Monday, February 4, 2013

Children learn about selves, nature during backcountry excursions

A version of this story originally appeared in the fall 2012 issue of  The Backcountry Journal, the quarterly newsletter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

Natalie in June 2012 with her first northern on Lake Kawishiwi, Boundary Waters Canoe Area 

photo by Erik Jensen

Hunter-angler conservationists today face the challenge of how to pass on the traditional outdoor culture to our kids and grandchildren. The decline is well documented, even in regions of America where hunting and fishing are revered parts of the culture. The average age of sportsmen is climbing. In Minnesota, only 69 percent of the children of hunters are taking up the activity and the state’s participation in fishing has declined from half of the population to just over a third.

A powerful social trend is at work: cramming numerous organized activities, whether it’s more sports practices or rigorous band camps, into most kids’ schedules. “Putting Families First,” a non-partisan, non-sectarian organization that advocates balance between children’s outside activities and families spending time together, encourages parents to make a conscious decision to “set aside” time for family activities. The group cites family social science research documenting a 50 percent decline in unstructured outdoor play among children ages 3-12 from 1981-1997 due to a rise in structured recreation.

Making a commitment to set aside family time and work at passing on the traditions of hunting, angling and other outdoor activities can go hand-in-hand. Our twin daughters, Theresa and Natalie, are turning 9 this year and have had numerous fishing, hunting and camping experiences, including two in the backcountry. They’re even preparing to turkey hunt this spring, and Natalie still hasn't given up on shooting her first squirrel this small game season, which lasts until the end of the month.

We are fortunate to live in a state where residents of a large urban area still can with relatively little time get to public fishing, hunting, shooting and camping opportunities. These more conventional trips, which they call “daddy days or trips,” allow for the flexibility of numerous activities in one setting that kids love: biking around the campground, shooting their bow, walking down to the lake or stream to fish. Then they can go to a playground for some kid time. On afternoon trips to our gun club 45 minutes north of Minneapolis, we always work in time to drive over to a nearby lake for swimming or fishing.

These easier trips set the stage for more challenging trips in backcountry. The irritation of noisy neighbors at busy car campgrounds can be a lesson on the value of the time and effort to it takes to do backcountry trips.

Our first family backcountry trip was camping for three days about two miles up a forested canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, just before they turned six. They complained about the hike and the weight of packs, but also said they felt “big” while expressing pride in their newfound abilities. They explored massive rock formations that were favorable fairy habitat. Other memories included having to cook breakfast in a small ravine below our campsite due to high winds, another watching their first trout take bait in the gin-clear waters of the Big Thompson River.

For our first family venture into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness we gave up portaging in favor of setting camp once on a big lake and paddling a channel to a second lake. It had high moments and the girls added new skills. Natalie finally caught her first northern pike on the last night of the trip, which she demanded to eat immediately. Learning the mundane skill of relieving oneself in the woods abiding by leave no trace principles, the girls asked “Is this something hunters have to do?” We also canoed into a massive burn area to see regenerative effects of fire, offering a chance for a lesson in ecology.

During the family discussion afterward, the girls said at times they felt locked in at the campsite with an inability to roam. We concluded that we would go back in a few years when they could go out in the canoe on their own. We were already making plans for the next big trip and at the same time talking about the memories we’ll share forever from our most recent adventure. The negative memory of the 18-hour drive from Minneapolis to the Rockies now overshadowed, Theresa said “I want to walk in the mountains again.”