When I close my eyes I can instantly teleport myself to being a kid in the outdoors.
I can picture my red and white bobber bouncing up and down feverishly, or feel earthworms wriggle through my fingers as I collected them in my Dad’s tobacco can. Those sights sounds and experiences will always be in my memory, and I wouldn’t have traded my childhood for anything.
I thought digging worms for an evening’s fishing or walking the autumn woods with my Dad looking for ruffed grouse were just normal activities. Looking back, it was a true gift that my family gave to me. The experiences I had, have carried through right into my adult life, gaining momentum with each passing day.
I have set out to introduce and addict my own children to the outdoors. With time spent outdoors becoming less and less of a reality for the average kid I wanted a different life for my children.
My wife Erin and I grew up in outdoor families and there was no conceivable option for how we would raise our kids. Don’t get me wrong, the iPad is a strong draw for even our kids, but we have set out to give them some alternative distractions that will provide them entertainment long into the future. Our kids are the ones that dig for worms and ride along on the snow machine dog sled. Who would have thought that a decade into our journey, that I have probably learned more than I have instructed and gained a tremendous appreciation for how kids approach life.
Before fatherhood came along, I had been a fairly active outdoorsy guy, fishing regularly, annual moose hunts, and even years of fur trapping. The first few years as a Dad made these regular activities somewhat of a faint memory. I was becoming more accustomed to diaper bags than tackle bags.
My plans for having kids and an active sporting lifestyle seemed overly ambitious and kind of simplistic. I don’t care what anyone tells you, there are times that it is just downright impossible to balance modern family life, work and getting into the outdoors regularly, without some aspect suffering. My initial plan was to turn my young son Mikka into a fishing monster. I pictured him catching fish as a toddler and him deriving immense amounts of amusement from the activity, and before long it would be common place. Then all other pieces would fall into place for regular family trips on the water throughout Northwestern Ontario.
Step One: Training a Fisherman
My first shrewd step was to purchase a batman fishing rod for him. I am pretty sure he was still in diapers when this happened. I thought it would add that bit of little kid “bling bling” that would make it even more fun for him to use. Time for a reality check. I quickly realized this at the dock, his fun simply came from throwing tackle into the lake and watching it go “Kerplunk.” The look on Daddy’s face made it even better; veins would appear in my forehead and it seemed priceless to him. I didn’t see this coming. Time to rethink this plan. Patience would be required. I had to back off and just enjoy being a dad, gradually working at this introduction to the finer points of angling.
Step Two: Hunting 101
When Mikka was a toddler I decided to try grouse hunting. After all, I am just talking about some trail walking on some gentle terrain with my kid. How bad can that be? Subsequently, I have renamed that activity “carrying a screaming child through the forest, while grouse fly away from you.”
Apparently if there are leaves on the ground, it can prevent a child’s legs from working. He actually explained this to me as we stood in the woods. How can you argue with that? Through the years, this eventually morphs into walking with a child while he talks the entire time. “Dad that partridge flew because you were walking too loud!” Mikka constructively criticized my hunting efforts as we stumbled along a brush lined trail in search of birds. He failed to see any irony in his statement as he had just finished a half hour story on Spiderman, while being repeatedly told to whisper quietly if at all.
It was rare that he did not have fun, unless of course, I ruined it by being impatient with what is going on. I had to embrace the little perks when they happened, like seeing how excited he was by the notion that a deer may be just around the next trail bend.
I have learned to adjust my expectations and enjoy the gradual improvements. I started to place more emphasis on just being outside and trying to show him stuff that I thought was neat, such as animal tracks. If we were putting game in the freezer it was a bonus. I found myself walking a tight rope of making it fun for him and fun for me. As years went by I found that our progress was exponential in growth. We could stay out in the boat longer before needing to come home, or walk a little bit further in the woods than we did last year. The battles changed from fishing rods going over board to wanting a new fishing lure tied on every five minutes.
Eventually we caught some smallmouth, and grouse were shot, trips started to show the results that sportsman normally measure an outing by. I made little adjustments, like bringing requested ear muffs with us so the shotgun wouldn’t be so loud, and found the little treats that would make the days lunch seem so special even months later.
When Mikka was almost four, our family grew with the addition of our youngest son Aleksi and by that time we were starting to gain some momentum on this outdoor life. It has become a regular practice to go on family fishing trips, or trapping with Daddy; no alternative has existed for Aleksi. Both boys would see when I became excited by something and it fed their own excitement. Daddy was starting to figure it out, not the other way around. I plan most outings around what they can do and no more. My wife Erin and I really try to make it fun, but still try to get across what we are actually trying to do.
It has become a regular practice on weekend mornings during hunting season to find the back seat of my crew cab packed full of boys and their toys. Packsacks would be stuffed full of plastic binoculars and walkie talkies, and their hunting vest pockets full of spent shotgun shells. It has become second nature to help with deer butchering and to bring minnow traps into brush-lined creeks in pursuit of bait. The kids now prod me to get outside when laziness starts to raise its ugly head, urging me to build brush shelters and asking to go fishing this weekend.
The benefit of kids getting involved in fishing and hunting are obvious. Kids get exercise, generally have a much better appreciation for where their dinner comes from and gratitude for all of the natural world. Many of us forget about the little things that we encounter during a day in the field: the smell of the autumn woods or the flittering sound of a bat whizzing over your hat while you sit in the boat on a July evening. My kids get to experience all of that and I am thrilled to introduce them to it. The sight of them catching fish has become almost more exciting for me than catching one myself.
Recently, I’ve found myself in more of a fishing guide role. I bring my kids out on the ice, drill the holes, set up the lines and watch my clients catch all of the fish. Then I proceed to clean their catch. I don’t mind at all; it comes with immense satisfaction to listen to a 6-year old-explain why his one specific ice hole is where all of the fish are located and how he uses his special technique and a lucky rod for finicky March walleye.
Our little family regularly takes part in our outdoor heritage, and would like to share some of the lessons learned so that others can successfully introduce their kids to a way of life that unfortunately is becoming rarer.
1. Don’t push your luck. If your kids are cold, tired or bored, go back to the dock. They won’t even want to get in the boat next time if you wait. If you do it right they will drag you out the door in the future. Ten minutes is better than nothing. Don’t forget the sunscreen and warm clothes because the kids certainly won’t remember and it can really save a trip.
2. Be flexible. If my son wants to fish in a different spot, I consider it. After all, I would rather be fishing in another spot than not fishing at all, and it makes them feel involved in the decisions. If I don’t want to move I try to explain why; it is about learning. I am sure my questions drove my Grandpa nuts.
3. Show a lot of excitement for what is at hand, whether it is a deer scrape or smallmouth bass. Kids feed off of your excitement. It doesn’t matter how big a fish is or how long a cast was. Kids want to feel like they are successful. Leave the trash talk for your buddies who “catch only small fish.”
4. Take lots of pictures. My kids love to highjack my cell phone so they can show people their fish pics. Besides, everyone needs a picture of their kids with dew worm mustaches.
5. Bring lots of snacks. We have special snacks that only happen during hunting and fishing trips. These special treats can lift spirits when there is a lull in the action and it adds to the overall experience.
6. Find distractions at hand. I have a friend that actually brings two separate minnow pails. He gets his young kids to transfer the minnows from one pail to the other and then suggests they need to go back now. My sons have both spent time as official “Minnow Boy” which gave them the important duty of wrangling bait from the bucket and delivering it to whoever urgently needs it: this mission is absolutely critical.
While hunting, Aleksi loves to play with my buck grunt tube. After 10 minutes of listening to deer music it becomes a little tiring, but he is little and it amuses him. Then I get the opportunity to show him how Dad claims it should be used.
7. Fishing and hunting are not the goals. Being outside and enjoying it are the goals. It can be hard, but try not to get annoyed if they would prefer to put the rod down and just look in the live well or go swimming at the nearby beach.
8. Save the tough trips for the adults or when they are older than 10. Long walks and frigid temperatures test the mettle of just about anyone. If you don’t want them to have any interest this is a good way to encourage that. This goes for long truck rides, too.
9. I have made a point of getting my kids some of their own equipment. My boys each have their own tackle boxes, they are slowly learning to look after it themselves and it gives them a sense of ownership. Nothing fancy. Surprise, surprise, little kids treat stuff poorly. My Grandpa gave me a reclaimed spincast rod that I am pretty sure he found at the local dump, but it was mine and it worked. There is plenty of time for expensive casting rods and pro series gear. This also keeps me from going nuts when I see the attention a typical young kid can pay to its care. I even made Mikka his own sized-down replica of my shotgun. I simply shaped and stained a piece of 2×4 and added a copper pipe barrel. Some gullible people on Facebook have even questioned our sanity for giving our 4-year-old a real gun. But he carried it regularly on our hunting trips, and I have made several for our nieces and nephews.
10. Kids are all about adventure and make-believe. Grouse hunting can easily turn into the pursuit of dangerous grizzly bears; no need to bring reality into it. Besides, how many times can you say that you have checked a trap line with a Jedi carrying a plastic lightsaber?