Walks in the Woods

By Beacon Staff

My twin daughters are teenagers, and high school graduation is imminent. For me, the era of day-to-day parenting is nearing its end.

I’m sometimes surprised at how my “parenting inputs” manifest themselves in my nearly adult children. One thing I’m quite pleased with is that they’ve developed a love for the outdoors. They better. Some things are non-negotiable for a Montanan.

On old photo shows the twins with their mom and me about five miles up Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroots. They were about a year old, barely walking. We carried them in backpacks, their heads slathered in sunscreen and sporting floppy hats to protect their still sparely haired domes. We accepted high fives from just about every hiker we met going the other way on that trek.

Apparently, getting the babes out in the woods was viewed as something bordering on heroic.

Once the kids were mobile daily walks became a staple. We’ve been fortunate to always live in cool places with easy access to the outdoors. In Hamilton we lived next to a city park that adjoined the Bitterroot River. There’s a pond on that property that attracts waves of migrating waterfowl in the spring. That’s where I taught the girls about a favorite duck, cinnamon teal, which they pronounced “cinema teal.” Down in the Bitterroot these late-arriving birds are known as the true harbinger of spring. If the cinnamons haven’t yet arrived, folks just assume the snow can fly any time.

We moved from the Bitterroot to Flagstaff, Ariz. When we first hit town we briefly lived in a condo that adjoined a small patch of ponderosa pine forest. The remnant stand was no more than 10 acres and was surrounded by development. We rarely saw any wildlife other than the occasional jay or Aberts’ squirrel. Still, we walked it every day after I picked them up from preschool, pulling them home in a red wagon so we could safely cross the busy road on the way.

Most of the ground was covered in dog-hair thickets of small pine. But right in the middle was an old, yellow-bellied ponderosa that probably measured four-feet across at the base. The old tree had long ago been killed by a lightning strike and big chunks of orange bark had begun sloughing off. The ground was littered with fallen branches big enough to have taken out any of us if we had been unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, no trek was complete without a visit to “the oldest, dead tree in the forest.”

We were drawn to it.

We later moved to a small neighborhood on a mostly undeveloped mesa in the center of town. The mesa was still connected to the Coconino National Forest by corridors of undeveloped land. This allowed big critters to move down, and we regularly saw mule deer, gray fox, and once even a mountain lion — with kitten in tow — on our walks. I was involved in an effort to protect the mesa from development while we were there, which unfortunately failed. I’ve been back to see that a network of roads have been paved across the land, but the project then went belly up. Someday maybe that asphalt will be more than roads to nowhere, but in the meantime Flagstaff has lost something great: a place in town where families can easily walk and experience the natural world. Even in places like northern Arizona or the Flathead, with abundant public land, there remains great value in preserving places in town that we can visit everyday.

By the time we made it to the Flathead the girls were older and the nature of our outdoor time had changed. Now we try to be on the rivers as much as possible when time allows. But the teen years are filled with distractions that move contemplative walks in nature far enough down the agenda that they become infrequent at best. And that’s as it should be I suppose.

There will be time enough again for walks. Someday soon I hope.

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