Dad, Can We Keep the Rattlesnake?

On Father's Day, some reflections on the adventures of parenthood

It was a warm October afternoon, one of the few left before fall’s cool temperatures sent the rattlesnakes slithering back to their ancient winter dens. The old sting worm was sunning himself on a lonely stretch of desert road when I pulled off the shoulder and lifted my young sons out of their car seats. At the time, Andrew was six and Robert was four and, curious to a fault, their first instinct was to run toward the coiled serpent. Sensing their approach, the four-foot snake started buzzing to beat the band.

“When you hear this rattle again, turn around and walk carefully away.” I told the boys, who begged me to grab the old rattler and stuff it in the cooler.

“We promise to take care of it, Dad!” Andrew pleaded. “Yeah, we can feed it mice from our Have a Heart trap.” Robert promised in a rare show of brotherly bonding.

“Rattlesnakes do not make good pets!” I advised them, recalling the magpie chicks, mice, rats, hedge hogs, horny toads and chameleons that had found temporary lodging in the boy’s room.

Finding a stick, I herded the old snake off the road into the sagebrush where he buzzed and bluffed until we walked back to the car. “Don’t you boys ever dare kill a rattler either,” I advised them. “If you do, the next one won’t warn you.”

Most people would say I’m crazy for exposing my young sons to a poisonous snake but, having lived in Idaho for twenty-five years, I’m convinced it’s never too early to introduce children to the great outdoors. In fact both my sons were three weeks old when I lifted them out of their bassinets, strapped them into a backpack and hiked up a south facing ridge above our house. Taking a lesson from Thetis, the sea nymph who dipped her son Achilles in the river Styx, I believed that an early exposure to cold water, clean air and buzzing snakes would have a positive and lasting effect on their future. It didn’t matter that their eyes were months away from focusing, or my narrative of what we were smelling, hearing and seeing amounted to comforting white noise, I wanted my sons, not only to love the outdoors, but to covet solitude, that chance to distance themselves from the maddening crowds.

Andrew and Robert appeared, rather unexpectedly, in my mid thirties. And while I never begrudged my sons their infancy, never bought baseball gloves while they were still in their bassinets or tiny skis before they could walk, it is true that I dreamed of the day they could hike, fish, bike, and hunt with me. Because I came late to fatherhood, I was well aware of how quickly time passed and how brief their childhood would be. In a single decade my sons would grow from toddlers careening toward sharp edges, steep stairs and jagged points, to a power hitting first baseman, competitive nordic skier, soccer goalie, hard core deer hunters and conversely, the object of a doe eyed eighth grader’s affections.

If I have learned one thing from my sons in that time, it is that they have a lot in common with young goslings. Both make a lot of noise. Both like to eat. Both squabble constantly. And both imprint on movement. During their first few months of life, that meant mom. Two years later, however, when in the process of testing their wings, they traded a limited world of honks, cackles, and racing around the pond, for short but important expeditions.

From about the age of four on, my sons adopted my hobbies. I believe it hearkens back to that nature or nurture conundrum and often wonder if they were drawn to backpacking, river rafting, mountain biking, fly fishing and hunting because a genetic lock opened when they first laced on a pair of Vibram soled boots. Or, since they were exposed to these sports at such a young age, they simply had no memory of not loving rivers, forests and mountains.

I have a picture of Andrew and Robert that I treasure. Taken in the front yard, its working title is “The Travelers.” Respectively four and two at the time, they were dressed in swim fins, face masks and big boy underpants. Stuffed with a change of clothes, some food, a toothbrush and other necessities for a long journey, their big boys look more like tutus than tighty whiteys. I didn’t stage this photograph–if it wasn’t their idea, neither would have stood for such foolishness. But lacking backpacks of their own, they needed a secure spot to store their gear. And what better place than the symbol of their growing maturity and independence….their Big Boy Pants!

A major reason behind the success of Outward Bound is simply, any exposure to the outdoors, no matter how fleeting builds self-sufficiency. When the boys were barely able to walk I would take them fishing on the East Fork of the Wood River that flows near our home. It was a short walk but the path was mined with important lessons. The sage, rocks and old ground squirrel burrows made for tricky footing, and the boys would trip and pick themselves up half a dozen times before we reached the river. Once there, I would make them catch their own grasshoppers, bait their own hooks and, more or less, cast, into a small, deep pool. Between the snags, backlashes and lost gear, they managed to hook a few fish but it was a slow, often frustrating start. It would have been easier for me to bait, cast and reel, but it would have taught the boys little if anything. One result is, today both are excellent fisherman who can cast a fly or lure with a grace that belies their years.

The classic western writers Zane Gray, Louis L’Amour and James Fenimore Cooper based much of their fiction on the widely held belief that the great outdoors build character. Though I can’t diagram the exact chemical equation, I am convinced that exposure to mountains, rivers and deserts does exert a profound and positive effect on sons and daughters.

Of equal importance is how the outdoors teaches children to deal with stress. Robert and Andrew were respectively, six and eight years old when we floated Hells Canyon with Hughes River Expeditions of Cambridge Idaho. Straddling the border of Oregon and Idaho, Hells Canyon has the reputation for being the deepest gorge in the continental U.S. Filled with roaring white water, archeological sites, peregrine falcons and some of the best trout, bass and sturgeon fishing in Idaho, Hell’s Canyon offers a first class family adventure.

From the put in, Robert was determined to paddle one of the inflatable kayaks. Heeding the guide’s advice, we waited until the river’s violent white water subsided to a series of gently rolling rapids. I double checked Robert’s life jacket, fitted him with a helmet and turned him loose. For the first mile, Robert did a fine job of keeping his bow downstream. Then a rogue current sucked him into a deep hole, flipped his kayak and pitched him into the river. I was taking photographs from the bank when I saw him get dumped into the rollers. Abandoning my camera, I dove into help him. As the strong current swept us downstream, Robert calmly said, “Thanks for coming to get me Dad,” It turned out he wasn’t worried about the boiling rapids or icy water. He was more concerned with following the guide’s instructions. “See, I didn’t lose my paddle,” he said with some pride when I grabbed hold of his life jacket and towed him back to shore.

Andrew and I returned to hike Hell’s Canyon the following summer. The trail that follows this wild and scenic river is steep, rocky and foot blistering hot. Tall and wiry for his nine years, Andrew could easily hike thirty-five miles in three days. I just hadn’t counted on the hundred degree heat, vertical climbs or cactus thorns. To his credit, Andrew never complained and never quit. By the time we reached Pittsburgh Landing, I was incredibly proud of my son. As difficult as the three days might have been, they gave me a profound insight into the man he might one day become. For Andrew’s part, six years later he doesn’t talk about the hot sun, the thirst or when he fell and skewered his hand on a cactus. He remembers the Indian pictographs, the Chinese mining claims, the black bear and camping next to the river. He also can’t wait to go back and hike it again.

The year before Andrew was born, my wife Barbara and I back packed into one of Central Idaho’s high alpine lakes. Called Mystery Lake, it took us the better part of two days to find this hanging blue mirror. A flawed topographical map mistakenly placed it in the wrong drainage. Lost by accident or intent by a prankish cartographer, and undiscovered by all but lost back packers, it was filled with huge cut throat trout.

Until the boys were strong enough to carry their own packs, most of our back packing was limited to one or two miles off the road. During their grade school years, I was haunted by images of Mystery’s huge trout and waited impatiently for the boys to gain the size and strength to survive the nine-mile and 3000 vertical foot climb. Andrew was ten and Robert was eight, when I decided that there was no time like the present. Blame it on my faulty memory, but in the ten years since I last embarked on the trail to Mystery, I had forgotten the tricky stream crossings, willow thickets, boulder fields and vertical climbs. By the time we made camp in a meadow below the lake, both boys were exhausted. The next day it took us another hour to climb the final thousand l feet. Cresting over a boulder-strewn rise, we had just enough time to eat a granola bar and take a sip of filtered water before an ugly thunderhead appeared above the western ridges.

The temperature plummeted and a cold rain soaked us to the skin. With snow threatening that night, we stuffed our soggy gear into our backpacks and retreated back toward the truck. By any standard the hike out was painful. Hiking in wet boots, Robert soon developed a bad case of blisters. When I asked if he wanted me to carry his pack, he looked at me with such sudden relief and gratitude, I was sure he would accept. Instead, he shook his head, squeezed the water out of his hair and said, “No dad, your pack is heavy enough, I’m ok.” And that single sentence taught me more about my son than a dozen, dinner table heart to hearts.

I wonder if perhaps Robert has a second child’s easy good nature and natural self-confidence. Or perhaps, he knows that I admire kids who have a sense of humor, who self start, don’t quit and avoid excuses. I do not believe these attributes are gifts of nature, but result from physical discomfort. My thinking has always been, if you can handle cold, heat and tired legs, you can handle life’s more stressful situations. And, in all truth, I’d rather send my sons out for two nights in the wilderness, than two hours at an unsupervised high school party.

Our latest adventure was fishing the canyon below Magic Reservoir. The canyon is known to be Snaky. On other expeditions to this lonely desert rift, I have heard rattle snakes buzzing from the labyrinth of black basalt boulders. The fishing was red hot and we cast until the shadows settled into the canyon and the stars glowed in the east. It was well past dark when the hatch slowed and I reached into my pocket for my flashlight. Flicking the switch, the light burned with a fleeting, bright incandescence, then died. Though I’d packed spare batteries, the bulb, unfortunately, picked that moment to expire. Facing a blind scramble up the black boulders, I wondered why the Peter Principal picks the most vulnerable moment to kick in. First the bulb gave up. Now, leading the way through boulder field, Andrew calmly noted, “Dad, I think I hear a rattlesnake!”

It turned out the snake was more than willing to give us the right of way and quickly went about his business. Despite turning up two blind leads, we made it back to the truck in one piece where we toasted the fishing and the snake with soda and Cheetos, then headed out the dusty desert road toward home.
I must admit I regard the boy’s boundless self-confidence with a certain wonder, pride and at times, trepidation. At 15 and 13, they would not have hesitated to back pack into the White Cloud Mountains, sign on to swamp for a white water river outfitter or peddle their bicycles across three states. And the truth is, I had no doubt they’d do just fine.

There is, however, a down side to introducing your kids to the outdoors. Like Achilles’ Heel that his mother Thetis neglected to wash, once your sons and daughters hike into a high mountain lake, fly fish on a spring fed creek, sleep under the stars, deer hunt in high snow covered meadows, mountain bike into old ghost towns, climb, swim, ride or ski, there is a good possibility that may be all they want to do. Any dreams of law school or an MBA may traded for the life of an itinerant adventurer whose tattered postcards, or scratchy 3:00 am collect calls, arrive from the globe’s far flung corners.

I also have to confess that the relationship between the boys and I have changed. If I once masterminded the majority of our expeditions, the boys have proved to be far more creative. I tend to repeat adventures, stick to fishing holes or trails that have proven themselves in the past. I see now it’s a weakness and a conservative side that, until the boys reached their teens, I had not recognized in myself. Now, rarely a week goes by that Andrew or Robert don’t want to hike, bike, raft or hunt new terrain. I suspect it’s their way of leaving the pond, of gaining enough air speed to clear the cattails. In all truth I’m thrilled that they still ask me to go along.


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