Friday, November 13, 2009

The Younger Generation

I've been thinking about what's to become of "the younger generation" that we all refer to. I am as guilty as anyone of thinking of today's kids as an internet obsessed, cell phone connected, ipod listening, video game playing group of clones that would keel over and die should they be dropped onto a deserted island without electricity. Just yesterday, I had an experience that made me rethink a lot of my attitudes.

This past Wednesday and Thursday, Becky and I teamed up with Wes and Chris Franciol to take a group of junior high boys on an overnight canoe trip. This group was made up of the 5th, 6th and 7th grade classes of St. John Berchmans (the boys side of the Academy of the Sacred Heart) school in Grand Coteau.

Our first goal was to teach the boys how to paddle a canoe correctly. The chaos of the first few minutes slowly progressed into a more and more orderly group of young kids piloting their own canoe. Each time that I would begin to worry that one of the teams would not be able to master their skills enough, the light would begin to dawn, confidence rise, scowls turn into smiles and the canoes to magically begin to travel in a straight line.

After we felt the boys had acquired enough skills, we loaded the boats with all the tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear and food for the night and headed off into the wilderness. With their loaded canoes and miles of water to cover before making it to our wilderness home for the night, I sensed from some of the boys that slightly nervous feeling about the uncertainty that lay ahead of them. Could they paddle the miles that it would take to make it to camp? Did they have the gear they needed? Would they be scared in the tent at night? Or maybe - would they just be bored after being disconnected from their electronics and with the outside world?

After a couple of miles, the few canoes that were still zig-zagging their way down the canals began to straighten out. Clumsiness with a paddle gave way to subtle skills that can only be learned from doing. And before long, this group of kids - most of whom had never been in a canoe a few hours before - were confidently powering themselves and their gear for the night towards a campsite of their own making.

We arrived at the Highland Waters primitive canoe-in campsite around 3pm. After unloading, the kids set their own tents up. I was amazed to watch the small tent city rise as the boys figured out on their own how to pitch their tents and set up camp. After setting camp, one of the teachers led a biology experiment. With the sun dropping in the sky, we all got back into the canoes and paddled around to the west side of the island we were camping on. We arrived just in time to see an amazing sunset over the Cypress lining the Bird Island Chute. The boys were so invigorated by the freedom of paddling their own canoes, that many of them took off in an informal race to a duck blind in the middle of the Chute.

As night fell and stomachs were filled, middle school madness took over as the boys played multiple games of "searchlight" and "hide and seek" in the dark woods near camp. Soon they gravitated towards our roaring campfire. The milled around and joked with each other until they suddenly heard the sound of Wes' Native American flute. Transfixed by the notes that dripped from this instrument whose sound is synonymous with wilderness, the boys listened and settled into their spots near the fire. Over the next few hours we all told ghost stories and indian legends, sang songs, told jokes and watched the golden light dance off the canopy of live oaks above our heads.

After a hearty breakfast the next day, we loaded the canoes and headed across the lake to see some of the older cypress that still lined the distant west shore of the Bird Island Chute. We talked about the value of mature Cypress forest to the migratory bird population and the dangers that the Cypress mulch industry to these Cypress. We saw an Osprey fly just overhead with a fish in its talons. All too soon, it was time to make our way back towards the park to meet the bus that would take the boys home.

I think it was about the time that the boys all lined up to shake our hands that it began to hit me. What I was seeing were bright, clear eyes of strong and enthusiastic boys. So much promise and potential. Maybe the failing of "the younger generation" did not fall with the younger generation at all.

Maybe "the younger generation" are "plugged in" because we as outdoor enthusiasts have not taken the intitiative to give them an option. As I saw their faces, I thought about the time and energy our scout leaders and my parents had invested in me when I was young. What a gift that turned out to be in my life.

And what a gift it was to have the honor of passing a little of that along to an amazing group of young men that I am proud to call "the next generation of outdoorsmen".