Less Screen Time, More Green Time

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The sun draws close to the distant ridge. Pine boughs whisper from above and the fire warms our faces. Oak smoke rises into the breeze and disappears into the year’s first buds.

My daughter and I have been sitting silently on our fireside stumps for minutes on end. There are no words worth speaking just now, in the presence of mesmerizing flames and overheard conversations from the tree tops. This is a silence much needed and well earned.

Our journey here was not physically strenuous; perhaps more symbolic. Ninety miles in the car, up a hill, a couple miles through the woods. Schedules and emails traded for sunshine and quiet. No school, no internet, no other people. Just us and the waking woods. 

Stress and cares have all but floated off and dissipated like smoke. 

As it happens, a week ago my son and I swung from the trees on a ridge across the river valley. That was an entirely different trip but refreshing nonetheless. 

It was a dark day. We arrived on the heels of a several-day rainstorm. Light showers kept our shirts damp on the two-and-a-half mile trek. Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, and bluebells glowed from the trailsides while the drumming of grouse pulsed through the dripping woods. 

A campsite chosen in a stand of white pines offered views on both sides and a carpet of needles to keep our gear from getting muddy. With hammocks hung and tarps placed, our agenda was short: supper and a campfire. Ramen bowls and tuna tortillas were the easy part. Making a fire in a soggy environment proved less easy but perfect for staying warm while the woods turned colder. 

My boy slept like a rock that night. I did not. Owls, deer, and geese took turns coloring the dark with their respective outbursts. Then there were the coyotes— they were in a league of their own. I’m not complaining, mind you, only astonished at how a 12-year-old boy can sleep through all that. 

The morning crept in slowly and gently. Instant oatmeal warmed us when we emerged from our pillowy cocoons. We lingered a bit, soaking in the sounds and smells, talking about nothing in particular.

Cranes and cardinals provided a new soundscape as we returned to the car by another meandering route. The terrain fascinated and challenged us. There were many questions and I did my best to provide answers. Mostly we just walked and looked and discovered. 

It was simple, and yet perfect. 

Since our experiment with hammock camping in March, I’d been looking for another opportunity to exploit my son’s shiny new enthusiasm for it (a good move on my part). It’s hard to find anything that motivates him lately. Whether due to his age or pandemic weariness, it has become increasingly difficult to pry him from his rhythm of bouncing between technology and listlessness. We know these years are both fleeting and vitally important in shaping who he will become. Problem is, sometimes as parents we flail ineffectually in our attempts to make the most of every day. 

When I proposed we go backpacking with hammocks, my son accepted enthusiastically. Even without a destination or plan outlined, he was all in. It’s heartening to know my kids have that instinct. As for my daughter, she wasn’t going to let me off the hook. I had to promise to take her on her own hammocking trip, ASAP.  

To tell the truth, she played right into my hands. I know she needs this as much as anything right now and the proof is unfolding. She is already relaxed, carefree, and more like her natural self. It always works. And it doesn’t matter if she’s camping, fishing, foraging, or whatever. As with her brother, transformation is assured so long as the recipe is followed: 

Choose one or two kids. Remove from the heat and pressure of modern life and allow to cool. Add generous amounts of fresh air, exercise, and natural stimuli. Ferment until desired consistency is reached. 

And so, we revel in silence so hard to come by these days. Soon it will be dark and we will let the fire die out. In the morning we will eat and talk and do whatever we like. When we are ready we will shoulder our packs and follow a new path. I will have made the most of this weekend and this sweet child of mine will be ready to face another week. 

New Year, New Adventures

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I’m not a new-year’s-resolution kind of person. Rare are the times I am moved to state such aspirations formally, and rarer yet are the years when they survive to see the next changing of the calendar. Still, I will frequently look back on the past 12 months as that milestone approaches each year. My reflections have been more rewarding than usual this time around.  Continue reading “New Year, New Adventures”

How My Alma Mater Prepared Me To Sleep On The Ground

Read More Gustavus Adolphus College

Waking up somewhere cold and hard is not an occasional occurrence for me. Just a few weeks ago, I took my first solo trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as the snow and ice receded from the landscape. Earlier this year, I slept a night on the ice of Lake Mille Lacs while I explored a lake that is still big and new to me. A couple months before that, I endured one late-October night (in a slightly leaky tent) while I tried my hand at netting whitefish in far northern Minnesota. I was fortunate enough to catch a modest number of fish each time, for which I was grateful, but everyone knows there are easier ways to bring food home for the table. So what makes me embrace physical exertion and discomfort doing these or any such things? 

Continue reading “How My Alma Mater Prepared Me To Sleep On The Ground”

The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On

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My dad’s friend Larry was a staple of my formative years, a regular presence in our hunting endeavors in the late 80s and early 90s. His light, contagious demeanor was always welcome, and I won’t soon forget how his jokes and wise cracks punctuated the many car rides, duck blinds, and nights in the camper, not to mention his deft incitement of near-inappropriate moments at home and in the narthex of the church. I can still hear his crazy, half-wheezed, unfettered laugh, and I know I always will. 

He passed away last week, after a years-long tussle with cancer; this news was not unexpected, certainly, but its inevitability did not serve to mitigate its impact. His loss comes as yet another blow to constancy, a cold chipping away at my sense of youth and connection to the past. So it goes whenever a part of us seems gone forever and can only be kept alive in memory and stories. For me, it would be hard in this moment not to pause and remember the others that have gone on ahead.  Continue reading “The End of Their Era: When Our Outdoor Mentors Pass On”

Beauty: Birch, Mozart, and Human Nature

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On an early spring morning this year, I was attending a dress rehearsal for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem mass, one of his most recognizable and beloved works, and a perennial favorite (Ironically, Mozart left it unfinished when he died at the young age of 35, and much of the music wasn’t actually written by him). There I was, sitting in a church pew and watching the fast-passing altostratus clouds through a window high overhead, when the orchestra and choir started the Lacrimosa movement. I was utterly blindsided. The sight of cottony clouds streaking across the blue set to the soundtrack of a true master was profoundly and inexplicably moving. It was the kind of moment that makes a person gasp, and its abrupt arrival magnified its effects on me at least threefold. It was an unexpected moment of beauty that would change the whole week to come. Continue reading “Beauty: Birch, Mozart, and Human Nature”

The Sun Is Going To Win

The sun is going to win. I keep telling myself that lately. Our source for heat and light has never failed us, and deep down we all know it. Actual spring will come, followed by hot sweaty summer. We know this. But right now, smack in the middle of April, as most of Minnesota is in the grip of a full-blown blizzard and I’ve already cleared 7 inches of snow from the driveway, it’s almost impossible to believe. 

The last few days I spent outside, I couldn’t help but notice how powerfully the sun warmed my skin and clothing compared to the way it didn’t a few weeks ago. Earlier this week, as I sat atop the ten inches of crusted snow that sat atop almost three feet of solid lake ice, the sun played peek-a-boo with the help of passing clouds. When the shadows came over me, the wind picked up and I put another layer on. When the sun came back out, my black jacket became unbearably warm and it came off again. That never happens in January. I reflected on how much more intense the sun’s rays have become, and how the ice I was fishing through will ultimately have to yield. Cognitively, I knew spring will eventually win out despite this seemingly endless winter we are having. What I did not know was that the sun’s ever-stronger rays were bouncing off the snow and giving me an atomic-grade sunburn. It’s the worst one I’ve had in almost twenty years, maybe longer. The only consolation has been the moment of levity I seem to bring to everyone I’ve seen in the last 3 days. 

Now, I have never been a lover of the sun. I have never in my life sought to be in the sun just for the sake of it. My pasty skin needs extra protection, not extra exposure. In the summer (and from now on, in April too) I try to have a hat with a lot of brim available for sunny days, and I try never to go anywhere without sunscreen. I try really hard not to let the sun come near enough to hurt me. I mostly hope for cloudy days and shade trees everywhere I go. But I have never wanted so badly as I do now for the sun to give us some quality time. And I will be ready for it… as soon as I’m done clearing the next 7 inches of snow off the driveway in the morning. 

 

 

A Lifetime of Firsts

What makes the most memorable moments in our lives, the landmarks that will never be forgotten? The scrapbook in my mind naturally opens itself to the pages where the highlights are, to the stories that are told most often, and to the mental snapshots that were forever burned into place. Sometimes those are the big things, sometimes they are the traumatic things, but quite often, they are the “firsts:” first date, first week away at camp, first job, first apartment.

As hunters, we are known to celebrate all the big firsts: first hunt, first deer, and so on. One such memory for me is the day I killed my first duck. Continue reading “A Lifetime of Firsts”