Daily Practice.

luca kayak

I am terrible at playing with my kids. But, I am good at getting my kids outside. A lot. We paddle boats, hike the hills, ride our bikes, and swim in Goose Creek. Our big, Wyoming backyard is my favorite distraction anytime of the year, but in the summer time we pack in the sunshine and water. We stretch our days out like sugary taffy. Current parenting clichés harp about screen time and nature deficit disorder, but for us being outside is like brushing our teeth – it is just what we do. That doesn’t always mean we stop to appreciate it.

I don’t have much down time in my day. Even in the summer when I’m not teaching, I throw all of myself into parenting and running a household. My boys are fun and independent, but managing (and feeding!) two, tween boys is busy. Earlier this summer I made a pact with some friends to consciously slow down, but as the summer passes, even five minutes of dedicated slowness seems impossible.frank in fishing hat

And then this weekend stillness hit me in the most unexpected place. My youngest son and I set out to paddle across a lake near our family cabin. It was the longest distance my nine-year-old has paddled in one shot. The wind was blowing hard, right in our faces. The other end of Meadowlark Lake seemed miles away. But the sun was high in the sky and the mountains shimmered above the lake. Our paddles dipped quietly in and out of the cold, high country water. And Luca whined. Not just a little complaining, but full on screeching about the wind and the waves and the distance. About the sun and the clouds and the water. About everything. I tried all of my outdoor super mommy tricks: singing, knock-knock jokes, chocolate bribes. He just couldn’t put his head down and paddle.

frank photo bombSo, I ignored him. I pulled and pushed my oar through the green waves. I focused on the resistance of the water in my shoulders and elbows. I welcomed the hot sun on my neck and the wind on my face. I fell into a rhythm of muscle and water.frank and fish

After about five minutes I talked Luca through my movements. I ignored his protests as I narrated each stroke. Listen to your paddle dip, I said. Feel the wind against your face. Pull through the water. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him let out a breath. I watched him dip his head and pull his boat against the wind. He was quiet. Ten minutes later, Luca spotted his brother and dad fishing near the end of the lake. They had lunch and fishing poles ready for us. Luca paddled the last five hundred yards fast. He held his head high and smiled. When we pushed our boats up on the beach for a picnic, he asked if he could paddle back to the truck after lunch.

boys and raftsI will never know if my accidental meditation helped my son paddle the distance across our favorite lake, but I know that I found that elusive place of presence that my girlfriends and I talked about. I’d found a daily practice amid the chaos of parenting, not separate from it. I’m good at taking my kids outside. I am good at making adventures for our family. I‘d like to be as good at helping them appreciate the experience.  ~ Sarah
dock jump

Confessions of a Screen Addict

Tongue River

Tongue River

I have this bad habit of leaving my smartphone on top of a pile of laundry. I did this the other day, and, well, you guessed it…it slid off, screen first, on to the hard tile floor. I said a silent prayer as I picked it up and turned it over…please don’t be cracked; please don’t be cracked.

The screen looked intact. I sighed in relief and then clicked on the button to turn it on. Nothing happened. I tried other buttons, and still, nothing happened. At the right angle, I saw a slight crack in the LCD screen. The glass was fine, but the LCD screen would not display any content. This would be an expensive repair.

That was a week ago, and while waiting for the parts to arrive, I’m forced to go sans phone. I hadn’t realized how much I used my phone, and being without it has me thinking about screen addiction and the outdoors.

When spending time camping or fishing, I don’t seem to miss my cell phone much unless I want to take pictures. And that’s Bassfishing22015all I use it for. I don’t even listen to music or books. I prefer to hear the wind in the trees, the birds singing, or the water lapping at the shore. When walking around town, I will listen to a book or music. This helps block out the street noises. Either way, when I’m outdoors, I don’t want to be bothered by technology.

The only time that this isn’t true is when I’m trying to organize a camping location with my husband or friends.

During the summer months, I have the flexibility of camping early in the week, unlike my family and friends who have to work 9-5 jobs 12 months out of the year. I’ll head up to the mountains a day or two early to beat the crowds and to scope out a secluded spot where my friends can meet me when they can leave work. This is a great plan until I’m in the mountains and suddenly find that I have no way of letting my camping partners know where to find me.

It seems that no matter what kind of plans we make ahead of time, there is always some confusion about where to find each other, and we’ll spend hours wandering roads and camping sites looking for each other, especially since we tend to avoid designated campgrounds.

Earlier this summer, I realized that not everyone understands that cell service is nearly impossible in the mountains. At a workshop within the Wyoming Writer’s Conference, I submitted a section of my novel about a woman stranded in the mountains. Several attendees (non-Wyomingites) asked, “Where is her cell phone? Why can’t she just call for help? Or even use a GPS to find out her location?” It seems that they had never been in the Wyoming mountains where there is no cell service or satellite access for GPS. I realized then that 1) I would have to explain this in my novel or show that her electronic devices were stolen; 2) there are few wild places left in this world where technology cannot interfere, and 3) I’m glad to be in Wyoming where I can access these wild places.

Moonrise2015I can say with certainty that I miss my phone. I miss checking Facebook when I wake up and reading my magazine apps before going to bed. But I am somewhat grateful for this forced break from that tiny screen. Although I don’t think I’m exactly addicted, it does provide the opportunity to set up more non-screen time and to spend it outdoors: just don’t expect any pictures.

~ Keri

Got Guns?

big elk and boysMy house is full of guns: Nerf guns, cardboard cutouts of handguns and double barreled rifles, wooden rubber band guns and water pistols. I walk on Nerf darts and fish Lego weapons out of the shower. Pretty typical boy stuff, but I live in Wyoming, so we have real guns too. We have a locked safe stocked with hunting rifles. The guns are not something I think about. I never open the safe. I don’t shoot small animals. I don’t even go to the shooting range. Several times a year I watch as my husband loads his guns in the truck for a hunt. As I’ve written before – hunting is part of our culture. So by default, guns are also part of our culture. I just don’t pay much attention to that part of our crazy western ethos.

I measure my days by the number of hours I can spend outside. I roam our hills everyday; I seek clear water and fresh snow whenever possible. And despite the fact that I’ve lived with hunters and guns all of my life, I hadn’t really considered hunting a worthwhile outdoor pursuit. It’s not really the dead animals – I grew up on a cattle ranch and I have a very real sense of where our food comes from. It’s not even the camouflage or the long walks.

It’s the guns. They are big and heavy and I admit it –kinda scary.

I associate guns not with my mild mannered husband slash hunter, but with violence and misplaced power. I picture automatic war weaponry instead of sleek rifles and lean, healthy meals. In reality hunting is mostly about walking and thinking and being quiet outside – all things I treasure. The gun part – while violent – is brief and necessary. But I still don’t like the guns, so I have opted out of countless mountain outings with my family.

This summer my boys called my bluff. Years ago I promised I would take hunter’s safety with them. In Wyoming in order to hunt legally, anyone born after 1966 must pass a Hunter Education class. The course was developed fifty years ago in an attempt to make hunting safer and the nationwide effort has lowered the rate of hunting accidents by about half.

We spent five evenings in the county’s National Guard Armory. We learned about hunting regulations, about game care and wildlife identification. We listened to a wizened game warden detail Game and Fish regulations. Our instructor talked about the ethics and responsibilities of good hunters. He stressed the importance of wildlife conservation and land owner rights.

And every day I stood next to a table covered with guns. The Game and Fish provides non-firing weapons for the Hunter Education courses. The bright orange guns look and feel real. I held the toy-like weapons, surprised each time by their weight and assumed power. I practiced holding the guns and waited to feel comfortable. But even after five days of thinking and talking about the guns, my hands still trembled when I had to demonstrate my skills for the course final.

Like most of the boys in the class, my kids loved the guns. They rushed to the front table at every opportunity working their way through the array of weapons. I watched as they held each gun up to their slight shoulders. They were excited while also respectful and thoughtful. But every evening on our drive home, their focus was on the plans they could make with their father and their grandfather once they were officially hunters. They loved the stories about hunting and fishing. They chattered about what they would put in their backpacks, about what they would eat, and what they would wear. The guns were a side note. boys and rafts

In the end the class was a coming of age ritual for all of us. I didn’t shake free of my gun fears completely, but I did learn something important: my boys have cultivated a love for the outdoors. I have hauled them across oceans, down ski hills, and through the woods. I rarely gave them a choice about being outside, and I certainly didn’t endorse hunting with my actions. I still wouldn’t choose to carry a gun through the wilderness, but I am learning to let my sons make their own way. They seemed to have learned that being outside is powerful and important. They will find freedom and space in the mountains. They will learn their limits and push their boundaries. These are some of the biggest lessons I want for them.

My boys crave time outside with the people they love – in their own way. I may never shoot a gun or apply for a hunting license, but I am grateful that I will be included in their outdoor lives.

~ S

Backpacking First-Timer: Dos and Don’ts…

Entering the Cloud Peak Wilderness on my first solo backpacking trip.

Entering the Cloud Peak Wilderness on my first solo backpacking trip.

Weighing 280+ pounds, several years ago, I took my first backpacking trip up into the Big Horn Mountains. I went with my husband, and I remember an unrelenting trail. I fell backwards once and needed help getting up like a bug who could not turn itself over. We never made it to our original destination, Big Stull Lake–a regret I had until this year.

This summer, 100+ pounds lighter, I took the same backpacking trip; this time solo but not without my trusty dog, Nikko. My destination was 3.7 miles to Coney Lake with a short stop at Big Stull Lake. Things didn’t quite go the way I had planned, so I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned on my first solo backpacking trip.

#1 Don’t overestimate the amount you can carry. Chances are when you’re hiking, you aren’t going to need a lot of clothing. One pair of shorts, one short sleeve shirt, one long sleeve shirt, rain gear, thermals, and a jacket for high elevations is probably enough. On my first backpacking trip, I ended up with too many clothes and as a result, I could barely lift my backpack. At one point, I tripped on a tiny stump in the middle of the trail and ended up face first in the dirt. With a smaller pack, I could have kept my balance.

#2 Do pack and repack. If I had followed this simple rule, I would have realized I didn’t need 6 pairs of underwear, three shirts, and two jackets for my two-night backpacking trip. Repacking and packing can help you stick to the minimum requirements as well as give you practice packing. Make sure to try on your backpack so you’re not stuck with a too-heavy bag when you get to the trailhead, and it’s always a good idea to consult an expert about what you should or should not bring.

Stull Lake Campsite#3 Do know where you’re going, and have a contingency plan. Experts say not to hike alone, but I knew the trail, I let people know where I was going, and I had a contingency plan. I planned my trip based on the previous hike my husband and I had taken years ago. We had not planned well, so we found ourselves stuck searching for a camping spot in the dark during a thunder storm. It turned into a pleasant camping trip, but without good luck, it could have been a disaster. On this solo trip, I planned ahead and had a contingency plan. I wanted to make it 3.7 miles to Coney Lake with a short stop at Stull Lake, 1.6 miles from the trailhead. I ended up staying at Stull Lake and hiking on to Coney Lake the next day without my pack. I would not have made it through the steep, rocky switchbacks with my super heavy pack. Instead, I had an easy hike and more “me time” next to quiet Stull Lake.

#4 Don’t forget the mole skin. No matter how much you think you’ve broken in your new hiking boots, there is always a chance of chafing. I put several miles on my hiking boots before this trip, but the rocky terrain and up- and down-hill hiking took its toll on my feet. Thankfully, I had mole skin in my first-aid kit, and I managed to cover the hot spots before they developed into giant blisters.

#5 Do pack water shoes or sandals. I was grateful to have my water shoes. They had nice traction for walking in the lake and on the lakeside trail, and they are nice to have if you have to ford any deep creeks. Luckily, my hike was in late summer, so the creeks were dry enough to expose rocks for crossing. Look for shoes that can be easily attached with a carabineer to the outside of your pack, and pick shoes that are light…again, refer to Rule #1.

#6 Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t think you’re going fast or far enough. Yes, there are hard-core hikers out there who count their miles, and you may or may not cover as much ground. Who cares! It’s about your ability and about taking time out for you. Take time to relax and enjoy the scenery. Focusing too much on your speed or the miles you’ve covered can leave you forgetting why you wanted to backpack in the first place. Remember that it’s not a race. If you plan your time accordingly, you won’t have to rush to the campsite and you can take time for breaks, pictures, and bird watching.

Most of all, be proud of what you accomplished. So what if someone else went farther or faster. The point is that you got outside, you had fun, and you experienced something new.

Happy Hiking!

~ K

Stull Lake

Living on the Outside

Photo by Wendy Smith

All my life, I’ve considered myself an outdoors person. My family camped, fished, and hunted. My brothers and I would leave the house in daylight and return by dark covered in mud and scrapes after spending all day outside in the forests around our house. Even winters were spent outdoors sledding, making snowmen, forts, and having snowball fights. Even after my brothers moved away, I spent hours hiking and running in the forest by myself. At some point in my life, that part of me got buried as I moved from the forests to the deserts–where the outdoors were unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

Eventually, I gave in to the couch-potato lifestyle of remaining indoors with the comfort of air conditioning, rarely spending time outside. That outdoors person got buried. Over and over again I tried to dig her out, but getting back to the outdoors grew more difficult–especially as my size grew bigger. I feared ridicule and disgusted stares.

In August, I attended an outdoor writers’ conference, and it was difficult being the only woman in the room not a size 9 or smaller. I don’t look like an outdoors person: I don’t have a deep tan or chiseled muscles; I don’t climb or hike for days; I don’t run; I’m not hardcore, which at times seems required to belong to a crowd like that, but I do walk, hike, observe wildlife, fish, camp, backpack, and try new outdoor adventures–even if it is more physically demanding for me than for the average person. In fact, a few weekends ago, I went river kayaking for the first time.

Photo by Carolyn Kaiser

I have to admit…I was scared…not of drowning or tipping over in the water…but of failing to keep up with my companions and of what other people would think about a large woman floating down a river in an inflatable kayak.

I imagined people staring and thinking that I didn’t belong there. I imagined people laughing or feeling embarrassed for me as I struggled to get in and out of my kayak. Of course, now that I did it, it was silly to be afraid. Yes, it was a bit embarrassing falling in the water several times while getting in and out of my kayak, but seriously, I was laughing so hard it didn’t matter what others thought.

Going down that river, facing my fears and tackling the bits of rough water without dumping my gear, calmed my mind and built my confidence. It taught me that what other people think of me really doesn’t matter. What matters is how I feel about myself, and I’m pretty proud of who I am, and eventually, if I keep moving, my body will fall in line with my demands.

For now, I am learning to block those negative voices in my head, and I am learning to be who I am even if I don’t look the part. No, I don’t have the ability to keep up with those women in that conference room…not yet…but what I do have is courage and blind determination to live my life being true to who I really am.

~ K