An Adventure Dad’s Manifesto For Unprecedented Times

Since her birth in 2007, my daughter Ursula and I have built quite the outdoor resume – among my earliest memories are putting her baby bucket seat in our backyard so she could enjoy the fireflies. At six weeks old, I held her on my chest for passport photos, jiggling her and helping her hold her head up for the official snaps. Since then, we’ve rafted the Ganges River in India, bodysurfed the beaches of Cape Cod, bicycled across car-free Koster Island off the Swedish coast, and hiked across grizzly country in Yellowstone National Park.

Today, with stay-at-home orders ongoing coast-to-coast, we face new stakes when it comes to outdoor escapades. A major concession to the new normal came a few weeks ago, when Texas state parks closed down (though they have since reopened), forcing us to postpone Ursula’s annual birthday camping weekend, a tradition we enjoyed the past six years.
Previous trips, fueled by hot dogs and s’mores, promised Ursula and her young friends a chance to bond amid water holes, beaches, and woodlands in Southeast Texas. We pitched tents in state parks and national forests just a couple of hours from Houston, each offering a taste of the wild. But with folks social distancing, we just could not find a way to recruit buddies for even a backyard overnight.

Although Ursula has rolled with the punches, I remain bummed she didn’t get to sleep under the stars, regretful that friends who rarely camp won’t get a chance this spring. Life is often marked by uncertainty, of course – and no offense to the authors of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” but the wise parent recognizes we must expect the unexpected.

What’s more, after more than a decade as adventure dad, the skills I developed during my long years of wilderness trips for reporting and relaxing alike have left me better equipped to parent. In this vein, the potentially very long tail of the pandemic brings to mind the quintessential backpacker experience of cresting a sunny ridge only to meet fierce clouds threatening rain, hail, or snow. Enduring such a journey requires abundant mental preparation and careful, deep observation.

It can be hard to rehearse these skills but it behooves us to pass this wisdom along. After all, you don’t need to seek mountain summits to appreciate that when the weather goes south, beating a swift retreat is wise; swimmers caught in a riptide are taught to ride it out rather than struggle against the current. It’s much the same when a family get-together goes sideways due to a child’s tantrum. Raging at an upset kid offers no more advantage than when we rage at a tempest on a crest in the wilderness. Better to back down, find shelter, and wait for the gale to blow over. That holds true in the high country, the dark woods, or the living room.

It remains an honor to have a chance to share what I’ve learned in the wilderness, and I look forward to discovering what else this young human gleans along the way.

Nor is this rocket science, but risk studies do regularly show how persistent wrong-headed thinking can grow more dangerous with each step. I look back to trekking in Bhutan with then 5-year-old Ursula and my wife Christina, who spent 20 years doing language research in the Himalayas. One day, our guides left us in an isolated alpine village, departing ahead of us with our daughter in hand. We stayed behind to explore an ancient shrine, then we got distracted looking for wildlife, and missed a fork in the trail. We picked up speed descended a winding, hidden valley– not panicked, but definitely worried the guides would be hard to catch. Hoping for a prompt reunion with our young child, we charged onward until we were utterly lost.

Soon, a frothing river sliced into view down deep in the lower gorge. A light drizzle fell. We knew the deep jungle held vipers – we’d seen one on the approach – and possibly leopards. So, we took our bearings, and decided belatedly to reverse course to find the others. Stressed-out and in full Mama Bear beast mode, Christina churned uphill with a furrowed brow while I wheezed and panted in her wake. Soon we heard the guides calling, and rejoined them to find Ursula perched in the lap of a local girl who had a Tetris-like game on her flip phone. The pieces of my heart fell into place as my smiling daughter looked up, unworried. Then we headed for camp.

Photo: Simon Rae

The story of that journey is one Ursula still recalls in detail, yet she recently asked us to retell it for the sake of establishing of her intrepid bona fides. Today, with everybody she knows essentially locked down at home, with a whole slew of summer action on ice, I don’t blame her. After all, the takeaway is superb: while her mom and dad wandered lost in an unfamiliar landscape, she was sheltered in the lap of a gentle stranger, who plied her with sweets and electronic entertainment until we were all reunited. Getting lost wasn’t ideal, but wrong turns make life interesting, and scary events can turn out just fine.

We have covered a lot of rough ground since Bhutan. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on our Houston block, knocking out power for two days while airboats prowled nearby streets to rescue neighbors whose houses had been flooded. We lit candles, loaded the canoe with camping supplies just in case, and got very lucky when our place was spared the high water. A year later, Ursula started middle school, where she and her classmates have been wrestling with how to soften the blow of climate change. As they put teen back into quarantine, outdoor kids might have an advantage coping with sea-level rise, distance learning, and even internet dating – although I’m far from ready for that challenge.

Having reached a stage myself where additional reproduction seems unlikely and mortality haunts the horizon, I’m happy to report that following her birthday Ursula embraced an equanimous outlook. She received a gift of new binoculars, a great help when surveying our backyard birds, and committed herself to a 30-day fitness challenge so she doesn’t backslide on her conditioning before she can hit the trails again. Moreover, having taken a Bear Grylls-branded survival course a couple of years ago, my daughter is scheming for a fresh chance to upgrade her outdoor skills – although in the place of her celebrity hero, she’s stuck running wild with Dad. It remains an honor to have a chance to share what I’ve learned in the wilderness, and I look forward to discovering what else this young human gleans along the way.

Photo: Morgan David de Lossy

Are you a parent looking for adventure inspo with your little ones? Hike It Baby: 100 Awesome Outdoor Adventures with Babies and Toddlers, can get you started.



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