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 horses and jumping on trampolines, and me, marveling at this place we once called home and filled with memories of days gone by as a worldwide river guide. On this trip, we overnighted in and discovered the hamlet of Gustavus, population 500, and Glacier Bay National Park.
Here is what I wrote one afternoon on this trip while sitting on the deck of our cabin, staring out at our kids as they disappeared into a field of 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 taught me a huge lesson. Let kids experience and explore all that they can, disconnected from electronic distractions that restrict feeling free and deflect here-and-now awareness. 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 explore hard and play long, and uncover new things. A few times on this trip as I watched them go for this and go for that I had to settle my nerves and still my heart as I realized my concept of safe was too narrow and can get in the way of kids feeling unbound joy, unlimited power, and unbridled reverie.
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 all week and burned through film at the rate that Nathan Jones 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. That my be one of the reasons I got a little nervous as my kids headed into the fireweed forest.
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 ‘towards the end of that distant island covered in Sitka spruce,’ as the full-time captain requested of his freckle-faced first mate. She scanned the horizon near and far as she did on this entire adventure vacation, 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 thick rainforest rife with puddles, twisted logs, softball-sized mushrooms, ferns taller than she, and lichen pedestals. These made 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. This 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.
Do six and nine-year olds really know what they want to be ‘when they grow up?’ Probably not, and who really cares right now. It is even less important when their examples are a fifty-four year old dad who is still trying to figure it out for himself and their forty-five year old mom who is just having fun with her kids and half-time job, feeling like she is twenty-three (and looking like it too!). We are just grateful this was not our first trip into the wilderness, nor our last. We are also thankful that imaginations grew in Alaska. I can't even guess where we might end up next, and what my kids might imagine then.