With four young children piled in the backseat of a yellow International Travelall station wagon pulling a pop-up trailer, a love of birds compelled my father to visit every wildlife refuge between New York and Texas. Certain choice moments stand out, like the time my sister convinced all three younger siblings to sit on a red ant pile during a roadside lunch stop. Soon after reloading, the car came to an abrupt halt and my mother helped us strip naked to get every last ant out of our clothes.
One day a herd of wild peccary stormed our picnic, sending my brother up the nearest tree and the rest of us into the car for safety. Camping in Oklahoma, we awoke to a herd of bison stomping and snorting with only the canvas tenting between us. A boat ride in the Gulf of Mexico delivered a rare view of the last remaining flock of whooping cranes. Inspired by the wild places I visited with my family, I absorbed an enduring passion for nature…forty years later we are still the best of friends.
Whether in our backyard or in our travels, my father constantly marveled at the wonders nature revealed, luring his children into the mystery. In the evenings, we carefully laid non-poisonous mushroom caps on construction paper to catch “spore prints” dropping onto the paper overnight. Hiking the hill behind our house, we collected leaves from various eastern hardwoods for a school report. We started a museum with assorted specimens that included: an empty turtle shell, artist’s fungus, birch bark, an armadillo skin, and, from our year lived in Texas, a tarantula, scorpion and centipede preserved in formaldehyde solution. On the coast of Scotland, my father and brother patiently sawed away with a dull Swiss army knife at the dead carcass of an oceanic duck called a razorbill, to recover the elaborate beak for our collection back home. Nowadays, I subscribe to the modern mantra “Take only pictures; leave only footprints.”
Throughout our wanderings and investigations, my father instilled respect and curiosity for all natural places and for the creatures that inhabit them. His passion and delight when meeting a bird species for the first time or greeting a familiar wildflower every spring was contagious. Uncovering hidden treasures opened our world. Joy erupted from the smallest to the grandest discoveries. I loved being with him when he was so impassioned and accessible. We did not have to be in dramatic settings like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone to appreciate our surroundings and each other. What mattered was belonging and spending time together. Despite the irritations of sunburn, insect bites and poison ivy, nature became my favorite place, not in small part because that’s where I spent quality time with my family.
Not surprisingly, my husband and I spend as much time in nature as we can with our two sons. When our oldest, now twelve years old, routinely chooses the longest, most difficult hike in the guidebook of the latest park we are visiting, my husband and I have to ask: are we prepared for this? Naturally, our adventures started with slow wobbly toddler meanders over uneven rocky terrain, and evolved, as age and abilities allowed, to hollering-good backcountry powder skiing last winter. Each year we build up our skills, endurance, and equipment to prepare for our next adventure. From backpacking in the Canadian Rockies, to mountain biking in Utah, to roaming the mountains at home, we have secured a deep well of joyful moments to draw lasting pleasure from.
What makes time together in nature so satisfying? For one thing, parents are happiest doing what they love: hiking, fishing, boating, bird watching, horseback riding, gardening, hot air ballooning, rock climbing, caving, exercising, exploring, photographing, bicycling, camping, or simply being in beautiful places. Nature serves as a great equalizer, allowing everyone to discover or share something new. Children and parents relax while delighting in the bliss of natural landscapes: scenery, sounds, sunlight and the rush of endorphins from exercise. Somehow, amidst chaos and youthful exuberance, sublime transcendence prevails over everyday concerns. Our senses open up as we release defenses and soak in the wild artistry of natural places. We can focus more on each other and the natural gems around us, from grand vistas with dancing light on forested slopes, to the fresh scent after a rainstorm. We catch the magic when touched by nature first-hand and not just through television and movies.
Well-endowed with exceptional scenic sites including several National and State Parks and Forests, Northern California is an outdoor lover’s paradise, with mountains, rivers, lakes, and wilderness areas to explore and enjoy. Everyone can experience the grandeur and excitement of our natural heritage at their own comfort level. Professional outdoor experts are available to assist families in planning and executing memorable fishing, rafting, climbing and camping trips.
According to some experience-savvy grandparents, whatever your family’s stage or abilities, getting out together is what matters. An active, youthful grandmother, with sons aged 34 and 36 years old, believes outdoor family time, without friends along, kept their family connections strong through adulthood. A super-fit 72-year-old man I recently met on a gnarly mountain bike ride with one of his four grown sons advised: “Spend as much time together with your children as you can!” This is advice I definitely plan to follow. I know the precious moments shared today will shine brightly as loving memories for a lifetime.