In August of 2020, I was hunting with my 10-year-old son south of the Yukon River in eastern Alaska. We were camped along the crest of a low gravel ridge rising above an expanse of tundra that was mostly covered in ankle-deep water. That morning my boy had killed a caribou about a mile from our camp and we had carried half the meat back on our backs.
We’d already seen two different grizzlies in our immediate area and I was worried about one of them claiming the caribou carcass before we could fetch the remaining meat. I wanted us to hustle back, but the gnats and mosquitos were so horrible when we skinned the animal that my boy’s eyelids and knuckles were visibly swollen from the bites. On top of that, he’d been crying after wading through the muck and tussocks while trying to keep up with me.
I was torn about what to do: make him walk another two miles through the wet tundra, or leave him at the camp, alone on the ridge with a pile of butchered caribou meat and two grizzlies nearby? We reviewed, for the umpteenth time, the mechanics of a pump shotgun as well as using physical cues to determine a grizzly bear’s mood and intentions. Then I told him I’d be back soon with the second load of meat.
Trotting off, I could already imagine the headlines. Variations on “BOY, 10, ABANDONED BY FATHER AND MAULED BY GRIZZLY” ran through my mind.
But thankfully, as I came huffing back to camp with the last load, I found a happy son and a fully loaded shotgun.
Given that I’m an avid outdoorsman with a love for adventure, you might think I’m responsible for most of our three kids’ bumps and scrapes. But I like to tease my wife that their emergency room visits have all been her fault: a broken arm from a swing set that she bought them; stitches to the head after a scooter crash at a local park she took them to; more stitches to the head from a freak Lego injury that occurred while I was out of town. Meanwhile, I brag about my own stellar safety record as a parent (one Lyme disease infection notwithstanding), in spite of years’ worth of family adventures involving scorpions, shotguns, sharks, chain saws, grizzly bears, bush planes, and little boats on big water.
The teasing comes with a recognition that my own activities involve a different set of worst-case scenarios. I spend time with my kids in what I call “the arena of consequence,” where actions (and lack of action) can have deadly serious ramifications. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children fourteen years of age and under in our home state of Montana, where grizzly bears have been killing a person or two a year lately. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to hear of a fatal Lego attack.
The caribou hunt was far from the only time I’ve found myself wondering about the worst-case scenario—and what people would think.
“A guy takes young kids out on the storm-ridden waters of southeast Alaska in a small skiff and disaster strikes?” How cruel and reckless.
“A guy gets shot while teaching his kids how to hunt deer?” He had it coming.
We saw how the public’s judgment played out this summer when the Titan submersible imploded on an attempted visit to the Titanic shipwreck.
“A crew of five dare to touch an abyss largely unknown to mankind?” Assholes.
I always lament that, with an ending like that of the Titan crew, I wouldn’t be around to account for my actions. So I try to explain myself while I’m around to do so. I tried to do so in my 2022 book Outdoor Kids in an Inside World, an effort to give parents and caregivers an honest education in the trials and tribulations of getting your kids radically engaged with nature.
I’ve been teaching my three kids—aged 13, 10, and 8—to move toward adventure and cope with the risks ever since they were big enough for me to carry them around in a backpack. And you don’t need to be a Montana outdoorsman to do so. My oldest son and my daughter were born in Brooklyn, and we lived there until they were five and two years old. I did not allow us to be limited by the location, taking them to explore the wooliest, least-visited corners of that region.
In Prospect Park, we had to crawl through the brush to reach the shorelines of the ponds north of Quaker Hill. Dodging hypodermic needles and spent condoms, we’d search for rotten logs that could be rolled over to reveal the various grubs and worms and insects hiding beneath. Or we’d sift through the shallow aquatic vegetation with a small bait net looking for leeches, tadpoles, and crustaceans. My objective was to remove from them any notion that other life forms are icky or scary or gross.
Gradually, I earned their trust. If I held out my hand to place some creature or another in their palm, they would accept it without hesitation. There was no fear or disgust. Rather, they discovered a special sort of awe for the slimy, writhing wonders of the natural world. A few blood blisters from getting pinched by crayfish claws were generally taken in stride.
Fast-forward to this summer, when the camper trailer that we leave in the mountains a couple of hours away from our home in Bozeman was colonized by harvest mice. I was going to exterminate the rodents but my kids thought that sounded like a horrible waste of life. Instead, they built a live trap and quickly tamed one of the creatures to the point where it would scurry up their arms and hide inside their clothes.
Just this week, during a scheduled checkup with our pediatrician, one of my kids was lectured about the risks of hantavirus, typhus, and other harmful diseases that can be transmitted by wild mice. He told the doctor that he’d consider giving the mouse a bath.
My kids do complain now and then. When they’re freezing their asses off while ice fishing, or I’m making them dig out a capsized snowmobile while checking a winter trapline, or we’re hiking through the rain for hours to explore some new destination, they’ll scream, “Why do we have to do this?”
It’s not a great setting for lengthy explanations. So I’ll tell them we’re doing it so they can hang out with cool people when they grow up.
That may sound glib, but there’s some truth to it. As a writer and TV host, I’ve been blessed with a career that has placed me shoulder to shoulder with some of the world’s most accomplished outdoorsmen and adventurers as we’ve traveled through some dicey locales—from beneath the ocean’s surface to the headwaters of the Amazon to the tops of Arctic mountain ranges. At a bare minimum, the cost of admission into these circles is being able to maintain a cool head and contribute some ingenuity when plans unravel and situations go to hell. Those skills are best acquired when you’re young, and you don’t learn them when you’re comfortable.
But the deeper reason for all this adventuring is that the skills you pick up aren’t just applicable to jungles and mountains. In more than three decades of work as everything from a tree surgeon to a writer and podcast host, the number one deficit I’ve encountered among colleagues is a lack of willingness—or perhaps a lack of ability—to do the shit-shoveling that’s required to thrive in a challenging and dynamic work environment. I’m talking about an ability to dive in and do whatever needs to be done in hard situations when weaker individuals are standing around commiserating about “how fucked everything is.”
Like every parent, I hope that my kids turn out to be kind, curious, and responsible grown-ups. That’s a given. But I’m also shooting for an adjective that isn’t widely used these days. I want them to be tough. I want them to be prepared for whatever comes their way. Based on my experience as a parent, outdoor adventure is the best way to deliver this gift. To put it another way, if you teach them to keep their heads around grizzlies, the rest will take care of itself.
Steven Rinella is an outdoorsman, author, and founder of the MeatEater TV show and podcast. His most recent book is Catch a Crayfish, Count the Stars: Fun Projects, Skills, and Adventures for Outdoor Kids.
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