Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Letting Our Children “Fly”

The planning and preparation started like our many other trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Northern Minnesota; pouring through maps to find an entry point and route, securing a permit, pulling out the gear, picking up groceries, packing the packs, and loading the canoes on the trailer.  The crew eagerly anticipated the upcoming trip.  After the final checks and good byes, it was time to head east on Highway 2.  It was that moment with mixed emotions as I watched the crew leave with the canoes in tow.  I would not be making this trip to the BWCAW with my son Derek.  With 17 trips under his belt, all with me, he was now the group leader and ready to experience canoe country without his Dad.
As the crew left, my thoughts began to wonder if he was ready to take on this challenge.  As a way to rationalize that he was ready, I did some comparing.  My first trip was with my uncle and cousins in 1986 to Hog Creek and Perent Lake.  After just 2 trips and at the age of 18, my friend Doug and I took a trip to Clearwater, Johnson Falls, and Mountain Lake prior to starting college in the fall of 1987.  I have made a trip every year since.  Derek, on the other hand, is now 21 and has been on 17 trips.  I reassured myself that he was ready, but would he make all the correct decisions?
In all of my trips, our group mantra has always been; “It’s all part of the experience.”  As those who have traveled into canoe country know, “the experience” can be both positive and negative.  The positive and unforgettable experiences keep us coming back to Canoe Country, while the adversity we sometimes experience are those we vividly remember and come with some valuable lessons.  Hopefully Derek remembered all those “lessons learned.”
Overtaking my worrying was a walk down memory lane as I reflected back on our experiences together.  In 1998 after Derek turned 4, I convinced Taunya that our son was ready for his first trip to the BWCAW.  My journal entry for Derek’s first trip captures the moment:
In the summer of 1986, before my senior year of high school, my Uncle George Schleicher asked me if I would like to go to the Boundary Waters because they needed a 4th person.  My first impression was that this place was something special and I promised myself to come back every year.  I was also excited to introduce others such as family and friends to this special place.  
The more I went the more I couldn’t wait to share it with my own children.  When you were born in February of 1994, I was already planning and looking forward to our first trip to the Boundary Waters.  I said, “as soon as Derek is potty trained, he’ll be ready to go.”  This year (1998) the opportunity was finally here and I found some other interested family and friends (Mark, Derek, Clint, Eric, Paul) that wanted to be a part of your first BWCA experience.  
I started organizing and planning about 3 weeks prior to our trip.  I felt (and always have) that the key to a successful trip is careful planning and organization.  I was reluctant to tell you that we were going right away because I didn’t think you would understand where we were going, what the Boundary Waters was, and you would always get over anxious anytime we would go somewhere.  You would count down “sleeps” as a measuring stick to count the days.  Finally, it was getting closer and I wanted you to be a part of the preparation of the trip, so I told you where we were going and who we were going with.  You were really excited and immediately asked, “Dad, how many sleeps until we go?”  It was 10 at that point.  You did a great job of counting backwards every day.  We went grocery shopping together for the food and also spent time together setting out the equipment and checking it out.  You asked many questions and I explained what everything was used for.
Zero sleeps and it’s time to go.  We said goodbye to Mommy and Ben.  We stopped at a gas station in Grand Rapids for gas and an ice cream treat.  You told the cashier; “You know what, we’re going to the Boundary Waters and I’m going to catch a big fish.”
As I read through the journal for Derek’s first trip, I was glad that I captured the moments in writing as he certainly would not have remembered the trip nor would I continue to remember the details.
Derek’s second trip in 1999 took place over the July 4th weekend (enter at Island River, Isabella River, Quadga Lake, Bald Eagle Lake, exit at Snake River).  Our experiences from this trip would be forever remembered.  
We’re off to the Boundary Waters for your second trip...As we approached the final portage before our destination, Bald Eagle Lake, Doug and Clint decide to try to run the rapids.  We portaged our stuff to the end and waited for their appearance.  A few of us made a second trip on the portage and still no sign.  Finally, they emerged with the badly dented up and punctured canoe.  They made a poor decision to run the rapids and were very lucky not to be injured seriously.
Sigurd Olson best described this scene; “...as long as there are young men with the light of adventure in their eyes and a touch of wildness in their souls, rapids will be run.”
In the morning on July 4th, we fished a little bit but then the sky started to look a little threatening.  We picked up the camp and prepared ourselves for some rain.  Later in the morning, a loud roar could be heard followed by some intense winds so we all headed into our tents.  After about 15-30 minutes, the strong winds decreased and it rained for a couple of hours.  After the rain stopped, we went fishing.  We talked to another group that was camped on Bald Eagle and they said that they had many trees in their campsite get blown over, so we were pretty lucky.  (Only later would we fully realize the damage that the storm did).
The adventure didn’t end there.  We still had to get home.
After double portaging over and around the many blown down trees, we arrived at our car and met another group who said we were not going anywhere as the trees blocked the road.  We then heard chainsaws and found the forest service clearing the road so we helped out.  After loading up and heading out, an oncoming vehicle stopped me.  The driver warned me to be aware of a creek, which was washing out the road.  I made it through, but unfortunately Doug, Derek, and Tyler got stuck in the washed out road and needed a tow truck to pull out the vehicle.
Since 1999, there have been many other memorable experiences during our annual trip to the BWCAW.  Some of these experiences include the long portage, border route trail, Johnson Falls, jumping off rocks into the water, trips in October, and trips with Derek’s brother, cousins, uncles and grandpa.  

In 2012, just our immediate family took our first trip together.  We secured 2 permits for the same entry point so Derek and Ben could take a side trip on their own.  After a couple of days, Derek and Ben set off for 2 nights.  I was more sad than worried, knowing that that my sons no longer needed their Dad.  The boys learned a great deal about being on their own while Taunya and I were just a couple of lakes away.  This trip also prepared me for my own transition of letting go.

Looking back, my initial goal was to ensure my sons had a positive experience in the BWCAW so they would want to return again and again.  Mission accomplished.  In doing so, I did most everything while they played, fished, and explored.  Over the past several trips, I started asking more questions (i.e. What do you think?) and turning over some of the duties.  I knew that I was not going to be on their canoe trips indefinitely, so they needed to learn things on their own.  As I turned over the duties, I had them assist me, then had them “do” with my guidance, and finally complete tasks on their own to figure things out.  A few examples include, setting up tent, starting a fire, hanging the food pack, portaging, filleting a fish, and reading a map.
 Through the gradual release of my “teaching” vs. their “learning,” I noticed that even after everything I had thought I taught them some mistakes were still made.  Only when Derek and Ben were allowed to do a task on their own instead of me showing and telling, did they complete the tasks more efficiently and accurately.  Mostly through their struggles, were they really allowed to learn.  I enjoyed watching the learning process take place through collaboration, critical thinking, failure, and redos.

It was challenging for me to watch Derek and Ben struggle through certain things when I knew the correct answer or a better way to do something.  For example, I watched them put up the tent incorrectly.  They worked their way through some of the obstacles, and then would ask me for assistance.  I would respond with a question such as, “what do you think” or “have you thought of?”  Another example was map reading and finding portages.  Let’s put it this way, we added some distance to our paddles as they read the map to find the portages.  I usually knew where the portages were, but I allowed them to figure it out after they were not able to find it the first time.  I believe I would have done my sons a disservice if I had not let them think through problems.  After all...

“Learning is their journey. Let them navigate. Push them to explore. Watch them discover. Encourage their questions. Allow them to struggle. Support their thinking. Let them fly.” Krissy Venosdale

In addition to wilderness skills, I also tried to model and impress on my sons other intangibles such as the respect of this special place many fought so hard to protect.  We always practiced “leave no trace,” left our campsites better than we found them, and left a small pile of prepared wood by the fire grate.  They hopefully learned that the key to a successful trip is planning and preparedness.  Finally, we always were mindful that help is a long way away, so we were careful, safe, and made good decisions.
So, it seemed fitting for Derek to choose Hog Creek and Perent Lake for his first trip with his friends.  After a few days, Derek and his friends returned from a fun trip.  They were eager to share stories from their adventure.  Listening to their stories, I smiled to myself and knew my question about Derek’s readiness and ability to lead others into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness was answered.  To see four 21 year olds willing to venture into the wilderness, without Wi-Fi, and enjoy their time in the BWCAW was truly rewarding.
Letting our children fly also means letting our children pursue their passions.  When I was a child I loved being outdoors and camping.  After my first trip to the BWCAW in 1986, canoe country became my passion with a promise to myself to return each year.  I wanted to learn everything I could about the BWCAW, so in the pre-Internet days, I went to the library to find books and periodicals.
The BWCAW continues to be one of my passions.  I am grateful to have shared so many trips with my sons with many wonderful memories.  I made it clear they did not have to have the same interests as me and should never feel obligated to go on trips, but they always wanted to go.
Letting our children fly does not only pertain to the BWCAW, but life in general.  Share your passions with your children, allow them to pursue their own interests, and then be patient to observe their learning process in action.

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