Kids in the backcountry: The earlier, the better

by Alan Kesselheim

Note: This essay is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West.

The three of them race out in front of us -- dots of colorful energy bushwhacking across the tundra, elevation over 10,000 feet, deep in the northern Wyoming's Washakie Wilderness. Ruby, 11, Sawyer, 13, and Eli, 14. They look so small from here. At the same time, they exude confidence and zeal.

My wife, Marypat, and I can hear them calling to each other, urging each other on. We are 25 miles from the trailhead, on our way to the summit of Younts Peak, which overlooks the forks of the Yellowstone River from 12,000 feet or so. The ramparts of the blocky summit rise above the valley, intimidating and enticing.

To get here, the kids carried full packs up the trail, up thousands of feet, over several days. No problem. Hiking 10 miles a day with a few thousand vertical feet thrown in has been routine in their lives. I watch them, savoring their energy, the distant snatches of their banter -- relishing how at home they are out here. And I wonder: What if we had followed everyone's advice, and just waited?

What if we had followed American conventional wisdom, with its cliché, "Better wait until they're old enough"? If we had, we might just now be ramping up the first outing, yanking them away from their other commitments -- soccer, friends, the city pool. We might be lucky or persuasive enough to wrench them out of the normal adolescent in-town comfort zones and lure them onto the trail, into a canoe, up a mountainside, but it would be a struggle. And if we had waited until they were this old to wrangle them into places like this, we would only now be starting their education in how to live comfortably in the wilds -- how to pace yourself with a pack on, how to detect and take care of a budding blister, how to set camp and pack up in the morning and cook food and start a fire. The learning curve would be steep, the discomfort too daunting, the competing distractions compelling. We might not pull it off at all.

And what experiences we would have missed! All the places we have shared with them already. All the adventures that are woven into the synapses of their beings and have made them who they are today. The images unroll in the theater of my memory.

Sawyer losing an appalling number of baby teeth on a two-week trip down the flooding Yukon River in Alaska. Thirteen-year-old Eli pulling lake trout the size of his leg out of an eddy along the Kazan River in Nunavut. Ruby, 10, cajoling the boys into swimming in every frosty lake on a 40-day expedition across the tundra. The summer Marypat instituted a peak-bagging club with the kids and their friends, and became a Pied Piper leading packs of short people up the craggy slopes of southwestern Montana ... all the shared bike rides, desert blooms, ski trails, whitewater runs, and the nights spent in Forest Service cabins rehashing the day's adventures.

We started them young, almost at birth. Eli was 9 months old when we floated down the entire Yellowstone River the first time. Sawyer was just 3 months old on his first big trip, down the Green River in Utah. Ruby was a 1-year-old when she went on a horsepack trip into Montana's Spanish Peaks grizzly bear country.

Just a month before this Younts Peak backcountry hike, we finished canoeing the 550-mile navigable length of the Yellowstone River again, from the national park boundary to the river's confluence with the Missouri in North Dakota.

These memories are hoarded wealth -- gratifying, full of heart and drama -- but what comes with them matters more. This is the kids' greatest inheritance: In their individual ways, they learned the bigger lessons by being in wild places since birth, beyond the tending of blisters and campfires. Like how to endure through difficulty and support each other. And how to put one foot in front of the other when you're exhausted, or plant another paddle stroke in a day of thousands of strokes, to make it to camp no matter what. How to appreciate the other creatures who live with us on the planet. How to hunker down in the face of a storm -- a metaphor for all kinds of hardship -- and be patient and secure.

I remember talking to Sawyer after a long expedition in the subarctic. He was still in middle school. "I can't talk to my friends about the trip," he said. "Whenever I start to tell them about it, they say, 'Oh, yeah, I went to a hunting camp with my dad last fall,' like it's the same thing. It's not their fault, but they just don't get it." When he said that, I ran the image of my son, barely 100 pounds, toiling across a two-mile-long muskeg portage, dwarfed by his load, waving black flies out of his face, 20 days into an expedition that was only halfway over. "Yeah," I said to him. "It isn't their fault, but you're right, there's no way they can relate."

There's another benefit -- the lessons and insights these three children teach me in these experiences.

I'll never forget watching Eli explore the texture of warm sand for the first time, before he turned one. Sawyer finding a mud wallow in a riverbank and going full-body immersion, and convincing the rest of us to join him. Ruby playing air guitar by a sputtering fire on a drizzly, hypothermic day in the Far North. The games they invent, the treasures they find, the questions they ask, the observations they make, the fortitude and joy with which they embrace the experience. More than anything, the lesson for me is that, from the get-go, they have been absolutely unfazed by being in wild places. They never for a second have questioned it. In fact, as they have gotten older, they keep raising the bar.

Here, on this alpine day, before we summit, we seek the literal headwaters of the Yellowstone, that first drip of river off the snout of snowfield, the river we have come to know intimately as a family. Ruby forges out ahead of the pack, disappears around the shoulder of a ridge, hiking fast. The boys scramble to catch up with her. Marypat and I pick up the pace, trying to keep up. There is something ineffable, enticing, mysterious about the source of a great river. The lure is primal, universal. It has to be close. Around the corner, the low, gentle divide separates the flow. A small snowfield is pasted against the steep talus slope. At the base, water drips off in the summer warmth, filling a shallow basin, trickling across a bedrock sill.

Then I see Ruby.

She is sprawled on her belly, her face over the icy water as if studying her reflection. Her lips are pursed, she drinks deep, filling her belly with the first drops of this storied river. We all follow her lead, one after another, lining up prone on the sun-warmed rock in this high country that is so thick with bears, drinking the river that carried our boats across the plains of Montana. It is absolutely the right thing to do. Ruby may be barely out of elementary school, but she knows unerringly what is called for in this wild moment.

The day at the headwaters, and scaling Younts Peak, is long. The kids discover glissading on our descent from the lofty perch on Younts. The same snowfields we had carefully kick-stepped up, they schuss down on their boots, whooping and giggling. And all the way back around the headwall, they scamper up every little snow bank for more. Fatigue? What fatigue?

Around twilight, we make it back to camp and have dinner perched near a small lake. After dinner, they all head to the far side of the lake to another small snow patch. They strip to their undies and camp shoes, then start yo-yoing up and down the slope, each run ending with a bracing splashdown in the shallow lake. Then, in the gloaming, Sawyer and Marypat walk together to a nearby knoll to study the peaks and ridges that seam the horizon, with the Tetons floating in the purple distance.

A full moon rises. It is absolutely silent. Only the hum of the earth, the hum of summer, and the grace of pale light pooling in our high camp. I think of what my adventures used to be like, without the kids -- and how Marypat and I might have kidless adventures again after they grow up and leave us. And I see, clear as the moonlit beauty of this evening, that it has never been about what we have given them. Instead, it's everything that they have led us to.

Alan Kesselheim is the author of 11 books, including two in 2012: Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water and Montana: Real Place, Real People. He lives with his family in Bozeman, Mont.

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