We spend our first 40 weeks in water. Some of us never get over it. We want more. More current. More riffles, streams, rivers and creeks. We want oceans teeming with life and lives that teem like oceans. In small puddles, we see ponds. In ponds, we see the world.
Before my eldest child was born, I thought I knew what kind of parent I would be. Patient and knowledgeable, calm in the face of chaos, fun, able to shape young minds and bodies into resilient, joyful little humans who cared about others and the earth. We were in our mid-30s, fairly educated, reasonably stable financially and had spent some solid years pursuing misadventure and mayhem. We were as ready as anyone to join the parenting ranks.
As it turns out, my kid did not care what my political/social/environmental agenda was, what degrees I had, how hard I fished or that I hadn’t had five minutes to myself in three months. What he did seem to care about was spending time on my hip or riding on my back, as close to the action as possible. It became a question of adapt or suffocate.
Me. Not the baby.
In 2015, we took our then 6-month-old son, George, on a year-long fishing trip across the United States. This was before #vanlife or doing it for the ‘gram was a thing. We kept our jobs, didn’t buy a Sprinter or a classic VW. We had a decade-old diesel truck and a value-rama fifth-wheel trailer. We fished for everything that would eat a fly and some things that wouldn’t. We went out in snowstorms, floods, 80-mile-per-hour winds, heat waves and, once, a lightning storm.
We fished 340 days out of 365, and every day the kid went with us. The days we didn’t fish, we were driving to new places to fish. We tied our own flies, did our own research; we couldn’t afford guides or special equipment. On the flats, we wore Converse high tops. We bought a canoe off Craigslist when we were in Florida, then traded it for a jon boat in Wisconsin. In Oregon, a friend lent us his drift boat to chase steelhead, but we ended up chasing it instead when it got away from us at one of the coast’s infamously sketchy take-outs. We put the trailer in a ditch in Texas and waited for a tow truck for over an hour in 95-degree heat with a not-quite toddler. When the truck finally showed up, its name, “Little Hooker,” was painted on the side above an old-school image of Betty Boop. It took less than 10 minutes to have us back on our way.
Spoken on the trip, George’s first real word was blue. He followed it with bird, then fish, pretty, bug, tree, windy and, finally, momma and dad. He fell out of the boat twice, both times into shark-infested water, but the second time, it seemed intentional. He got used to wind in his eyes, sunscreen slathered on his skin, snowsuits, rainsuits, life jackets and hats. He poked at turtles, felt the slip and slide of fish, watched birds swoop and soar, and got dirty. So, so dirty.
When the year was up, we kept fishing and kept taking George with us. He caught his first solo fish on the fly when he was 2, tore open the wrapping on his first rod when he turned 3, and hooked and landed his first double (rainbow on top, brookie below) on a dry-dropper rig a week later.
Somewhere in there we had another baby boy, and we took him to the water, too. Some days the boys eat granola bars on the bank and throw rocks into the river before running into the alders to play hide-and-seek. On these days, they don’t care if we catch fish, but boy do they want to wet wade, make towers out of river stones and pee in the sage. Other days, they’re changing flies and asking us to hold the net. I hope that with all the time they spend outside, the outside will become part of them.
The best advice I’ve ever heard on raising kids came from a science-fiction book: “Raising children isn’t complicated. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated. You just love them more than air or light.” The next best, “The most important part is showing up.” Then, finally, from the poster at the pediatrician’s office, “They may not always be listening, but they are always watching.” I think that means be the type of person you want your kid to be.
When I picture my children in 10, 20, 30 years, I see kind, brave individuals who are willing to take risks and stand up for what they know to be right. I see young people who are willing to learn new things and admit when they’re wrong or when they don’t know the answer. I see adults who find delight in the natural world, and who value experiences over objects.
To help bring these visions into reality, I’m showing my kids my own values and beliefs, and they start with going outside and mucking around.
By encouraging my children to throw snowballs, climb trees and flip over rocks to see what lies beneath—by shooing them out the door to explore, take risks, get dirty and find their own adventures—it’s my hope that they will grow to be people who understand and rejoice in getting up at 4 a.m. to be on the water by 5. In the rain. I’m showing them the draw of what’s around the next bend. The stoke that comes from flying down singletrack, launching off the diving board, going down a wide-open powder face or dancing on the summit.
In fostering their ability to imagine and pursue a world beyond four walls, I’m hoping my children will begin to understand the interconnectedness of all things and that they will see that what we do in our backyard and on our local water has an impact on rivers, forests and oceans the world over. First, there is experience and elation—then there is commitment and protection. Love, then marriage.
On Earth Day, George, now a first-grader, brought home a mobile he made at school. At the top hangs a picture of the Earth colored bright blue and green. Suspended below are three hearts upon which, in his best handwriting, he made three pledges.
I promise to turn off the lights.
I promise to compost my food scraps.
I promise to turn off the water.
After bedtime, I stared dumbly at the mobile. These were small, positive things that could become habits for a 6-year-old. They were actionable. Achievable. Provided personal agency. They were a school assignment meant to answer a specific question and to be completed in a 20-minute period. In many ways, these were the foundation for future successful actions and personal responsibility. Oh, how I hated them.
Because where was the soul? Where was the joy? Remember: First, stomp in puddles. Lay in the grass. Catch frogs, trout and lightning bugs. Get curious. Fall madly, wildly in love with being in the world. Then do the work to protect it. Fill the cup, then let it pour over.
George had done the assignment and filled his hearts with the things he could do. He had the “what” of making the earth a little bit better. What wasn’t there was the “why.” As well-meaning as the mobile was, if the only thing kids are getting in terms of environmental education is a list of chores, we’re doomed. Altruism is great, but what’s in it for them? Root activism in selfishness and we’re onto a long-term commitment.
It sounds like a jerk thing to say, but let me explain.
I love fishing Western rivers for trout: browns, rainbows, cutthroat. It is straight Type I fun, and I can’t think of another way I’d rather spend a spring, summer or fall day than goofing around on the water convincing fish to eat, bringing them to hand and letting them go. It cracks me up, and delighted is how I like to travel.
Loving catching these fish has led me to love the fish themselves on their own merit. Because I love the fish, I love the bugs. Because of the bugs, I love the river. Because of the river, I love the riparian zone, the mountain snow supply and the geography of the land. Because of the riparian zone, the mountain snow supply and the geography of the land, I love the climate. Because of this love, I act as protector and steward.
Finally, because I am selfish, I want others, especially my children, to understand these things that I love. Yet, my experience telling them spinach is delicious lets me know that I can’t just tell them fish are good, bugs are cool and the climate is changing. They need to figure that out on their own, so I take them to walk in the rivers and help them discover for themselves that it’s all messily, beautifully connected.
When we return home mud-splattered and bug-bitten, we turn off the water and lights and compost our food scraps together in an expression of appreciation for rivers, fish and bugs. It’s transference in all its impossible glory.
Our daughter, Mae, was born at 28 weeks gestation, prompting a 59-day stay in the intensive-care nursery. With both boys, we had them outside within days of their births and on the water in the first week. But for those two months in the hospital, there was no fresh air, no sounds of birds, no splashing currents. Instead, I held that little girl against my chest and told her of the whole big world waiting for her. I told her about the jolt of energy that travels from the steel hook through a monofilament, down the line and backing, across the graphite and into the cork, where it strikes your hand like lightning before leaving you shaking with adrenaline long after the fish has swum away. I told her about skiing and said that making powder turns with friends on alpine faces is probably one of the best ways to spend a day, maybe a life. I promised her sunlight and blizzards and everything in between.
In those scary moments when no one had answers and there was nothing to do but wait, I closed my eyes, held her and pictured her standing in an open meadow, edged by forest, with her face tilted toward the sky and her arms thrown wide to the world. I imagined her learning to ski, catching her first brown, backing up a trailer, rowing a boat. Day by day I shared my love for her and for the places we call home until they were so intertwined that they were one and the same. Now, two years later, whenever I see her running outside, arms flung out as if to embrace the universe, I can’t help but smile. She’s a fighter and her wildness runs deep.
“T,” short for Teo, short for Theodore, is our middle child. He is notoriously rough and tumble, constantly covered in bruises and, in general, pumped on being stoked. He can rip the knees out of a pair of pants in an afternoon, and I’ve yet to see a pair of mittens that can make it through a season of his use. He’s out there playing hard, and he comes home with rocks shoved in his boots for safekeeping and twigs in his hair. When it was time for him to start preschool, the choice that made sense for our family was an outdoor school that focused on experiential play. It was an incredible privilege to both have access to such a school and have the funds for him to attend.
As we have emerged from the frigid temperatures of winter, his school drop-off has become a descent into Neverland. There are children climbing the shipping container in the parking area, faces already streaked with mud at 7:50 in the morning. High voices yelp and screech from beyond the trees. Boots and coats litter the ground. I hug my son. “Be brave. Be kind. Go get ‘em,” I say. Then I send him to the wolves and hope he howls.
Then there is George. Our oldest. The kid who caught trout before he was potty trained and swam in both the Pacific and the Atlantic before walking. He’s grown into a voracious reader and sleeps with a copy of my wildlife field guide. He’s serious and studious, a bit of a worrier. Making him laugh until he can’t stand up is one of my noblest pursuits. To our chagrin, when we take him fishing these days, he asks first to bring his binoculars then, almost as an afterthought, his rod. He’s an amateur birder and a damn good one. He can tell you a dark-eyed junco from a spotted towhee or a black phoebe from across the river. We’ve shared our outdoor passions with him, and now he’s finding his own.
When, the day after Earth Day, I asked him why he made those specific promises, he stared at me like I had three eyes.
“Because I love animals,” he said, shaking his head as if no explanation was needed. “There is only so much fresh water out there, and if we use it all, there won’t be any for them.”
I should have known he had his why.
Two additional kids and seven years after our first year-long fishing trip, I can safely say that I don’t have parenting figured out. I’m realizing no one really does. There are too many variables. It’s like casting into the wind. Some days and some casts, it’s perfect—I hit the seam and there’s the drift. The kids are excited, engaged and ready for anything. They are hope embodied. Other days, there’s a fly stuck in my cheek and I worry they’re growing up to be serial killers.
The truth is parenting is hard. It’s beautiful, powerful, filled with opportunity and also, sometimes, awful. It’s not for the faint of heart. I have days where I yell, days where I feel like I would give the kids to the first person who said they were cute. Sometimes I just want to go for a bike ride alone, to rig up a rod without little fingers pulling the line from the guides. I get jealous of people at different stages in life, those without kids or kids who are older. I covet their freedom. Then, when I have 15 minutes to myself, I spend it scrolling through pictures of my children. There they are, out walking around on their own two legs, and watching them become people with opinions, interests and passions all their own lights me up in places I never knew were dark. Loving them is how I want to spend my life.
So, this is what I know: If I want my kids to be good environmentalists, ethical anglers and social activists, I must first help them in becoming good people. If I want them to work, strive and fight for the protection of the earth and its resources, and for their right to live in a healthy world, the first step is to let them experience those very things on a minute level: to pull the worms from the soil and the fish from the creek, to play like it’s their job. The rest will come.