Many new parents use a jogging stroller as their ticket to outdoor freedom, but mine was a tiny pop-up tent that was just big enough for a newborn. It was the handiest thing, trim as a ladies’ purse when stowed, but unleashed it became a mesh-walled nest with an inflatable cushion that slid into the floor. Like a Pack’N Play optimized for life beyond walls, it sealed out mosquitoes, offered a shady refuge from the Colorado sun, and kept our six-month-old from eating dirt.
When the spring snowmelt ebbed into summer, my husband and I pitched it on the banks of the Yampa River, where our daughter Simone played and napped while we fly fished.
That little tent gave us license to chase trout knowing that Simone was safe. But she also found plenty to explore: There were clouds to watch, grasshoppers to study through the mesh partition, and the soothing sound of the river’s current washing past her tent. Although they weren’t overnights, the hours she spent in that cozy pop-up probably qualify as her first campouts, and I like to think that they conditioned her to associate nylon walls with nature’s lullaby.
By fall Simone had outgrown the tent but she still came along on our fly-fishing missions. We let her crawl along the water’s edge and pick bouquets of grasses. Her increasing mobility meant that we now took turns with the rod, but Simone’s inquisitive enthusiasm for everything made it fun to join her in spectatorship. She chased frogs, imitated birdsong, and cheered like a Super Bowl fan every time one of us netted a trout. By age three, she had developed the fish-sparing habit of wetting her hands before stroking the trout’s glittering scales.
Now Simone is five, and she’s beginning to dabble in fishing herself. But indoctrinating her into the sport isn’t what matters. What’s really important, and the reason we often abandon household chores to continue these family fishing sessions, is that fishing gives us all an excuse to make a ritual out of going to the river—sitting there, observing it, noticing its inhabitants, and helping our daughter develop her own love for this waterway, so that she can be its defender as she grows older.
“People protect what they love,” Yvon Chouinard told me one day, when I had the good fortune of being invited to fish with him on the Fall River in eastern Idaho. As the founder of Patagonia clothing company, Chouinard uses his brand’s profits to protect the places he holds dear. But encouraging advocacy among others is also part of his mission. “If you don’t have anybody who loves rivers, we’re just going to turn ‘em into sewers,” he said. I remember these words every time I pull a shoe or a beer can out of the Yampa.
I hope that Simone develops a love of rivers. But if she does, it won’t be because she watched a video about otters or dissected a frog in science class. Instead, it’ll happen because the smell of algae-draped clay becomes a sensory tunnel back to her early childhood, like the scent of your dad’s aftershave or the closet where you hid as a kid. As grownups, these sensory memories transport us back to the times that formed us so powerfully. For our daughter, those flashback triggers might be the scent of sun-warmed sagebrush, or the pebbly feel of the caddisfly houses she exposed under every Yampa River rock.
At the ripe old age of five, Simone is already an experienced camper. She’s backpacked in the Zirkels and tented beside rivers that we’ve paddled. She got her start as an outdoorswoman in that delightful little baby tent. But I hope that in the outdoors, she finds more than just a playground. I hope she discovers something worth saving.