You traveled 4000 miles from the rain forest to the Arctic using only human power -- homemade boat, skis, rafts, etc. -- no motors. Why?
We had dreamed about some version of this trip for years. Pat [husband Patrick Farrell] and I felt most connected to each other when we were outdoors, and were both inspired by the challenges and rewards of back country adventure. We had reached a point in our lives when the responsibilities and realities of adulthood were creeping up... We needed a break from our “regular” lives and wanted to follow the rhythms of the natural world. For a journey of this length and ambition, it was now or never.
You were thinking about having kids. What were those thoughts?
We had always imagined we would have kids, but as the decision felt more imminent, we were anxious about all we would have to give up to make it possible. The reality of fitting parenthood into our lives, which were shaped around back country travel, remote field work, and transient schedules, seemed daunting. We knew that adventure on the scale we were doing it would not be possible if we had kids. But we also suspected we would regret it if we didn’t. In this sense, the rewards were hypothetical, whereas the sacrifices were clear.
Now that those kids are no longer hypothetical, how old are they?
Two and four (soon to be three and five).
How are you making them into adventurers?
Right now we’re on a sailboat on the outer coast of Chichagof Island (in the Gulf of Alaska). The boys are becoming sailors and explorers in their day-to-day lives. Although we still try to find opportunities for “adult” back country trips, we’ve prioritized making adventure a part of our family experience.
We were fortunate to recently take a year to travel and live and work remotely. We sailed up the Inside Passage (from Washington to Alaska), lived at our off-the-grid log cabin near Haines, Alaska, and backpacked in New Zealand. This spring, we’ve been sailing in Glacier Bay and other parts of southeast Alaska and will head to our cabin again soon.
So far, they’ve loved being outdoors and seeing new places, though we try to maintain enough consistency (i.e., bedtime stories, cuddly friends, familiar blankets) that they feel comfortable wherever they go.
What is the hardest part?
Very limited personal time and space.... Also, the fatigue of packing, unpacking, and constantly sorting the various parts of our lives can be draining. I’ve had to accept a basic level of chaos and come to peace with the idea that I will rarely find both socks of a pair when I’m looking for them.
What is the most surprising thing you've learned in raising them?
Since having kids, I laugh a lot more and have learned to be more flexible and spontaneous. I tend to be fairly structured and goal-oriented and two little boys will wreak havoc on the best-laid plans—which can be maddening but is also a great lesson for life.
Also, I’ve realized that they are every bit their own little people from day one. Our kids are wildly different in their personalities and passions, and they each bring such different gifts (and challenges) to our family. We try to help them grow and thrive, but as parents we are interpretive guides, not directors.
What ideas can you give parents who'd like to help their kids feel at home in nature?
Kids are born explorers. Given the space and time to discover the natural world, they will. The hazards of being outdoors are generally no greater than any others in our lives so there’s no need to be afraid (or to inspire fear in our kids). I think it helps if parents develop some level of comfort themselves, so taking classes or going on outdoor adventures with other knowledgeable adults can be a good way to access these experiences for everyone.
Any observations about how kids grow confident and competent?
Fostering a sense of responsibility seems key. This includes letting them try and fail sometimes. We encourage our kids to take on “jobs” (however small) as part of our adventures and lifestyle. Huxley (age 4) jumps out of the dinghy first and pulls us up on the beach. Dawson (age 2) climbs up and down the boat swim ladder by himself.
We make a point not to inspire fear or panic in our kids, but we also don’t shy away from letting them know if we’re dealing with a serious situation and we need them to help (often by making safe choices and listening to our instructions). They are quite comfortable in the outdoors, on a boat, and in remote environments. However, there are so many different realms in which to be confident and competent. With our somewhat remote and transient lifestyle (and a naturally reserved personality for our older son), the social confidence has been harder to foster. Parenting is hard, and like many moms, I’m always looking for new ideas!
Is there any way to become comfortable with risk, as a mom?
Back country travel and parenting have a lot in common in terms of risk management. My skills in identifying hazards and assessing potential consequences as an adventurer translate quite well to doing the same as a mom. The converse is true as well, as toddlers tend toward gravitate toward any possible dangers (as all parents know!).
Although it’s tempting to imagine the worst-case scenario of what could happen on a boat, it’s also important to think logically about the biggest risks—falling overboard, collisions with hard objects, getting sick far from medical care—and determine how they can be mitigated. Life jackets on deck are mandatory for us, and the boys are down below or clipped into lines if it’s rough. We have a complete first aid kit and options for emergency communication, but getting ill is much less likely when our kids aren’t in school or at daycare. Bumps and bruises are always an issue, but the kids learn quickly how to handle themselves on a moving boat (always hold onto something, move like a crab, watch your head).
The article I recently published in the New York Times travel section has made me realize just how uncomfortable we are as a society with risk of any sort (and how often misguided our calculations are when it comes to identifying the true “riskiness” of a situation).
The piece was about sailing with our kids up the Inside Passage, and was, at least in my mind, a story about parenthood, discovery, and the ways in which sharing unique and sometimes challenging experiences as a family can bring unexpected and unequaled joys.
Although I received wonderful, positive feedback from many readers, I was surprised by some intensely negative comments suggesting that taking young children on a boat is inherently irresponsible, selfish, and wasteful. Spending focused time with my family, allowing my kids to explore the natural world, and taking a break from the hustle of daily life (which is what this trip entailed) all seem like reasonable parenting strategies in my mind.
Driving a car down the highway at sixty miles an hours is dangerous and could result in terrible consequences, but we use child safety seats to mitigate this risk. The same is true when boating, or spending time outdoors in other capacities. As a parent, the most consistent and compelling lesson I’ve learned is compassion—for my kids, for myself, for other parents doing their best at a very difficult job. I hope not to leap to judgment about others’ particular situations, whether a trip in Alaska’s back country appeals to them or not.
However, I do think that we sometimes presume safety to be the highest calling of parenthood, and forget that life itself is risky (no matter how hard a person may try to shelter their children), and our kids need to learn the tools to manage these risks.
What have your kids taught you about the wild?
That I don’t have to go far to find it. The wilds are everywhere around us if we’re willing to slow down and pay attention. They’ve also helped me realize that having my eye on the most distant horizon won’t necessarily bring the greatest reward. Often it’s right at my feet.
Is there a way to make everyday family life more adventurous?
Go outside. Let your kids take the lead. You’ll end up in unexpected and interesting places. Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable and let your kids see you work through challenges. They will learn to develop their own skills and strategies for dealing with new and unfamiliar situations.
It doesn’t need to be grand or difficult, but taking a chance and pushing outside of everyone’s comfort zones can be incredibly rewarding. The excitement of doing something entirely new—sleeping in a tent, paddling in a boat, hiking in the dark—is worth every bit of the hassle that inevitably accompanies such adventures. And each time gets a little easier!
Photos by Patrick Farrell