Who's Your Daddy?

In adventure as in life, wisdom is passed down from father to son. Or not.

Apr 1, 2004
Outside Magazine
father son camping, backpacking, wilderness

The proverbial wisdom that children are fascinating creatures who have much to teach us is probably statistically true. After all, it's grown-up guys who break the most eggs and wreak the most misery. Nevertheless, as a father (to the best of my knowledge) of four sons—Jeb, now legally qualified to drink everywhere outside the Arab world; Tim and Reid, fraternal twins with a combined age of 36; and Paul, young enough to be my grandchild—who has tried to do his part to introduce them to the potential risks and rewards of outdoor adventure, I've held fast to the catchall principle of I'm the daddy so I must be right. The younger and smaller they are, I've found, the more cheerfully susceptible they are to this spurious logic. Paul, perhaps because he is only five, easily confuses me with God and is great fun to go fishing with.

Inconveniently, Jeb, Reid, and Tim have all reached that station in life where they're not so easily impressed with my wisdom, though I've noticed that they still phone home when they have car trouble or need a cash infusion. But each, in his own way, is a sensitive creature, and typically, when I admonish them that the wilderness is tricky territory—where the risk of losing an eye or a buttock or an expensive piece of equipment is something worth thinking about—what I get back is mainly attitude. Of course, I'm grateful that these large-size spawn of mine can carry a lot of stuff, and, except for their tendencies toward knee-jerk enviro-fascism, I regard them as worthy traveling companions.

Over the years—since I was ostensibly not yet old, and my sons were still at that endearing developmental stage where contempt for Dad was not yet the default mode—we've done our fair share of backpacking (mostly on the wussy East Coast) and canoeing (in Minnesota, New England, and Canada). We've bonded, by God, and in the process I've inflicted deliberate psychological abuse only when I deemed it absolutely necessary. Along the way, we, as a bunch of guys, have acquired a few crackerjack insights that I'm glad to pass along. My hope is that if, by chance, you are a father or a son contemplating a bit of familial togetherness, I can shatter a few illusions by offering some instructive, though mostly negative, examples from my own experience.

That sounds a bit downbeat, I realize, and I do want to strike a positive note. So let me restate that: Maps are definitely for suckers. And I'm one of those suckers. I love all kinds of maps—ancient maps, decorative maps, topographical maps, road maps. A credible-seeming map can nurture the fantasy that even when your group has become hors d'oeuvres for mosquitoes the size of grackles, there is still a path out of the woods. One July, we planned a five-day canoe trip near the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota, with an itinerary that included somewhere between 15 and 6,000 portages. Our aerial maps enabled us to locate the portage trails easily enough. However, the maps identified trail lengths in rods—a unit of measurement so archaic as to be abstract—and before long the stated length of any given trail began to seem only marginally relevant. My father was a navigator in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, and I believe I'm genetically predisposed to find my way. My sons beg to differ. "No, Dad, you dumb schmuck, not that way-that way!" is the sort of editorializing that I never fail to find uncalled for. As it was, such hectoring proved moot during the Gunflint Trail escapade. The duly mapped portage trails were not a pathway out but a pathway in to a barely penetrable morass of fallen trees and boot-swallowing mud. The maps had seduced and betrayed us.

A couple of summers ago, on the dubious advice of a dubious friend (who accompanied us on the trip and, as we headed home, engineered a major collision involving both of our automobiles), we found our way to a dubious outfitter in Maine who, in a way that should have aroused my suspicion, offered to provide everything—canoes, gear, food, including a cooler with lobsters—for an expedition on the Moose River. The downside was that he also packed an entire kitchen. The burden of our superfluous cargo led to the unfortunate moment when Jeb, seized by a mutinous impulse, heaved into the river a couple of "waterproof" packs, one of which contained my sleeping bag and clothing.

Jeb and our dubious friend had decided, as we neared our campsite, to take an ill-advised fork in the river, which was not actually a fork but a cul-de-sac. As a result, they were forced to bushwhack through unbushwhackable terrain, a demoralizing ordeal that in turn yielded an inappropriately timed lecture by me—a general impugning of their common sense—and then Jeb's demonstration that even for a strapping lad it is not an easy thing to toss a 40-pound pack across a 25-foot-wide stream. I now believe that my threat to disown Jeb was an overreaction, as was his counterthreat to disembowel me with an ax.

Once, during a weeklong canoe trip in northeastern Minnesota's Boundary Waters, my son Tim, who was then ten years old, reported that on his way to the latrine he had been menaced by a fanged and almost certainly poisonous platypus. My assurances that the platypus was native to Australia, not Minnesota, proved unpersuasive. That evening, after I made the discovery that Tim had already eaten the chocolate bars that I had planned to use to make s'mores, I felt I had no choice but to exploit his platypus fixation. As we huddled around the campfire, I recalled having read a magazine article that described a previously unknown species of North American platypus, a hyena-like beast that enjoyed dragging sleeping boys from tents and eating their faces before depositing their remains in the latrine. Since then, Tim has never fully outgrown his platypus phobia. Nor have I fully gotten over his selfish plunder of the chocolate bars.

This helpful hint speaks for itself, so I won't go into a lot of details other than to say that once the crisis had passed we felt that we had learned a useful lesson and, in all likelihood, so had the bears.

I happen to be a fastidious, though I don't believe clinically compulsive, person. When I'm on a camping trip and have access to plentiful fresh water, I look forward to an evening bath. Unlike my holier— (and more-aromatic—) than-thou sons, I don't subscribe to the theory that if I spill a little Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap in a pristine lake or river, all aquatic life within a three-mile radius will instantaneously be extinguished. Tim's twin, Reid, derives perverse pleasure from the moral egregiousness of my daily ablutions. Once, after a successful afternoon of fishing—at the time, we were camped on an accessible-only-by-air, 30-mile-long lake in the Saguenay region of central Quebec—I had bathed and was toweling off, enjoying the thought that I no longer smelled of fish entrails, when Reid planted himself next to me, arms folded, and treated me to his patented withering smirk.

"As you know, Reid," I said, "Dr. Bronner's is biodegradable."

"Biodegradable—that's very nice," he replied. "Guess what—so's plutonium."

"I'm confident that this ecosystem can withstand the impact of my bath."

"But we'll never really know for sure, will we? Because the microorganisms you've just annihilated aren't talking."

The repartee culminated with my suggestion that when we got home he might try his hand at an essay on the subject of my crimes. I said this in jest but should have known better. His delightful Oedipal assault began: "If my father ran the National Park Service, Yellowstone would be sold to ExxonMobil."

Where there's fire, there must be a preliminary ritual of wood gathering. But must there also be wood sniggering? What is the source of the preoccupation these virile young bucks have with wood, the chortling that emanates from their tent as they analyze the mysterious distinctions between morning wood, evening wood, late-afternoon wood? Wood is wood any time of day, I say.

Each of my sons spent several summers at my old camp, where, in theory, a lot of worthy new rules have been conjured, among them the wood-scattering dogma. What used to be regarded as a gesture of wilderness good citizenship—leaving a supply of firewood for the next group that might come along—is now considered a careless insult to the ecosystem. As Reid reminds me each time we abandon a campsite and he tosses any unincinerated logs into the forest, "You don't get it, do you? You still refuse to give even the slightest thought to the trees that need redistributed deadwood to provide nutrients as it decomposes into rich soil." That's not fair; I have thought about it. I've also thought about those thousands of long-gone tuition dollars. And I've thought: Would Ping-Pong camp have been such a poor alternative?...Auto-repair camp?...Venture-capital camp?

Perhaps our most memorable journey to Quebec began with an e-mail correspondence between me and the palindromically named Pierre-Jacques Jacques-Pierre, operator of a hunting-and-fishing camp. P-J J-P's clients always boarded in his cabins, he said; he couldn't recall the last time anyone had pitched tents. But—pas de problème—he knew of a sandy beach near his camp, and he could arrange for a pontoon plane to deposit us there.

So we drove 700 miles (the last hundred on a gravel road) to a lakeside air base, spent a night in a fetid bunkhouse (dining on freeze-dried beef teriyaki hydrated with bathroom tap water—a dish we renamed carne del baño), and were airlifted the next morning on a vintage eight-seater whose most reassuring feature was that the barf bags were within easy reach.

As we unloaded on the beach, Pierre-Jacques arrived, towing our canoes behind a motor launch laden with cooking supplies and a cedar picnic table. Jeb, Reid, and Tim, who regard themselves as backcountry minimalists—their favorite adjective is "hardcore"—eyed first the picnic table and then me with naked disgust. How, exactly, had it come to this? Was I in reality one of those faux-gung-ho dads most at home in an RV park? Or was it not possible that over the years I had acquired an understanding that the presence of a few bourgeois appurtenances in the backcountry wouldn't cause the planets to alter their orbits? No matter, it was time to build a fire. I dispatched my insolent minions on a wood-gathering mission and they soon returned with a hefty supply, which Pierre-Jacques augmented with a live maple he had felled with a chainsaw. The boys would have spent hours chopping if Pierre-Jacques and his chainsaw hadn't briskly transformed the trunk into handy Duraflame-size units. Reid had already dug a pit and now began to build a fire—a kindling tepee in the center, birch bark for tinder, a superstructure pyramid of logs. He was rooting through his pack for matches when Pierre-Jacques, no doubt assuming he was doing us a favor, soaked the assemblage in gasoline and ignited it with a cigarette lighter.

To my amazement, Reid and his brothers said nothing. They just smiled and faintly waved as Pierre-Jacques, unaware that he had become their mortal enemy, climbed into his motor launch for the trip back to his island. It's unclear to me which of them came up with the inspired idea that, when my back was turned, they would dismember the picnic table and reduce it to firewood. But it quickly became a consensus, as was their plan to add to the fire the red-and-white-checked tablecloth that Pierre-Jacques had thoughtfully packed. I was troubled by all this, naturally, because the group impulse seemed not just a coincidence but evidence of, shall we say, very bad breeding.

When I discovered what they were plotting, I made plain, concisely and profanely, that this gesture struck me as the antithesis of doing the right thing. Somebody would pay for this, I insisted, and it sure as hell wasn't going to be me. I'm proud to say that my boys seemed to know better than to argue that point. That much I had taught them; I was, after all, still the daddy. Plus, as they later acknowledged (if somewhat grudgingly), those fish dinners at sunset, there on the beach—gathered around the picnic table, with Pierre-Jacques's dishes and cutlery spread on the checked tablecloth—were all so terribly, gloriously civilized.

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