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Where the Wild Things Are and Helping Kids Find Them

As I prepare for a trip of a lifetime down the Tatshenshini River on this Canada Day weekend, I’ve run across a quote from Pierre Elliot Trudeau:

Of all the changes that will come to Canada in the next generation, we must  prevent any of a sort that will diminish the essential beauty of this country.  For if  that beauty is lost, or if that wilderness escapes, the very nature and character of  this land will have passed beyond our grasp.

“The very nature and character of this land”... Our land. An essential Canadian icon.  To be Canadian is to have affinity for the land.  And even if you never travel to those places, to be safe and secure in the existence of those spaces is paramount.

Our wilderness - our wild lands and waters - are precious beyond measure.  They define our national identity.  Millions of people from around the world visit Canada every year to have the simple privilege of passing through the rarity of our untouched wilderness, to paddle through our wild undammed rivers, to glimpse our intact populations of wild grizzlies, caribou, and salmon.  A privilege too many Canadians, and especially Canadian youth, are taking for granted.  If they are even aware of it.

With the urbanization of our population and the technological advances that have evolved in my lifetime from magnetized Scrabble for car rides, to Game Boys, to X-Boxes, to having your entire social network of friends, family, friends of friends, and the world wide web everpresent through ever portable devices.... I’m beginning to fear our perspective is shrinking and our children can’t see the forest for the gigabytes.  We are becoming an inward-looking nation, instead of an outward-looking people.

According to the Nature Child Reunion, kids spend 6-7 hours a day in front of a screen.  When I was little, I spent most of my time playing outside, reading books, exploring nature.  Nature Child Reunion claims that when many of us (adults I presume) were young, we’d spend up to 80% of our free time outside.  Looking for the forest in the trees.  And now, kids spend a mere 5% of their free time outside.   They know more about the global online jungle than they do about the wilderness in their backyard. 

This is why initiatives like CPAWS’ Education programs are so important.  CPAWS Southern Alberta’s award winning Education program brings Canada’s wild into the school room -- they use a fun, hands-on approach to teach the next generation about ecology and biodiversity and the impact we have on the landscape through fun, curriculum-based, programs like CSI CPAWS and the Water Rangers.

CPAWS Nova Scotia’s Nature Calls program brings kids from urban areas into the wilderness.  They teach by showing and exposing kids, whose only experience of a ‘park’ is the play structure down the road, to the wild spaces that are their inheritance.  It exposes kids to a whole new world that they can explore on their own.

Andy Camper is another great initiative started by a family who wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between this online generation and get them outside.  Recognizing that the majority of kids spend most of their time in front of screens, Andy Camper reaches out to them online. It provides kids the tools to find information online and take it outside.

Autonomy and unstructured play is something kids these days just don’t get.  Their lives are structured around schedules.  Their play is supervised for fear of injury. But that unstructured play where kids can be kids, where they can try and fail and learn on their own terms is where they start to really learn about themselves. 

So the best thing you can do this Canada Day long weekend - to celebrate our country - is to share it with your kids. And if you don‘t have kids, borrow some.  Bring them to a local park, conservation area, national or provincial park and let them explore.  They’ll learn through osmosis.  And they’ll learn to love the “essential beauty of this country”.  And one day, they too, will work to protect it. 

And if you're like me and there's no kids near enough to borrow, then thank the people who shared nature and Canada's wild spaces with you in your youth - your parents, teachers, grandparents.

This is why this trip down the Tatshenshini is so important to me... because I’m taking my Dad.  Someone who encouraged exploration and imagination.  He and my mom would pack four kids up into the suburban and drive to the Adirondacks or the sand dunes of Cape Hatteras. We’d spend days at the local conservation area - in summers playing in the water; in the Fall exploring the receded lakebed.  At eight he taught me how to photograph humpback whales with my point and shoot, to judge the right moment so as not to waste ‘film’ (what an anachronism!), how to frame my sister as she played on a swing.  He coached my photographic eye, but gave me the freedom to explore it and make the mistakes I needed to make on my own.  And by doing so, he helped me develop my vision. 

And that vision grew.  It started to take in the damage to the wild areas I explored.  The local lake at the conservation area shut down from ‘agricultural pollution’ - a farmer’s expedient disposal of manure polluting the lake so it was no longer safe to swim in.  The public notices on sand dunes pleading to not take the reeds that were integral to the sand dune’s, well... integrity... to plant in your home garden. And through this, I started to piece together the ‘web of life’, ecological integrity, and how easily and carelessly it can be damaged.

So, now, for my Dad’s 60th birthday, I can share my vision with him.  Expose him to the wild untouched valleys of the world’s largest biosphere reserve.  Explore with him intact habitat of grizzlies and spawning salmon.  Protected forever as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tatshenshini-Alsek Park was a hard-fought CPAWS campaign in the early ‘90s that spanned provincial, territorial and national borders.  A hard-won campaign.  Just one of the many that CPAWS can celebrate.  And so they should - especially on Canada Day.