How to Raise an Outside Kid

W. Hodding Carter, Jack Hitt, and Anthony Doerr look back on their attempts to raise kids who love the outdoors.

(Chris Hill via Shutterstock)

Experiencing the great outdoors with your family can be endlessly rewarding: time slows down, discoveries are made, everyone leaves with a sense of well-being. Or you take your kid sailing and accidentally let the boom knock him overboard. Either way, your children will remember all the times you spent outside - and they will thank you for it. We asked three accomplished outdoors writers to share their own stories of raising adventurous kids, traumatizing accidents and all.

How to Raise an Outdoorsy Kid - Without Traumatizing Him by W. Hodding Carter
Learning to Cook the Whole Hog by Jack Hitt
Turning the Outdoors Into a Playground by Anthony Doerr

How to Raise an Outdoorsy Kid—Without Traumatizing Him

I managed to raise a great outdoorsman, despite doing everything wrong

Angus Carter at eight hiking in Maine
Angus Carter at eight, hiking in Maine (Lisa Lattes)

If there was one thing I knew when he was born, it was that I would be the one to guide my son, Angus Kane Carter—named for both the Yeats poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” and the 19th-century Arctic explorer Elisha Kent Kane—to be the confident young outdoorsman I never was.

Unlike my own father, who absently set me adrift in the sea of manhood, I had a plan. I would artfully lead Angus to his competent destiny through repeated outings, carefully orchestrated “learning” moments, and even the occasional confidence-building “test.”

Looking back, the first misstep occurred when Angus, now ten, was a toddling two. He could swim as well as a six-year-old as long as he was beside the wall, but I decided to nudge him forward, to reveal to him his obvious skill. Holding him in the middle of the pool, splashing and blowing bubbles like we’d done countless times before, I let go with little warning. Tears flowing, he easily made it back to the water’s edge in a few seconds. And then refused to swim for the next two years.

When he was three, he could tie a number of sailor’s knots and knew how and when to haul in a sheet while tacking our 23-foot sloop across Penobscot Bay, Maine. All was good, until the day my wife and I went out for a short sail, and I let Angus scamper, against Lisa’s advice, untethered on deck while we were anchored in a tossing sea. I didn’t see it coming, only a blur in the corner of my eye, as the careening boom batted him overboard. His mom fetched him back aboard even before the sickening plop! had faded away. The result: he wouldn’t sail until just recently.

Last summer I did it again. Proud of Angus’s precocious canoeing skills—what other nine-year-old so easily performed a cross-bow draw?—I suddenly turtled our Old Town Discovery. Just as I’d predicted, Angus popped above the surface, paddle in hand, and immediately instructed his friend and me to work the boat to the nearest rock so we could flip it safely. Despite all our previous setbacks, he was that sure, brave boy I never was. Best of all, he’d clearly learned from my years of meddling—although it wasn’t quite the lesson I had in mind. Angus hasn’t set foot in a canoe with me since.

Learning to Cook the Whole Hog

The joy of cooking pig, for a new generation of campfire girls

From right: Tarpley and Yancey  with friends preparing to roast
From right: Tarpley and Yancey Hitt, with friends, preparing to roast (Peden and Munk)

Two or three times a year, I slow-cook a whole 150-pound hog, and not just because there’s no good way to cheat your way to that exquisite flavor. Those 18 to 24 hours of fireside work can’t be done alone, which might be the best part. I learned how to cook a pig from my elders, and they learned the way we all do: getting conscripted to work overnight, staying up until dawn to keep the coals smoking, drinking liquor, and wailing on a guitar, torturing the most maudlin lyrics of the time (then, Leonard Cohen’s). That graveyard shift is practically a rite of passage.

Real barbecue slows down time and gets you back to the very origins of cooking. I’m always shocked by how many people come over in the morning to “help out,” a full six hours before the invite says: because there is no siren call quite like spending a whole day kicking embers in a fire pit while the air coils with pecan smoke.

Over the years, I’ve taught my two daughters my secret of pig prep—simple dry rub—and how to keep the temperature beneath the covered pig running around 210 to 220 degrees. The girls are heading toward college now, and they take the graveyard shift so I can fall asleep listening to far-off, maudlin lyrics (now, Bon Iver’s). I hear them laughing and carrying on, sitting beneath blankets in the dead chill after midnight, a snuck cigarette or beer here and there. I drift off, happy to transmit this tiny body of knowledge to a new generation that has been learning it just the way I did, and on back to long before the last Ice Age, when our deep ancestors worried that their kids might run off with a Neanderthal or hang out with those airhead cave painters in Lascaux. Maybe that’s why it’s impossible not to give thanks when cooking a whole animal—it’s an acknowledgement of gratitude for some really good turn that happened long before we could even put it into words, because those hadn’t been invented yet.

Correspondent Jack Hitt is the author of Bunch of Amateurs: A search for the American Character and Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain.

Turning the Outdoors Into a Playground

Far from Mario Bros. and Minecraft, the real gaming begins

Henry (left) and Owen Doerr in
Henry (left) and Owen Doerr in Idaho (Anthony Doerr)

July in Idaho, and my eight-year-old twin sons and I are sleeping in a yurt in the middle of Boise National Forest. We are—I’m guessing—100 miles from home, 30 miles out of cell-phone range, and ten miles from the nearest human. It is deeply, amazingly, unsettlingly quiet here. The hour before dawn comes on so still, so windless, that the sound of my heartbeat, shifting hairs in my inner ear, keeps waking me up.

Many environmental scientists write about scarcity. We’re running out of silence, amphibians, genetic diversity, fresh water. Yet one of the largest challenges my children face is too much access to too much stuff. Together my sons own approximately 47 trillion Legos; they play organized football and soccer and go to lacrosse camp; they have Mario Bros., Minecraft, Netflix, Monopoly; and their iPads allow them to do most of these things—build Legos, kick a soccer ball—virtually. Out here at the yurt we have two books, a package of Oreos, and some beef jerky. But rather than get bored, my boys seem only to get happier with every hour. They collect “Gandalf sticks” and yell “You shall not pass!” They ask, “If we catch a chipmunk, can we keep it?”

When the sun finally heaves up above the ridge to our east, we take our Batman fishing poles and go tramping down to the Crooked River, a gorgeous creek with deep trout-filled holes every half-mile or so. Before noon I help my son Henry release his fourth trout: spotted and brilliant and jackknifing in his palms as he lowers it into the water. “Thank you for letting me catch you,” he says. I am reminded: the world is always there, if I can only remember to take them out into it.

Anthony Doerr is the author of Memory Wall, a book of short stories. His second novel, All the Light We Cannot See, will be released in 2014.

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