Kids in the backcountry: The earlier, the better

  • The Lanza family, led by photographer and writer Michael Lanza and his wife, Penny Beach, make frequent family backcountry excursions. Alex Lanza, then 6, hikes across Paintbrush Divide in Grand Teton National Park.

    Michael Lanza/
  • Nate Lanza, then 10, climbs at Joshua Tree National Park with his mother belaying.

    Michael Lanza/
  • Alex Lanza, then 2, enjoys Skillern Hot Springs, during a multifamily backpacking trip in Idaho's Smoky Mountains.

    Michael Lanza/

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.

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