Does taking our kids into the wild make us dangerous parents?

  • Alan Kesselheim


It began even before the kids were born, more than 20 years ago. Marypat finally got pregnant after years of miscarriages. We were halfway through winter in a cabin hundreds of miles from the nearest pavement, halfway through a 14-month canoe expedition, alone, vulnerable and perfectly content. The advice we got, from family, from friends, was to come home. Don’t risk the pregnancy, everyone said. It’s not worth it.

We questioned ourselves. Were the risks too high? The scenarios were endless and terrifying. Still teetering on the brink of pulling the plug, we decided we would paddle the 40 miles to the nearest town, from which we would leap into the final summer of travel across the wild tundra of northeastern Canada, and then make our decision.

Here’s the strange thing. Fifty strokes into that trial run, still in sight of our winter cabin and five months along in a pregnancy, we were both convinced that we could do it. More than that, we were both convinced that we should do it.

We were right. Some would say we were more lucky than right, and sure, luck is a player, but being pregnant in the Far North, traveling at our “pregnancy pace,” nurturing life through the wild exhilaration of vast, unpopulated space, was precisely the right thing for us to do.

Since then, there have been a number of similar moments, when friends and families and complete strangers weighed in to question our willingness to take our children into risky places. After we loaded up the canoe and took off down the Yellowstone River, across Montana, for example, when Eli was 9 months old and Sawyer was a fetal bud ticking away inside Marypat, “You’re crazy,” people said. We went. We took the precautions we deemed necessary. We had a lovely, empowering time, and I’m convinced that Eli formed some essential character qualities from those weeks under the wide skies.

Or when we took Sawyer, at 3 months of age, and Eli at 2 years, down the Green and Colorado rivers. When we took on the Big Bend section of the Rio Grande with Marypat seven-months’ huge with Ruby and the boys at an uncontrollable 2 and 3 years of age, in one overburdened, 17-foot canoe. “What are you thinking?” people asked.

What we think is that this is what we do. This is the legacy we want to share with our children. Are there risks? Of course. Might something go badly wrong? Sure. Would we feel terrible if it did? Yes. Should we stay home and play it safe? Hell, no.

Because here’s the other thing. Playing it safe is a matter of perspective.

The safe environment that people tout brims with all kinds of dangers -- more dangers, I submit, than we ever encounter in the wild. Routinely, we pile our children into cars and drive around at lethal speeds. We litter our homes with toxic substances, spray our yards with pesticides, keep firearms, eat food full of chemicals, breathe polluted air, let our kids drive, and put them in social contexts where bad things happen all the time.

We think little of these dangers because they are routine. Everyone does it. Nobody questions it. We take precautions, just as we do on a wilderness expedition when we wear life vests and carry a first aid kit and practice our skills and calculate the itinerary.

Of course, there are moments. The polar bear along the shores of Hudson Bay comes to mind. The meadow full of bear and wolf tracks high in the Washakie Wilderness of Wyoming. The evening Sawyer fell from a tree along the Marias River in Montana, slashing open his neck on a stick; Ruby’s capsize against a rock in one of the canyons of the Rio Grande.

There have been a handful of incidents where I catch myself thinking, “That could have gone badly.” It’s the same way frightening scenes play on the mental screen when the car starts skidding on the ice, or a toddler falls down the stairs, or I find out that I’ve been living next to a Superfund site for years and drinking the well water, or look at a food label full of incomprehensible ingredients, or send a teenager off on prom night.

At those commonplace, civilized junctions with risk, I find myself sometimes wishing I were still deep in the embrace of a wild place, feeling the pulse of Mother Earth, with my children close by and the exhilaration of adventure coursing through our bodies.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Bozeman, Montana, and his most recent book is Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Sep 18, 2012 03:01 PM
Not all that long ago, in terms of human history, journeys such as yours, during a pregnancy, were commonplace and often necessary for survival. It may well be that your kids benefited before birth. I think the same can be said for toting tots on such journeys.

Dangerous? Oh yeah. Life is dangerous and learning early that danger is real can provide a child with a life-saving lesson. I learned about dogs, bears and poison ivy relatively young. I learned that just because a plant is pretty and shiny, that doesn't mean I should touch it. Or put it in my mouth. Or that big, black 'doggie' raiding the trash can doesn't need petting.

'Playing it safe' with kids might be playing it too safe, saving necessary life lessons for later, when the cost of the lesson could be much higher. Living with the wild teaches alertness, caution and self-control, lessons vital to survival in any 'jungle'.
jay warner
jay warner
Sep 19, 2012 02:02 AM
I am confused on your story and statements. Halfway through winter the water is frozen. 40 miles from town and hundreds from pavement. It is a good story but it really does not make sense. Granted I grew up a on the Minnesota-Ontario border from October to May the canoe is pretty much out of the question. And I would not even begin to claim that area is a tundra. Just curious if you can tell us the dates, lake that you paddled 40 miles on. Kinda sounds like fiction to me.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Sep 22, 2012 02:23 AM
I think it was Robert Kennedy who said, "Man was not a creature made for the comforts of home. I suspect most of us have that daring competence somewhere within. For some, it might be successfully navigating the commute on urban streets and mass transit for forty years. Others will find rivers and mountains on their route. Danger can pop up anywhere, but we prevail. Good for you all. We were made for this planet.
Deb O'Neill
Deb O'Neill
Sep 24, 2012 11:11 AM
I have never commented here before, but it is sad when a beautiful piece of writing is attacked without the attacker abosorbing the content of the piece. Jay Warner, if you read correctly you would see in the first and third paragraph that it WAS summer and it was their "trial run" to see if they could do it. And, as far as the location, the author explains it is northeastern Canada.

And thank you for sharing Alan. The dangers of our "routine" life are definitely far greater.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Sep 24, 2012 11:21 AM
In Aldo Leopold's book, "A Sand County Almanac", in the last chapter, "Think Like A Mountain", he observes that our attempt to create security may create more problems and dangers than it eliminates.