When I was 5 years old, I wanted more than anything to go camping, to be out in the woods, running, climbing, exploring. But we didn’t own a single piece of camping gear, and my dad was, let’s just say, not much of an outdoorsman. He came from Iowa, where forests didn’t really exist. As a boy, he joined the Boy Scouts and went to a nearby lake with his troop, where they were supposed to cook food “like the Indians did,” buried underground with hot coals. His potato came out black and hard on the outside yet somehow raw on the inside. So he went to bed hungry, tossed around all night on the hard ground, got eaten by mosquitoes, and vowed never to set foot (or at least sleep) in the woods again.
But I begged and begged, until finally some uncles invited us to go camping with them, and my father grudgingly agreed. At a garage sale down the street, we found an old canvas World War II tent and some worn cotton sleeping bags. With these, we headed into the wild.
We met the others on the banks of the St. Croix River. My uncles came hauling a new, shiny pop-up camper that looked like the Taj Mahal on wheels. My dad looked around, picked a spot at random, and set up our tent. That night, we tied the flaps shut and drifted off to the buzz of mosquitoes in our ears. Some hours later, I woke up to the sound of my dad splashing around and swearing, having discovered too late that he’d put our tent (more or less) in a dry creek bed. Water was flowing through the middle of our sleeping area, and we spent the rest of the night shivering on the car seats. I realize now that he did all this not because he loved nature, but because he loved me.
I, however, was hooked. Miserable as that trip was, it also felt like the most fun I’d ever had. Afterward, I got out into the woods as often as I could—Indian Guides, Boy Scouts, the YMCA camp up north where I worked in college, all of which had a huge impact on how I viewed the world. For years I wanted to be an environmentalist (I even made a pilgrimage to the Greenpeace headquarters in Washington D.C.). Failing that, I wanted to be a nature writer.
These days, I’m a more casual naturalist. Yet on a regular basis, I still find myself standing along the Mississippi, watching beavers swim back and forth, or trying to pinpoint the call of a pileated woodpecker, and feeling something sublime and restorative about the flowing water and the rustling leaves.
Courtesy of Frank Bures
Several years ago, my wife and I had children—two daughters—and since then, I’ve tried to make sure they get out as much as I once desired. This hasn’t always been easy—loading small children for a simple trip across town can be like packing for the Himalayas, and camping often felt like a Victorian hunting expedition. Yet whenever we arrived a camp, and the girls ran down to the water like it was Disney World, it seemed worth all the lower-back problems in the world.
Sadly, the wilderness experience I received, and the one I try to give my girls, is an opportunity available to fewer and fewer kids. According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, between 1997 and 2003, there was a 50-percent drop in the number of 9- to 12-year-olds who hiked, walked, fished, or even gardened. And of 800 mothers surveyed, 71 percent recalled playing outside every day but only 26 percent said their kids play outside every day.
Adults, too, are suffering from a similar disorder: Visits to national parks and other outdoor activities began a long, steady decline in the early 1980s. In Minnesota it hasn’t been as steep, but the Department of Natural Resources has seen a decrease in the percentage of visitors to state parks under age 45, particularly among families with young children.
Experts attribute this to several causes: the rise of screen time, children’s highly scheduled lives, and an increasingly distorted view of the dangers of the world. Statistically things are no riskier than when we were kids, but our tolerance for risk has mysteriously plummeted. The world is just as safe as it’s always been, yet somehow it feels more dangerous than ever.
The convergence of factors could be undermining our health as well: Recent research has shown that time spent in a forest can reduce stress, anger, depression, and aggressiveness, and boost our immune system. Blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones are all known to decrease in natural settings. One study even showed that office workers whose window looked out on green spaces felt less frustration and more enthusiasm than employees whose windows didn’t. And it was recently found that just five minutes exercising in nature can have a big positive impact on one’s daily mood.
These are all good reasons to get out in nature, certainly. But they are not the things that draw me back, and make it worth the risk and the rain and the charred potatoes. No, the reasons we keep going back are ones you can’t plan or engineer or buy: Like the morning all four us were sitting at our campsite eating breakfast when we heard a rustle, looked up, and saw a moose walking by a mere 20 feet away. Or the time we hiked up to High Falls at Tettegouche State Park and spent hours skipping rocks and playing with crayfish. Or last year, when we paddled out into the Boundary Waters for the first time. I was sure the girls would be bored, but they seemed mesmerized by the miles of paddling and didn’t want to leave the peninsula where we sat for hours, gorging ourselves on blueberries.
COURTESY OF FRANK BURES
I hope the time we spend in the woods goes deep in their bones. I hope it makes them healthier, more well-grounded people who care about the earth. But mostly I want something else for them, something I’d received from my own camping experiences, starting with that first trip: I want them to know that nature can be beautiful and it can be terrible but that it is always awe-inspiring. I want them to see they too are part of it and to marvel and feel overwhelmed by this. And someday, when they’re sitting in an office, I want them remember hearing waves lap on the shore and seeing a billion stars in the sky and to recall a time when they were young and they started to feel like a part of something bigger than themselves.