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

by 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 (hcn.org). He lives in Bozeman, Montana, and his most recent book is Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water.

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