Saturday, June 15, 2013

KEY TO THE REALM – A Dad's Faith In Nature

My parents embarrassed me. They were older than the parents of most of my friends. I was sure my buddies’ dads took them out camping, hiking and fishing all the time. Mine didn’t; he was always working. I thought he was a wimp.

Many years later, when Dad was in his 80s, he started parceling out some of his memorabilia to me and my siblings. They brought to light a story of his earlier years that blew my assumptions right out of the water.

Among his keepsakes were merit badges and other emblems of what appeared to have been a stellar stint in the Boy Scouts. And a few small black-and-white pictures of him canoeing with another young man in Minnesota’s north woods. They looked to be in their late teens or early twenties, young and fit and suntanned.

There were also receipts from outfitters in Ely and Winton, Minnesota, near entry points to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). They listed flour, sugar, lard and various canned goods, all in quantities sufficient for extended stays in the wilderness.

And there was a map, printed on treated canvas, of a portion of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, the BWCAW’s even wilder counterpart across the border in Ontario. (On it was hand-drawn a new portage the two had blazed across the base of a long peninsula, cutting off an hour’s paddling time around it. They’d tentatively named it with their initials)

Notice the details; celebrate the simple elegance of how things are and how they work; expect wonder.

My time with my dad was more likely spent helping with a home-improvement or yard-care project than camping or exploring. But it was not without its quiet lessons on life, love and Nature. While we were in the backyard gouging rock-hard putty out from around a cracked pane of glass, I could tell he was in tune with the life that teemed around us. He’d comment on the clouds, a smell, a cricket he'd picked up. He’d reply to the lovesick call of a cardinal.

Dad showed me, by example, how rich silence can be. While we may not have solved the world's problems, nor bared our respective souls, we were nonetheless in touch through our shared connection with Nature.

He taught me to be curious. Again, the application usually involved some little engineering challenge—like how best to haul our boat to and from the river each spring and fall without a trailer or rack. But the lesson was pay attention; notice the details; celebrate the simple elegance of how things are and how they work; expect wonder.

As I grew up, I'm sure Dad tried to share more outdoor adventures with my brother and me, but, strangely, that effort and our schedules seldom managed to align. Yet, again, the value my dad placed on our connection with Nature and adventure, was clear. What experience he couldn’t provide himself, he made sure we got anyway.

When I was ten, I attended a YMCA summer camp where my cabin group set a record for the camp’s longest expedition to date—canoeing from Hudson WI, 360 miles down the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers to E. Dubuque IL. Two years later, I went to YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, where I learned about wilderness canoeing and camping, this time in Dad's long-ago stomping ground, the BWCAW.

It was one thing for my dad to promote my learning these outdoor skills; it was another altogether allowing me to apply them on my own. By the time I was 15, five friends and I had planned and outfitted our own eight-day wilderness canoe trip.

In a show of faith I still can’t imagine having granting my own teen-age kids, Dad and Mom, conferring with my friends’ parents, gave us their blessing. They trusted us, and they trusted in Nature not to throw more at us than we could handle. (Since we were still too young to drive, they ferried us six hours north to our put-in point, and came back eight days later to pick us up at the end.)

It's taken me many years to give my dad credit for the wonderful lessons he taught me—lessons about integrity, about hard work, about faith, and, ultimately, modestly, about the value of a life in love with Nature. Thank you, Dad!

In what ways has your father (or grandfather) opened the gate to Nature's 
realm for you? How are you passing that legacy along to your kids? Happy 
Fathers Day!


JHM said...


My dad died a few months before my 21st birthday, and for a long time I had no memory of him other than in death.
Now, so many years later, I too realize that although his time was short with us, he had a significant influence on our family in many ways.

Where I grew up, we could see the beautiful blue Caribbean sea from our verandah. It's ironic that so many of our neighbors would go to the beach no more often than once or twice a year; and when they did, only the kids went into the water.

Not us. My parents at my father's insistence would take us to the beach some Sunday mornings (my mother preferred that we go to church and thus the reason we didn't go every Sunday). Every time we go to the beach, my father would be so excited, you'd think he had never been to the beach before.

My father would get us up early and in his usual profusely jolly manner, he would lead us in packing a meal enough for at least two days. We're going to the beach for the day, he would gladly announce loudly and firmly.

Many years later, as my 5 year old nephew observed my excitement about the beach, he said to me, "Aunt J, is the beach the thing you love more than anything else in the world?"

I give thanks to my father for that love; and to you Jeff, I thank you for reminding me.

Hope you had a happy father's day.

rick ackerly said...

Beautiful squared. "Notice the details; celebrate the simple elegance of how things are and how they work; expect wonder." my favorite quotation. It took me 50 years to follow his example. I get it now. Happy longest day of the year.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey JHM (mi amiga) -- I'm so glad my little remembrance of my dad brought up good memories for you. How nice that, despite his having died so very young, you have such a clear picture of him in your heart!
BTW, when will you be back this way? Would love to see you again!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks for the comment, Rick. Sounds like you're reclaiming the openness and wonder of your childhood -- that's what it's all about as we old coots realize what we've lost along the way. Good for you!

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