We spent a week in Alaska a couple of summers ago; my wife Danielle, the former Kenai Fjords National Park Ranger and Mendenhall Glacier Tour Guide, our nine-year-old-just-out-of-football-camp-and-Minecraft-loving son Dawson; our six-year old twin girls, Dari and Delaney, who adore riding horses and spending time on the Samsung tablet playing Littlest Pet Shop games, and me, long of tooth but filled with memories of days gone by as a river guide and international explorer. On this trip, we overnighted in and discovered the hamlet of Gustavus, population 500, and Glacier Bay National Park.
Do six and nine-year olds know what they want to be ‘when they grow up?’ Probably not, especially when their example, this fifty-four year old dad, is still trying to figure it out and their forty-five year old mom is just having fun with her kids and work, feeling like she is twenty-three (and looking like it too!). But this trip taught me a huge lesson. Let kids experience and explore all that they can, disconnected from electronic distractions that prevent here-and-now awareness and limit feeling free. I also learned (relearned actually, for the umpteenth time) that when kids view their lives as safe, which is easy to do in a town of 500 that has no roads in or out, they play hard and long with each other, uncovering new things and ways to do new things. A few times on this trip I had to swallow hard to get my heart out of my throat as I realized my concept of safe is too narrow and can get in the way of kids feeling unbound joy, limitless power, and unbridled reverie.
Here is what I wrote one afternoon on this trip, on the deck of our cabin, staring out at our kids walking away, towards the rugged coast through fireweed as tall as corn stalks. “Imagination is now the mother of all invention. Necessity took a back seat a couple of decades ago. IPODs, softer airline seats, microwave diet food, and Camelback water system backpacks make this clear. Imagination drives creativity. Creativity drives invention. Inventions these days make life more comfortable, healthy, and fun. This indicates to me that imagination should run wild among our kids, which it does until they plug into their technology. Then, something happens. It is almost as if their imagination is taken care of by the game inventors, and they just go with the software engineer’s flow, largely restricted in their thinking by the confines of the game, the text, or the Instagram.”
This trip revealed the power of imagination once again. Our son is now a professional wilderness and wildlife photographer. A month before this trip he found an old Canon camera that uses 35mm film. His imagination of what the photo will look like led him to shoot dozens of shots, without the instantaneous impression of a digital camera that tends to suck us all into looking at that image rather than the world unfolding around us. He wore that old camera around his neck and burned through film at the pace of Nathan Jones when he devours Coney Island hotdogs on July 4.
By the way, there is no place in Gustavus that sells film. For that matter, there is no place in Gustavus that sells organic blueberries or fresh habanero peppers. But you can pick berries just outside your door. And, you can borrow a can a pepper spray from your neighbor if you are going for a hike in grizzly country, which could be the land between you and your neighbor’s place.
Our daughter, Dari, is now a boat captain. She got to sit in the wheel house, turning the big wood and metal wheel to keep the boat pointed ‘right at the end of that island covered in Sitka spruce’ as the full-time captain requested of his freckle-faced mate. She scanned the horizon near and far as she did on this entire adventure, in search of more humpback as they scooped herring with their whale-sized mouths and then tail-slapped the water.
And Delaney, our other daughter, is now a hiking guide, imploring us to ‘come on’ to see what is just around the next corner in a dark, thick rainforest, rife with puddles, twisted logs, softball-sized mushrooms, ferns taller than she, and lichen pedestals. These make for platforms for her to show us how to outstretch our arms, tilt back our head, close our eyes, and feel the sun on our face and body that filters through to the forest floor. That is where you get more strength to keep walking and smiling, as she soaks it all in and turns it in to innocent energy. Turns out she is her mama’s daughter.
We are grateful this was not our only trip into the wilderness, nor will it be our last. I can only imagine where we might end up next and what my kids might imagine too.