The rewards from introducing kids to the wilderness

Standing on the bank of the Middle Fork Salmon River, deep in the second-largest wilderness area in the Lower 48, Idaho’s Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, my 14-year-old son, Nate, and I look down at the foaming roar of Marble Creek Rapid. It’s the first big whitewater of our six-day float down one of the world’s premier wild rivers.

Matt, one of our guides, points to the first hole in the rapid, a recirculating wave where the river takes a sharp right turn. “I’ve seen that hole keep kayaks,” he warns us. I recall the times I’ve bounced a kayak off boulders and canyon walls because I didn’t hit the right line through a rapid. But I’m most concerned, of course, for the safety of my son, who has been kayaking a mere two years.

I ask Nate, “What do you think, buddy?”

His answer doesn’t surprise me. He’s 14, after all — an age when many of us possess too much confidence and not enough experience, judgment or fear. “Let’s do it,” he responds.

It’s one of those many moments in parenting — like letting your child ride his bike around town unsupervised or take a car out at night — when we ask ourselves, “Is he (or she) ready for this?” But unlike those civilization-based hazards, Marble Creek Rapid represents yet another wilderness danger into which I’ve willingly led my children, buoyed by the ardent, if sometimes stressful, belief that this is somehow good for them.

The line through the rapid looks like a maneuver Nate and I can both manage. So I give Nate a nod of agreement.

Matt runs Marble first — the four kids in his raft, including my 12-year-old daughter, Alex, screeching with delight as waves crash over its bow — and waits below in case anyone swims involuntarily. But every boat in our flotilla of rafts and kayaks follows flawlessly. In his kayak, Nate paddles hard, his face focused, nailing the line and throwing his arms overhead in celebration at the bottom. “Yea, buddy!” I call to him.

“Yea, I got it!” he says, with an ear-to-ear grin.

Moments like these motivate me to frequently take our kids into the wild. I don’t delude myself about the risks of my kids climbing, whitewater kayaking, backcountry skiing or even “just” backpacking. I’ve seen the worst that can happen out there. Like any parent, I worry about my kids’ safety — but my anxieties are compounded by my personal responsibility for placing them in circumstances where bad things occasionally happen.

I do this because getting young people outdoors — whether it’s a high-adventure backpacking trip or a low-key campout — helps boost kids’ development and confidence and strengthen family bonds. I’ve seen that firsthand in my own children.

Best of all: They love it.

A Generation Indoors 

I was a decade into a career as an outdoor writer when I became a father at 39, and my wife and I had built a lifestyle around outdoor adventures. We assumed we’d raise children who loved the outdoors as much as we do. Not until our son and daughter started getting a little older did I grasp the enormity of our goal: We were trying to raise outdoors-loving kids from the most electronically connected generation in history.

This struggle is not unique to parents. Scout leaders face the challenge of competing with technology during every outing, meeting or service project. Like my own children, now 16 and 14, young people today live in two worlds: nature and the walled-in, plugged-in, touchscreen modern world. Despite all their wilderness creds, our kids spend much of their time indoors. They text and play with friends who are on computers or smartphones in their own homes.

The landscape of childhood has seen tectonic changes since my generation navigated it. By the time children today reach junior high school, many phase out of almost all outdoor activity. For most, the games that kept my peers and me outside and physically active have been replaced by electronic entertainment that keeps them inside and inactive. If I tell my teenagers to go outside, they look at me as if I’ve suggested they go live in a hollowed-out log and subsist on grubs.

In the early 2000s, author Richard Louv coined a phrase for this phenomenon: nature-deficit disorder.

Children ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven hours a day on electronic screens — and, by using multiple devices simultaneously, they actually cram nearly 11 hours of media consumption into those seven hours, according to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study. Anyone with an internet connection can read reams of material demonstrating why too much screen time is unhealthy for kids.

For many of their generation, the specter of being disconnected poses a significant psychological obstacle to getting out in nature.

In 2016, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis told National Geographic magazine, “Young people are more separated from the natural world than perhaps any generation before them.” While national parks have seen record numbers of visitors three years in a row — with 325 million in 2016 — those people are mostly baby boomers. The number of people younger than 15 going to national parks has fallen by half in recent years.

I believe there’s a better way.

Risks vs. Rewards

In spite of a deep understanding of the inherent risks, I continue to take my kids wilderness backpacking, rock and mountain climbing, whitewater kayaking and rafting, and backcountry skiing. The reasons for that derive from personal parenting values rooted in a growing body of research that demonstrates what many of us know intuitively: Being in nature makes us physically and emotionally healthier.

For instance, University of Utah cognitive psychologist David Strayer found that a group of Outward Bound participants performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking. His explanation: Immersion in nature somehow gives the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s overtaxed command center, a much-needed break.

Even if your pre-kid résumé lacks outdoor adventure, there are ways you and your family can emphasize the outdoors in your day-to-day lives. Whether it’s a walk around the neighborhood after dinner, a visit to an urban garden, taking a road trip to your  closest state park for cabin camping — these are all outdoor experiences that help kids unplug. As a Scouting parent, the Scouting programs available to your kids serve as a gateway to learning many outdoor skills, preparedness and so much more.

Yet the outdoors poses hazards. Risk is like pine sap on clothing — no matter what you do, you can never eliminate it completely. As parents and members of the Scouting community, we all feel the enormity of responsibility to keep young people safe in the outdoors. And we can all strive to mitigate these risks with skills training, emergency preparedness and our own expertise.

But personal experience has convinced me of this: If we’re going to get today’s kids outdoors, we parents and adult leaders have to take them there — and since we, not kids, are the people who created this modern, constantly connected world and all its electronic devices and games, we kind of owe this much to our children.

In other words, we must offer them something even better than their devices and games. From what I’ve seen, the outdoors can be that something.

Mutually Rewarding

On a late afternoon at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve, Nate, now 16, and I stand at the base of a 150-foot cliff. Nate decides to take the “sharp end” of the rope for this one — he’ll lead it and then belay me up, a reversal of the order we’ve largely followed since I first took him rock climbing when he was younger. I watch him scale the granite wall calmly and capably, knowing that he’s lost in that head-clearing, singular focus of mind and body that climbing has given me for more than 25 years.

At the top, we share a small ledge, looking around. The City of Rocks sprawls out before us, hundreds of granite monoliths towering over high-desert sagebrush hillsides and creek-bottom forests of conifers and aspen trees. It’s breathtaking.

Then Nate says to me, “It’s great that we can do these things together now — come out here just the two of us and climb routes like this.” And I wonder: How many teenagers say that to their parents?

I’ve seen the self-confidence and sense of independence my kids have gleaned from enduring a cold rainstorm while carrying their own backpack for miles, scaling a sheer rock face they thought looked insurmountable, and climbing a mountaineering route to the summit of the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. I’ve seen their expressions of wonder gazing at a boulder plastered with mussels, sea anemones and sea stars on the coast of Olympic National Park. Experiences like this stimulate curiosity (something I’ve never seen result from an online game).

Like many Scouting leaders, I’ve also seen how my kids draw life lessons from what we do outdoors — learning how to manage risk and, hopefully, make sensible decisions when it comes to the sorts of hazards young people too often view blithely, like alcohol, drugs, sex and cars.

More simply, though, there’s no analog in civilization for the time my family spends together in the backcountry, when we’re all disconnected from our electronics. We talk to each other. We tell stories. We laugh.

Probably like most families, spending hours a day talking almost never happens in the “real world.”

“Yes,” I say back to Nate, “it’s great” — knowing that he’s far too young to fully appreciate that it’s moments like this, and words like those from my kids, that I live for.


Rewarding Youth with Nature and Character

Mike Moniz, a 55-year-old businessman, father and Scouter from Boulder, Colo., knows something about balancing risk and reward with young people outdoors. He and his wife, Dee, started taking their twins hiking, skiing and paddling rivers from the time they were walking. When his son, Matt, was only 12, the father-son mountaineering duo successfully summited Denali, North America’s tallest peak.

Today, at age 19, daughter Kaylee is a big-mountain skier, and Matt, an Eagle Scout, is planning a second attempt to climb Mount Everest. (He abandoned a previous effort two years ago when he survived a massive avalanche that killed nearly two dozen people. Matt helped the wounded and stayed in Nepal for a month involved with rebuilding and raising relief funds.)

Moniz has seen the impact of getting kids outdoors through Scouting — many of them experiencing nature firsthand for the first time. “Kids get unplugged from the internet, they don’t have phones along — they’re out with their friends, talking,” he says. “I see the confidence it inspires. I see them making a one-on-one connection.

“The wilderness may be the last sanctuary where you can get away from the connected world we live in. That’s precious,” Moniz says. “Scouting introduces so many young people to the wilderness and the value of public lands. This is the next generation of leaders who will be voting on protection of the outdoors. Scouting is, without a doubt, important to this. I don’t think there’s a more cost-effective, successful conduit to get kids from across the nation — all racial and religious and socioeconomic backgrounds — out there learning important skills and enjoying being with a group of friends swimming in a lake and on a hike.”

2 Comments

  1. Not sure how this fantastic article made it into Scouting Magazine. The kids pictured are Cub Scout age doing activities that are not approved by the BSA. 🙂

  2. Great article! Informing people about the benefits of outdoor activity is a wonderful thing. It is also important to acknowledge that access to the outdoors is a luxury for most people. As the middle class shrinks and wealth is increasingly being distributed to a lower percentage of Americans, we should not be surprised that fewer families have the financial ability to not only invest in basic outdoor equipment, but to have the free time to take their kids into the wilderness. As people take on multiple jobs just to make ends meet, that free time diminishes. It is no wonder that the nature deficit increases as single family income shrinks.

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