This past weekend we headed out to the mountains to do a trial run campout before we head out on the mancub’s first birthday backpacking trip next weekend. One thing we are learning about being in the wild with a little wild one is that we have to slow ourselves down, and take time to play. It isn’t about the big peaks or the long paddles, but about stopping along a stream and waving around sticks. We had a great trip out. Only a few blackflies, the butterflies were out and about by the hundreds, and the thunderstorms didn’t blow through until after we made it off the trail. Bliss.
There’s a cold wind blowing outside that signals the end of our tenting season for the year, and is making me think fondly back to our first family camping trip in September, the last time it was warm enough to wear shorts in the woods. I’ll be posting a story soon about our last attempt at camping out which resulted in a long drive home late at night, but in the meantime, we are packing up our summer gear, putting away the canoes and kayaks, and starting the traditional winter trip planning season, where we pour over maps and dream about long summer days on the water. This next year we will have the added excitement of introducing the Kiddo to the canoe. In the meantime, we have a bunch of day hikes, ski trips and rustic cabin camping to keep us busy until iceout. Bring it on!
I met Jane Goodall once. I was an eager student of anthropology and had been devouring every book on primates and paleoanthropology I could find, including all of Goodall’s work. Miraculously, she came to speak at my college, and I planned to skip out of my favorite class to hear her presentation. In the week leading up to her appearance, I busily wrote out all the questions I wanted to ask her, just in case there was a chance to talk one on one. I tried to come up with complex questions, not ones that just anyone off the street would ask, oh no; these would be questions that showed I not only read her books but could offer deep insight into her findings. I was certain it would lead to a lively and stimulating exchange of ideas, and that this would be one of the better networking moments of my anthropological career.
When the presentation ended, I hurried to the back of the auditorium to line up for her book signing. Along with every other person there. The line wrapped around the room, and it became clear to me that I was going to have about 30 seconds to impress Dr. Goodall. I was doomed. My hands got clammy and started to shake. As my turn approached, all rational thought deserted my brain. I reached out with my sticky hand, and barely managed to choke out a strangled, “I liked your book,” before receiving a cursory thank you and being guided away by the handlers. I had choked.
All of this has little to do with today’s post except to emphasize my long-standing science crush on Jane Goodall.
In 1967, Jane Goodall brought her months-old son into the field with her at Gombe in Tanzania. Her careful observation of the reserve’s chimpanzees had shown her that they hunted, and often killed the young of other primates in the area, and she was concerned about the safety of her young son. In order to protect him from both the chimps and the many other wild animals in the area, she built him a cage. Both she and her son slept in it at night, and though it was painted a cheery blue and decorated with birds and stars, she received heavy criticism from a number of people about her child rearing methods. But she always maintained that “Grub”, as she nicknamed him, had led an extraordinary childhood. She took her parenting cues from the chimpanzees she studied, and noticed that, “chimp mothers… that were affectionate and tolerant raised babies that had good adult relationships and were successful community members”(Quote from Jane Goodall by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallan). She took six years away from direct fieldwork to raise him, and he accompanied her in her research travels around the countryside.
Grub grew up running around the forests and plains of Africa, and in the process learned firsthand the value of the wild creatures surrounding him even when they were a direct danger to his family. Goodall has since formed the Jane Goodall Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting humanitarian, environmental and animal protection efforts around the globe. As part of the institute’s efforts to reach out to youth, Goodall formed a program to help children become actively involved in influencing the world around them. Roots and Shoots encourages youth-led campaigns to effect positive change in the three focus areas of the institute, and helps kids identify how they can make a difference. Anyone can form a Roots and Shoots group, and there are thousands of children now working on service projects related to the program. For folks looking to not only get their kids out into the woods but also teach them to preserve those things they love, this program seems like a great way to get started. You can search for local groups, or learn how to start your own here.
My feet don’t make much noise on the damp pine needles as I climb up the steep hill that marks the beginning of my favorite local trail, the one I used to run laps around when I lived down the street from the small state park, ten years ago. On this trail, I am used to pushing myself. The hills aren’t long, but they are steep, and covered with roots that make you dodge and weave. It takes complete focus to run top speed on a downhill stretch covered with pine roots and not wind up on your face, or worse, tumbling down a steep embankment into the tidal river.
Over the past week, I’ve returned to this park several times as part of my plan to take the Kid out for at least an hour a day to explore someplace wild. This is also part of my plan to get in pre-pregnancy shape as fast as possible so we can do some bigger hikes in the mountains this fall. The trail is longer than I remember, and the small hills are harder to climb, even though I’m walking and not running. It could be the ten pound meatloaf in a carrier on my chest, but I find myself gasping for breath and having to stop before the top of small climbs I would have powered up a decade ago. As I get further along, though, some of the old me kicks in and I find myself thinking ‘faster, go faster, push up this hill, go, go go’ . My pace quickens. My heart rate rises. I feel some of the same endorphins kicking in that used to keep me running till my feet hurt. I blow by a couple of women leisurely walking up ahead of me, and it feels good.
And then, I slip on a root. My reflexes kick in and I do an awkward tap dance on root tops until I catch myself. I stop, heart pounding, hands shaking a little, and take a deep breath before moving on. The Kid is still asleep in his carrier, no idea how close we came to falling.
There is a constant battle between the old me, who wants to push-push-push for the best workout, the fastest run up the hill, the hardest route, and this strange new me, the Mom, who has this tiny little creature sleeping against her chest and completely trusting her to take care of him. I’m going on instinct these days, and my instincts are screaming at me to slow down. So I do. We finish the hike at a more reasonable pace, and he finally wakes up a little. He stares, entranced by the light in the woods, and then turns and smiles right at me.
Ten minutes after I pushed the last tent stake into the dirt, the first raindrop hit the fly, immediately followed by a slow growl of thunder. Liam was lounging in his car seat a few feet away, and I ran to get him under the safety of the tent before he was soaked to the skin. His eyes grew wide and his little arms jerked in a startle reflex at each crack of thunder. Just when I was afraid he’d break into tears and screams, his lips turned up at the corners, and a slow smile grew on his face. Yup, this kid laughs at thunderstorms. For the next twenty minutes or so, I sang sea shanties and he listened to the rain and watched the shadows dance across the tent fly, smiling and cooing at the strange turn of events.
The storm was also the beginning of his love affair with the tent. He woke early both mornings, but instead of fussing to be held, he babbled quietly to himself, and stared at the tent, engrossed in the patterns of moving light and shadow across the fabric. I think that he spent more awake time inside the tent than any other time during the weekend. He slept all through the hikes, the river games, the campfires (with the exception of one minor screaming fit during dinner on Saturday night, which was resolved by retreating to the tent). But the TENT, man, that was the best part. It was also the part of our first campout that had me the most worried initially, as I had visions of him screaming all night long, and angry neighbors storming into our site with pitchforks and torches.
We have a longer trip planned in a few weeks, a possible backpack, and I’m hoping this infatuation continues. In the meantime, I’ll keep on with playtime in the Peapod out in our backyard, and daily mini-hikes in the conservation lands near our house. But so far, we are off to a great start.
The Kid will be 6 weeks old tomorrow, and we’ve been slowly getting used to the chaos of having a newborn running our lives for us. He’s a pretty mellow kid most of the time, and we’ve been able to take him on a lot of short walks in local woods and out along the ocean. He sleeps through most of these little trips, and it seems almost silly to drive over and load up the carrier just to have him sleep someplace new. I’m hoping that he hears the sounds of the ocean and woods in his sleep, and when he can stay awake long enough, they will seem familiar, though he won’t know why.
This weekend we will be heading out for our first camping trip. I’m a little nervous, but not because we are doing anything too terribly difficult. We will be car camping at a place we’ve been to a hundred times, with other families at the same site, and are planning to do a few short hikes in familiar territory. The two things freaking me out a bit are that he’ll cry all night long and wake everyone in the campground up, or that he’ll get too cold, especially since we can’t put him in a sleeping bag.
This camping trip was also supposed to be the debut of my brilliant plan to make the tent a familiar place for the Kid. We bought a Kidco Peapod Travel Bed, which is basically a tiny little tent that you can set up for babies to nap in…kind of a much more flexible and lightweight alternative to a pack-n-play. The idea was to get him used to sleeping in the Peapod, then put the Peapod into our regular tent and presto—-strange tent becomes a familiar sleeping place and the Kid’s routine is maintained, all while we make a place for him to sleep in the tent where he be safe from having to snuggle with a stinky dog . Unfortunately, he hates it. To be fair, he hates sleeping anywhere that’s more than 6 inches away from a parent, so I still think my plan has merit. It just might take him a little longer to get into the swing of things. We’ll see how the weekend goes…
So much planning goes into preparing for a new child, and preparing to bring that new child into the outdoors is no exception. The following is a list of things we are doing to get ourselves ready for the biggest adventure of our lives.This has been a really helpful process for us, and I’ll be expanding on a lot of these ideas in posts that will appear over the next few months.
1. Educating ourselves
Though we both have a lot of experience with introducing older kids to the outdoors, this whole baby in the wild thing is pretty new to us. We have lots of questions about what makes sense developmentally, what the baby can physically handle, and how to ease the transition between what the baby perceives as the safe and familiar, and the aspects of wilderness travel that might be scary and upsetting to a very young child. This has helped us to develop a rough idea of when we can plan to do certain kinds of trips. Before researching, we didn’t know you couldn’t put a baby in a backpack carrier until at least 6 months, because his neck muscles aren’t yet strong enough to hold up his head. Good to know.
Though much of this will vary from child to child and will be something we learn along the way, we are trying to arm ourselves with as much knowledge as possible. Some of this comes from books, many of which we’ll review and present to you, some of it comes from looking for mentors or interviewing people we know who have managed to be successful in raising outdoor kids. We’ll also be beefing up our safety skills. For example, I’m planning to upgrade my Wilderness First Aid certification to a Wilderness First Responder in the next year, just to hone my emergency preparedness skills in case things go wrong somewhere along the way.
2. Researching local kid friendly trip options
Over the past few years, we’ve focused our explorations on the more wild locations around us; we’ve island hopped our kayaks along the Maine coast and up into Canada, and done a lot of longer hiking trips into the more untrammeled corners of our part of the country. Right now, we are still pretty mobile, though as my belly has grown bigger and my feet have swollen my pace more closely resembles a toddler than a through hiker. We’ve been taking advantage of this mobility to scout out local trails and parks for good kid-friendly excursion options. We’ve discovered a few new gems and now have lots of options for short day trips that we had not known about before.
3. Prepping the family
We aren’t quite sure how many of the people we know will react to our philosophy about raising our children. While many of them will likely think it’s great to expose kids to nature, we are expecting some criticism about how young we take our kids out, and how challenging we decide to make our trips. We have a short camping trip planned at about the 6 week mark, and have already had some head shaking. Critique is one thing; we have thick skins and can handle it. But we are trying to minimize concern from our family and friends by having early discussions with them about our plans, and reassuring them that we have our son’s best interests at heart. Hopefully these early discussions and reassurances will lay the groundwork for good communication that will help us bridge the differences between our own ideas and those of the people who care for us.
4. Gearing up
As I’ve mentioned, our first big baby purchase wasn’t a crib or a car seat; it was a bigger tent. Sean is the resident gear expert, and has been busy taking inventory of our supplies and figuring out how to streamline and re-purpose what we have to suit our new style of travelling. He’s added a bug tent and a set of portage wheels for the canoe, and done some research into baby backpacks. We want to outfit our new family without breaking the bank, and he has spent a lot of time learning how to make gear, such as dry bags for paddling trips, that fits our specific needs and saves us money.
5. Being outside as much as possible
Finally, we are trying not to lose touch with what we love most about being outdoors while in the midst of all this baby planning. Though I’ve slowed down a lot in the last few weeks, I cross-country skied all winter, took trips up into the mountains and spent as much time as I could fit into my schedule just enjoying being outside. Most recently, we paddled a quiet stretch of water and just talked about our dreams for the next few months. This work to make sure we share the same ideas will be crucial during the upcoming chaos, and we can look back at this time of preparation with fondness.