Dangerous Parents

Al and Ruby, fall 2012, Mill Creek, Montana

It began even before the kids were born . . . On the shores of Lake Athabasca, more than twenty years ago, Marypat finally got pregnant after years of miscarriages and infertility. We were halfway through a dark winter in a cabin hundreds of miles from the nearest pavement; halfway through a 14-month canoe expedition, alone and vulnerable and perfectly content. The advice we got, from family, from friends, was to come home. Don’t risk the pregnancy, everyone said. It’s not worth it.

We questioned ourselves. Were we being selfish? Were the risks too high? What if? What if? The scenarios were endless and terrifying. After months of angst, still teetering on the brink of pulling the plug, we decided to give it a trial run. After spring breakup, we would paddle the forty miles to the nearest town, from which we would leap into the final remote summer of travel across the wild tundra of northeastern Canada, and then make our decision.

Here’s the strange thing. Fifty strokes into that trial run, still in sight of our winter cabin and five months along in a pregnancy, we were both absolutely convinced that we could do it. More than that – we were both convinced that we should do it.

We were right. Some would say we were more lucky than right, and sure, luck is a player, but being pregnant in the Far North, traveling our “pregnancy pace”, nurturing life through the wild exhilaration of vast, unpopulated space, was precisely the right thing

Since then, there have been a number of those moments. Moments when friends and families and complete strangers weigh in to question taking our children into risky places. When we loaded up the canoe and took off down the entire Yellowstone River, across Montana, when Eli was nine months old and Sawyer was a fetal bud ticking away inside Marypat. You’re crazy, people said. We went. We took the precautions we deemed necessary. We had a lovely, empowering time, and I’m quite convinced that Eli formed some essential character qualities from those weeks under the wide skies.

Or when we took Sawyer, at three months of age, and Eli at two years, down the Green and Colorado Rivers. When we took on the Big Bend section of the Rio Grande with Marypat seven-moths huge with Ruby and the boys at an uncontainable two and three years of age, in one overburdened, 17’ canoe. What are you thinking? people asked.

What we think is that this is what we do. This is the legacy we want to share with our children. Are there risks? Of course. Might something go badly wrong? Sure. Would we feel terrible if it did? Yes. Should we stay home and play it safe? Hell no.

Because here’s the other thing. Playing it safe is a state of mind, a matter of perspective.

The mainstream, safe environment people counsel us to anchor our children in brims with dangers we discount because they are commonplace. More dangers, I submit, than we encounter in the wilds. In the safety of society, we routinely pile our children into cars and drive around at lethal speeds. We pile them in even when the roads are glazed with ice. Sure we might have good tires, we strap everyone in, but we take the chance, routinely. We litter our homes with toxic substances, spray our yards with pesticides, keep firearms, eat food full of chemicals, breathe polluted air, let our kids drive, put them in social contexts where a great many bad things happen all the time.

We think little of the dangers because they are routine. Everyone does it. Nobody questions it. We take precautions, just as we do on a wilderness expedition when we wear life vests and carry a first aid kit and practice our skills and weigh the itinerary.

So, of course there are moments. The polar bear along the shores of Hudson Bay comes to mind. The meadow full of bear and wolf tracks high in the Washakie Wilderness of Wyoming. The evening Sawyer fell from a tree along the Marias River in Montana, and slashed his neck open on a stick. Ruby’s capsize against a rock in one of the canyons of the Rio Grande. Over the decades there have been a handful of incidents where I catch myself thinking, that could have gone badly. Those ‘what if’ reels start up in the theater of my imagination.

Precisely the way they play on the mental screen when the car starts skidding on the ice, or when a toddler falls down the stairs, or when I find out that I’ve been living next to a superfund site for years and drinking the well water, or when I look at a food label full of incomprehensible ingredients, or when I send a teenager off on prom night.

Actually, at those commonplace, civilized junctions with risk, I find myself wishing I were deep in the embrace of a wild place, feeling the pulse of Mother Earth, with my children close by and the exhilaration of adventure coursing through our bodies.


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