Coming of Age in a Wild Place

We have more than 4,000 stories in our archive, and each week, we pick an old favorite to repost. This piece is from friend of AJ Craig Childs, on what it means to grow into an adventurous and confident adulthood, from both the child’s and parent’s perspective. -Ed. 

A few years ago, I joined a group of families on a backcountry kayaking trip in Alaska’s Prince William sound. A kid named Will was just about to turn 13, and I was there to watch him come of age. I’d known him as a strong little wild-haired monkey, but on this trip he became something else, turning into a new kind of person.

Will and I jumped to shore on a mangy, alder-and-spruce island. We were sent as scouts looking for two things, flat places to camp and cook, and bear scat. The bear scat we found looked old, no fresh kills or dark droppings of meat and berries. This was our spot.

Will was set for adventure. He would be our fire starter with his new knife, a magnesium rod, flint, and some dryer lint brought from home. His dad had given him four dry matches and no more. He’d been watching survivor shows on TV. He had a knack for this outdoors stuff.

Will and I found a few options for clearings, then circled back to each other. “This look good to you?” I asked. The straggle-haired boy nodded eagerly: “Yeah.”

Will was no longer the monkey I’d known. He was different, he could make decisions. He turned into more than one of the kids. We had to stay on top of the rest making sure they had hats or gloves and they weren’t standing out the rain, coat unzipped with the last – the last! – dry shirt getting wet. Will had his knife, magnesium stick and drier lint and was good to go. He claimed his own piece of shoreline across from our camp where he practiced starting fires. Even on rainy days, he’d get a fire going by prizing dry scraps out of heartwood with a knife tip. The rest of the kids would sit around him as he scraped sparks into the lint. When a small, acrid flame took hold, he transferred it into the kindling. Blowing on his ember, he conjured a fire and the other kids cheered.

When we faced a food shortage late in the trip and had to start relying more on seaweed, prawns, and lingcod caught on lines, Will was the only one of the kids who brought protein to the group. He turned midnight low tide into a clamming industry, pawing through mud and rock in the faint Alaskan dusk in search of sustenance for the group. At that point, I realized that a traveling tribe needs a child coming of age for survival.

Photo: Norbert Toth

Neurobehavioral changes seen in human adolescence include increases in exploratory tendencies. This has been observed in many non-human species as they go through puberty, part of the survival traits. A study on adult and adolescent mice found that adolescents were better at discriminating different smells and learning which was associated with a reward. The adolescent mice learned faster than adults, with shorter and more focused search strategies, suggesting increased behavioral flexibility. The authors conclude that adolescent mice are better designed to make flexible decisions in uncertain and unstable environments, which are likely to be encountered during adolescence.

Coming of age begins biologically, hormonally, and mentally right here. I was seeing it happen over the course of several days with Will. As happens in cultures around the world, Will had reached the age of responsibility, fertility, and community productivity. The average age of sperm production, when a boy could potentially become a father, is 13.4. It is time to snap to. In many cultures, this is when intensive instruction is provided so a person can be prepared for adult sex roles. This instruction can instill cultural loyalty, and publicize the attainment of adult status, laying on a new layer of responsibility.

Jewish boys and girls celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs around 12 and 13 years old. Here, they demonstrate their commitment to their faith, showing that they are now responsible for following Jewish law. Arctic Inuit boys, and more recently girls, go off with their fathers to hunt around the same age, a ritual to bring them into new roles. Cultures around the world pay close attention to this age. The Sateré-Mawé tribe of the Brazilian Amazon put boys through a ritual at 13 where they are stung repeatedly by bullet ants, a particularly painful species. To cry out would show weakness, so they bear it.

My older boy turned 13 recently. A windmill of a kid, his arms are almost always flying. I’d call him a dervish. Thirteen hasn’t taken that away from him, I am glad to say, but I can see how he has changed. In the last year he’s become a backcountry companion of mine, the two of us setting off for a week at a time with no maps, no stove, no tent, no compass. This is by his request. He wants to find routes, moving unfettered through complex country sometimes in the desert and sometimes high in the mountains.

When we’d been together with Will in Alaska, my boy had been 10 years old and I could not keep him dry. I’d catch him standing out in the tide, water pouring in over the top of his black rubber boots, another pair of socks and pant legs soaked. Now he keeps his gear in his pack and I don’t have to check. He has snacks ready to go, water bottles filled, raincoat in an outside pouch. In other words, I don’t have to worry nearly so much. Which you would hope for – gulp – with a potential father.

They were on a greater mission, learning to be adults themselves, operating on their own in a wild place.

Backpacking with him, I can’t help noticing that the aimlessness of childhood has suddenly faded. I stay behind, watching him navigate through overhanging tree branches and boulders, and he has the manner and confidence of someone older, as if he knows exactly what he is doing.

We had a birthday party at our house at the edge of a canyon in western Colorado last weekend. After they’d played balloon games and drank apple juice and ginger ale, my son gathered the other kids and led them outside saying he was taking them on an adventure. An hour later, some of the parents wandered over to the rimrock edge of the canyon. We looked down and saw kids leaping through boulders hundreds of feet below. All about the same age, just now coming into themselves, they were unconcerned with us. They were on a greater mission, learning to be adults themselves, operating on their own in a wild place. Instead of Lord of the Flies, it was cooperation and attention. We stood on the rim watching them become something new.

Top Photo by Joshua Grenham

We’re big fans of the book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, by Scott Sampson.

For more from Craig Childs, we love House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest.



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