“Don’t be scared, Jacob. Just keep moving forward.”
The first time I said these words to my son, he was six years old and too terrified to cross a creek in the Black Hills.
We were hiking along the Spring Creek trail that flows out of Sheridan Lake on a cool April afternoon. Along the way we had to walk across a narrow log that stretched over the water. To a little boy, it must have seemed like crossing the Grand Canyon and the raging Colorado River. With some firm yet gentle encouragement, Jacob was able to overcome his fears and place one foot in front of the other until he made it safely to the other side.
A few months ago, I had to give Jacob the same advice again. “Don’t be scared. Just keep moving forward.” This time, he was an 18-year old young man facing his first day at Montana State University.
As I think about these two events in my son’s life, I see how they are connected and I am comforted by this realization: he’s going to be just fine. The lessons he learned from being outdoors have given him the courage and the confidence to overcome just about anything.
Growing up, Jacob spent a lot of time outdoors —building campfires, sleeping in tents, hiking unexplored trails, cooking with Dutch ovens and whittling sticks with a pocketknife. These experiences taught him to be a little more independent and self-reliant than most kids, I suppose. He certainly seems to be more patient. Any teenager who can sleep through mosquitoes, raccoons and torrential rains without complaining is probably better prepared to live in a college dorm.
As a Boy Scout, Jacob was taught to make the best of any situation. One of the requirements for his wilderness survival merit badge was to spend a night outdoors with nothing more than a tarp, a Swiss Army knife and whatever he could find in the woods. He slept in a makeshift shelter constructed out of dead branches, dried leaves and moss. Of course, he came home with a head full of ticks. But, he also came home with an incredible sense of accomplishment.
I like to think this ordeal will come in handy when has to stay up all night and study for a chemistry final. “Sure it’s hard,” I’ll say reassuringly. “But at least you don’t have to worry about getting any ticks.”
A few years ago, Jacob and I decided to spend a few days camping in the Big Horns of Wyoming and hike the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. We quickly discovered that the middle of May is not the best time of year to be tent camping at 9,000 feet elevation. It’s colder, wetter, windier and generally more miserable than you might expect. Rather than pack up our gear and find a hotel room in nearby Buffalo, we just made the best of the situation. He learned to adapt. He learned to persevere. He learned that you should wear a stocking cap at night to retain your body heat. Hopefully, he only has to apply two of these lessons in college.
I wanted to spend some quality time with my son before he headed off to college. So, last summer, we planned a weeklong trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. If I had any last-minute life lessons to impart, this would be the perfect time to do it.
We carried our gear over mile-long portages. We paddled through 20 mile per hour headwinds. We cooked macaroni and cheese in the pouring rain. And then, we watched the most spectacular sunsets God ever set upon the horizon. That’s what a Boundary Waters trip will teach you—if you can overcome a few obstacles, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the moments of good fortune that come your way.
As it turned out, I never had to dispense any words of wisdom. There wasn’t another lesson to be learned, except perhaps one. Through all the outdoor adventures we shared together, I realized that Jacob had grown to become his own man. He really doesn’t need me to coax him across that creek any more. This is the kind of stuff fathers tend to think about when they’re staring into a campfire.
I also realized something else. Now that my son is 900 miles away from home and living his own life, I will have to learn a few lessons of my own.
Someone will have to calmly tell me not to be afraid. Just keep moving forward.
Copyright 2015, The Dakota Sky