Back in college I spent a summer as a river guide for the BSA up in Jackson, WY. As we gathered each new crew of scouts to begin their week’s adventure, the centerpiece of their orientation was a video discussing “calculated risk”. While many of the video’s details have faded, the term has always stuck with me.
The video talked about the inherent risk in nature, and in particular, the force of the Snake River. But the purpose was not to scare these adolescent boys. It was to make them aware, and to instill a proper amount of respect. The term “calculated risk” reinforces the notion that there is risk to some degree in every square inch of life. It is our job to be calculating, aware, and wise in the risks we take. Doing so, in itself, mitigates some of the risk.
Want to cliff jump? There’s a spot on the tour that’s been well-explored and thoroughly used. Calculated risk is relatively low. But if you seek the same thrill on an unmarked boulder along the way, calculate the risk as being much higher in this unexplored, untested territory.
The lesson wasn’t about avoiding risk altogether — that would be impossible, even people who choose to hide under the covers at home are still subject to risk. The lesson was about being intelligent about risk.
Richard Louv teaches the same lesson in Section 4 (particularly in Chapter14), calling it “controlled risk”. Kids actually need some risk. Part of the benefit of nature is the freeing, exhilarating feeling of risk. As we learned in the last section, many parents (myself included at times) name risk, or danger, as their excuse for avoiding nature experiences. Yet that risk is exactly what kids need.
I especially like the title to Chapter 14, “Scared Smart”. We don’t need kids (or parents) who are scared into staying out of nature, but we do need them to be aware. We need them to be smart enough to calculate the risk and properly prepare.
Louv talks about Julia and her mother, Janet Fout. Janet was mindful when out in nature with her daughter, instructing her to “pay attention” rather than to “be careful”. Not wanting to feed fear, but rather be instructive and empowering she chose more specific words to call her child’s attention both to nature’s beauty and to its power that demands respect.
I thought about this section just recently as our family took another trip to Zion National Park. This time we headed into The Narrows. (I’ll confess it was a redemptive moment as I hiked up river with my youngest in a backpack, reflecting back over a decade when my husband and I passed a father in the same spot doing the same thing, and we vowed we would be “that kind of family”. Finally! We were doing it!)
We headed up with friends of ours and their brood for quite a way before the moms turned around with the younger kids and the dads continued up with the older ones to a beautiful, yet more demanding spot called Orderville Canyon.
It was a rite of passage moment for our oldest, who was the only one of our kids along with our friends’ kids, some of whom were twice his age. He beamed afterward, so proud of his achievement. (It helped when the manager at Chili’s treated him to dessert when she heard he had ticked off something from her own bucket list. Class act, Chili’s. Class act.)
My husband reported to me that as they continued deeper into The Narrows, he was careful to teach our son how to safely navigate this trek. It’s a sandstone canyon which is subject to flash floods. That’s a pretty serious risk. But the risk can be calculated or controlled by taking the right steps. You always check the forecasts and flash flood danger levels at the ranger stations, and as you work your way up the canyon you must always be aware. Not afraid, but aware.
The beautiful thing about teaching kids to be aware is that it not only increases safety, but in the process of scanning their surroundings for things like extra debris and sediment in the water and routes to higher ground, they also notice secret waterfalls, the way light hits the different angles of the canyon walls, and the subtle changes in colors through the levels of sandstone.
Along with the increase in awareness, the boost of confidence, and the memorable experience, the experience was also a generational connection (as Louv points out in Chapter 15). It was a boy following his dad as he introduced him to one of his absolute favorite places on the planet. The whole trip was memorable and soul-feeding, but that experience in itself made it all worth it.
We’ll be back.
What stood out to you from Section 4?