This is a call to action. But don’t worry, it’s doing something fun. Like backpacking.
We have a problem in our National Parks. Kids aren’t visiting them. Rather, it’s a problem with their parents, since as we all know, kids shouldn’t drive.
In today’s world of both parents working, soccer practice and getting the car fixed, there just isn’t time to devote days to a backpacking trip. But you can help. Let’s start at the beginning.
All of us have “that” story about our first backpacking trip. Mine was when two Fresno State recreation majors said we should go backpacking sometime. Even though I was a New York boy with no exposure to backpacking, it struck me as a very good idea. The overnight trip ended up being a hot, dusty, four mile walk up an ugly, litter strewn dirt road up the Kings River canyon. I think I took two extra pairs of jeans and enough food for three days — maybe four. Many of you took that same first trip, so you know what I’m talking about.
Later that Summer, Brian Pierce, Director of the Thousand Oaks Recreation Center and stellar human, took me under his wing and carted me off to Miter Basin for my first “real” backpacking trip to the Sierra Nevada. It started a love affair with those mountains that continues unabashedly to this day. It’s hard to understate the value of people like him showing people like us the ropes for the first time. Thank you Brian Pierce, wherever you are.
Fast forward 38 years and I’m sitting in a booth at the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act Event in Red Bluff, California, trying to explain the importance of wilderness to a 14 year old.
How to explain it? Wilderness is important because we need it for watershed protection. We need it for that connection we humans innately have with our natural landscape. We need it to look the same 100 years from now for our grandchildren, yadda, yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah. Those are all the things adults tell kids. But how do we connect this generation with wilderness so when it becomes time, they can defend or care about it, not to mention the sheer joy we all know it provides us?
Think about this. When was the last time a kid went an entire day without seeing a road, building, bridge, car, sidewalk or power lines? Back in the day of the wagon trains virtually all of the West was wilderness and they slowly “conquered” it until now only a small portion remains untouched. To protect that remaining wilderness, we need people who are invested in it. If we don’t get kids involved now there will come a time when wilderness will be threatened and today’s kids will say “It makes no difference to me one way or another, I’ve never been there.”
I have been considering this problem for the past several years. I’m not much good at being a volunteer because I soon start looking at my watch waiting for my shift to end. But I’ve still been looking for some sort of educational project I could call my own. Then, three years ago a I was backpacking with a couple of friends in Lassen Volcanic National Park and we ran into a group of high school students and adults calling themselves the Petaluma Wilderness Team. They take kids backpacking as part of an educational and mentoring project. My friends and I all looked at each other and knew right there we needed to form a Wilderness Team for our county.
We came back, hunted down a small grant ($3,000) and bought enough backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, pads, stoves and cooksets for six kids. It was barely enough money, but sleuthing out the killer deals over several months was part of the fun. It was too late to partner up with a non-profit for that year (for reasons I’ll explain in a minute) so we took
Guinea Pigs kids we knew for a shakedown cruise to the Lassen Park backcountry. Contrary to their predictions, not a single Guinea Pig kid died from being disconnected from the internet for three days. None of them had ever done anything like it before and despite a little rain, they all had a great time.
Before the end of the year we had partnered up with the Tehama County Police Activities League (PAL). Our trip gave PAL another event to help them complete their mission, which is to keep kids out of trouble by giving them something fun to do and provide some adult mentorship. It also allowed us to apply for educational grants the Lassen Park Foundation gives out annually to pay for transportation, food and the promised burgers in Chester after the backpack trip. Lastly, the PAL partnership gives us the ability to perform background checks on all the adult leaders and access to liability insurance.
We just finished up our third year and by anyone’s measure it has been a wild success. We’ve gone from one, all-boys trip to two trips; one co-ed and the other an all-girls trip led by an Amanda Sweeney of the Lassen Park staff. She said of her trip “It couldn’t have turned out better if it was a movie!”
The two women that helped me this year with the co-ed trip were first time backpackers (one of them now has the backpacking disease BAD) and they are currently forming their own Wilderness Team in Butte County. While sitting in that booth at the Wilderness Event, I receive a lot of interest from adults in Shasta County and I strongly suspect a Team will form there within the next couple of years. All of this from one grown up that simply wanted to pass on what he knew about backpacking to six kids a summer.
You may be saying to yourself “I don’t have the time or energy to form a group.” Fair enough. I’ve got some ideas. Make your kids your project. Make your kid’s friends your project. Make your niece or nephew your project. Pass on what you know. Teach them how to do it the right the first time so they don’t have to unlearn any bad habits later. Show them that incredible feeling you get from living on the trail for multiple days. For those of you that have done the Muir Trail, you, like so many others, like experienced withdrawals when you were finished. Get them addicted to THAT.
We need more kids like Danielle Tidd. Last Summer I met the Tidd family, Bill, Melanie, Michael and Danielle on the John Muir Trail. Recently graduated from high school, Danielle wanted to hike the JMT as her graduation present! You need to help create the next batch of Danielle Tidds. Take what you know and enjoy and pass it on. Teach them how to live comfortably and safely in the wilderness. Take them to see the expanse of Cascade Valley, Muir Pass and the top of Whitney. Let them soak up the unbelievable vistas of Cathedral Peak, Thousand Island Lake, Evolution Valley, or in my case, Miter Basin.
Told you it would be something fun. Now start planning a trip.
Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want more information about forming a Wilderness Team.