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Of Woods and Words: Where's The Wonder?

Explorer's Club kids - photo courtesy of the Cooperation Station
Explorer's Club kids - photo courtesy of the Cooperation Station

FinalCut_OWW06222011.mp37.33 MB

Growing up, my brother and I thought nothing of trekking down to Lake Superior by ourselves to clamber over the huge shore rocks or skip stones across the lake’s surface. The acres of forest behind the house were our playground. We crashed through the undergrowth, constructing forts, creating secret shortcuts and pulling wood ticks off ourselves without a second thought. When a black bear crashed a backyard badminton game one morning, we went inside for a snack and resumed our game after the bear had moved on.

When it comes to leading groups of children in outdoor activities, it turns out Cook County kids are among the hardest to manage. It’s not that they’re bad kids; not in the least. It’s just that they have no fear. They scramble up rock faces just like I used to, they’re by no means scared of what lurks in the big bad woods, and they’re extremely adept at transforming fallen sticks into weapons. And when you’re standing in front of them, trying to lead a field trip and very quickly realizing you made the right choice by not going into elementary ed, oh, what you wouldn’t give for a little more reverence.

These little woodland children, and I was one, probably get the most charmed childhoods possible. But when your backyard’s a lake, you just might get a slightly skewed outlook on reality. We lose the wonder so many people experience when they escape into nature, and we start taking things for granted.

When I spent a summer working for a canoe outfitter, I was shocked at what happened when a family with young children spent a week at a nearby cabin. The small children spent the entire week screaming. “Jiminy,” I thought to myself. “What a ruckus.” But when I asked if anyone had any ideas why the kids were shrieking constantly, I was surprised by the answer. “Imagine spending your entire childhood in a teeny backyard where you have to be quiet all the time,” they told me. “If that was you, would you scream when you came up to the cabin and got to spend all day on an inner tube?”

Well gosh, I thought. Your entire childhood spent in a backyard the size of a postage stamp? Imagine that!

As a child, it was easy to laugh at my big-city cousins when they asked if there were sharks lurking in the Grand Marais Harbor. It was easy to scoff when they cautiously dipped their toes into Lake Superior’s edge instead of running pell-mell into the chilly depths. I mean, what did they think was going to happen? That lamprey might bite off their big toe? That a giant herring would swallow them whole? But looking back on things, I understand their apprehension and suspect my brother and I must have seemed like wild animals to them.

Every now and then, especially in the summer when I’m even more prone to feeling exhausted and cynical, I try to remind myself to look at the world around me with my tourist eyes. I try to marvel at the towering white pines, exclaim over a moose sighting, truly soak up the pleasures of spending an afternoon lounging on the deck. Because there’s a lot of wonder surrounding us and we lucky Cook County kids sometimes need a little help remembering that.