when the sun goes down, I’ll mark the trail for middle-of-the-night pit stops.
I call for the kids, and when they saunter up, I show them how to dig and use cat holes. Lydia squints at me. “We’re supposed to poop in there? Isn’t there a bathroom like where we parked the car?”
She’s horrified as I point to a patch of mullein (cowboy toilet paper) and tell her to collect a stash of the soft, fuzzy leaves. “There are wipes in the can, but we have to pack them out with our other trash,” I explain. “Try to pee either in the water, or well away from camp. Ethan, you can use your empty Gatorade bottle if you don’t want to leave the tent to pee tonight. Just practice first.”
“I’m not scared,” he says.
“I’m holding it until we get home,” she says.
“Good luck with that,” I say.
It’s barely after three; I’d planned a short paddle so the kids wouldn’t get burned out or overly tired. We set up the tent and packable camp chairs, and after passing out snacks I send Ethan off to gather firewood. I show Lydia how set up our fishing poles—simple wacky rigs with Senko worms for the best shot at success. Ethan dumps a pile of wood near the fire ring, and poo trowel in hand, he goes digging for worms in the side bank. Apparently, he wants to find his own bait.
I show Lydia how to operate the spinning reel, and after just two awkward casts she gets a strike. I coach her as she reels in a two-pound large mouth bass. She’s excited, and I try to get her to calm down and watch me remove the hook. “Too small to eat, but let’s get a picture.”
I have her dunk her hands in the water and hold the fish by its mouth. She’s not squeamish, and she’s clearly impressed with herself, but after we release it she hands me the pole. “Can I take my boat back out?” she asks. I shrug and tell her sure, as long as she wears her PFD and stays within shouting distance. In barely two minutes, she’s off. Beginner’s luck.
By this time Ethan has gathered a half-dozen fat nightcrawlers, but he has absolutely no interest in drowning them at the end of a line. Neither does he want to dunk the artificial worms. In fact, he’s decided to hunt for stonefly larvae and other aquatic insects among the rocks closer to the creek. I consider it for a moment, and decide it would be a bad idea to “borrow” his new pets to bait the crawdad traps. I cut up a hot dog and place it in the bait box, and call him over.
We set up the trap and indicator float in a likely spot near a submerged log about twenty yards down the shore and call Lydia in. She’d been rafted up in the Eurasian watermilfoil watching baby perch and other small fish dart around. She describes a “weasel” she’d seen among the tree roots on the opposite bank, and we conclude it had been a mink. “Like the coats?” she asks, incredulous. For her, the connection between a “real world” product and its living, breathing, wild counterpart seems to be a revelation, even though she knows where her cheeseburgers and chicken nuggets come from.
Ethan shows her his bug collection, and I wonder if his entomological curiosity might one day lead him to flyfishing. One can only hope.
We build a small fire, and Lydia retires to the tent to mess with her battered iPad while we wait for a good bed of coals. Ethan starts asking questions about what his dad was like as a kid, and I do my best to keep my answers relevant to the outdoors. I tell him about the rope swing we’d set up on this very lake, and I promise to show him where it was. I share a story about the time he forgot the oars, and how we got stranded when the prop fell off our aluminum skiff’s outboard motor. I don’t tell him about how we’d take the boat out and meet up with other vacation home kids here at this very spot to drink our parents’ stolen beer.
It’s getting chilly, so I dig out everyone’s fleecy sweatshirts and coats, and grab my own lightweight down jacket. After setting a portable grill on the fire and setting a pot of beans and weenies to cook, I hang the chem lights along the path. On my way back, I encounter Lydia heading to the bathroom area.
“You okay on your own?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
I can tell she’s trying to be brave, but I sense she’d ask me to come with her if she really wanted me to. Earlier, she’d peed outside for the first time in her life (I know, right? My brother’s kid?) and I swear she regarded the moment as a milestone. So I take her at her word and return to camp.
Ethan is holding vigil over dinner, and he lets me know he’s stirred it exactly three times. I nod approvingly and get our paper bowls and some camping sporks together. We brought our own water, and I’m mixing up some hot cocoa when a chorus of coyotes begins singing from up the creek. Not too close, but probably close enough for poor Lydia, who comes crashing through the treeline. She stops and does her best to compose herself; she’s pale as a ghost. This time, it’s Ethan who calmly asks, “You okay?”
“Yeah… Um, it’s fine, I was done already.”
“So… you’re not shook?” I ask.
She shrugs and gives a small, embarrassed smile. “I’m good.” The coyotes start up again, and the kids seemed more enthralled than nervous. We eat our dinner in silence, listening.
It was too overcast to see the stars, and everyone was wiped out so we’d gone to bed early. In the morning, I wake up to find Ethan peering into his makeshift aquarium—made from half of the Gatorade bottle intended as his pee container, of course. When he sees me climbing out of the tent, he puts down his pets and jumps up. “Can we check on the crawdad trap?”
“Yeah in a minute… let’s wait for your sister.” Translation: Let me make myself a cup of instant Starbucks first, Kiddo. I’d wiped and washed the pot the night before, and rather than start a new fire I set up my backpacking stove. I ask Ethan about his bugs, and if he knows what kind they are. He’d made up names for his “discovered” species, and I don’t correct him. I’d already made a mental note to send him an illustrated pocket guide for identifying nymphs from my flyfishing gear.
It’s not long before Lydia joins us. She’s sleepy, but excited to get back in her kayak. I have my morning Joe, and she and I follow Ethan to the fallen log where he pulls up the trap, and completely loses his mind—it’s stuffed with about three dozen orangeish-red crawdads. Lydia catches on to the excitement, and as I carry our haul back to camp Ethan asks what we’re going to do with them.
“Eat them,” I say, in my best “duh” voice.
They both stand stock still, staring at the wriggling mass of ten-legged critters. Ethan makes a small squeak. His sister asks, “How?”
I boil up some more water, and dunk them in. Ethan grimaces in sympathy. I feel a little bad, too, but I’m more surprised he doesn’t ask to take a live one home with him. In a few minutes the mud bugs are ready for cleaning and I show the kids how, letting them each have a tail. They’re reluctant at first, but I know they’re both huge fans of shrimp scampi. “You want me to scramble some up with some eggs?” I ask, but it’s pretty clear they’re happy to peel the shells and chow them down as they are. I feel a stirring of pride.
For rest of the morning we occupy ourselves with rock-skipping, swimming, paddling, and a few more casts for bass. I caught one, and I’m perfectly OK with Lydia bragging about hers being twice the size. Her brother, possibly inspired by his crawdad haul, doesn’t; it’s no shock since his signature technique involves dunking a spoon lure in a foot of water, and just leaving it there.
After a short hike, we pack up our stuff, free Ethan’s captives (he suggests it before I do), and after poking around along the shore, finding a new rope swing where ours had been, and getting walloped by Lydia in sprint races, we haul out at the public ramp. The kids wipe down the boats, and I load them onto the roof of my battered Outback. In twenty minutes, we’re at the local diner; both kids are thrilled to have internet access, and they immediately return to their so-called “natural” habitat.
“They better be dirty when you bring them back,” their Dad says when I call to check in.
“Filthy,” I assure him, although upon inspection, they’re both in pretty good shape.
I’ve always remembered myself being an outdoorsy kid from the beginning—always baiting my own hook, always following instructions and taking my dad’s advice. But after an honest look back at my memories, I realize that I, too, had to do things my own way and figure things out for myself. I made up my own ridiculous fishing knots, ignoring my dad’s careful lessons because of course I knew better than a former Naval officer. I probably spent as much time in my tent reading books or drawing as I had spent taking out the skiff to explore, but it was those summers on the water I remembered; not being a bookworm on a sunny day.
But I had the option, and for the most part, my dad let my brother and I engage with the outside world on our own terms. They made the introductions, and let us build our own relationships with fishing, hunting, hiking, and bug collecting. So as Lydia, Ethan, and I head back to the city, I forgive myself—and them—for failing to follow the script I’d written for our first camping trip together. They’ll edit their own memories, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be good ones.