Wilderness Guide and mother, Eilid Ormiston ruminates on fears and feelings: Parenting of Adventure-Addicted Children.
I watch him play. At the foot of snow covered hills, forests reaching behind, winter weary fields rolling down to the water’s edge. The roar of the water flowing out the restricted loch, forced through the narrows, falling over a fault in the rock out to sea, foam gathered in at the shore, swirling in eddies.
Wilderness Guide, Eilid with two of her adventure-addled offspring
A fellow kayaker joins him and the dance in the waves. Brightly coloured plastic toys in a cold swirly bath of white rapids and oily grey waters. He looks so small and yet so large, filling the seemingly sterile wintry landscape with life, energy, joy and fun.
It is the first time I have seen him at play in this way. My son is 23, a white water kayaker who lives his life on the rivers in an endless search of that perfect wave, the ultimate fall, the climax of flow. Recently returned from Kenya and Uganda paddling muddy rivers that cut through the dry landscape of Africa that bring life to the land and communities but also journeying and adventure for the river goers.
Three months of coaching others on the rivers, leading trips down the rapids, imparting skills, knowledge and inspiring others to join the wet and wild parade. Nights at the fire side with embers slowly swirling upwards to join the starry skies above and tales told from the river of the day. Mornings of stiff muscles, grumbling bellies and the forever damp kit. And days filled with laughter, banter, exhilaration and camaraderie, mutual respect, support, energy and adventure.
Then onto the mighty Nile for a “holiday” a friend’s mother’s borrowed Landrover, boats loaded on roof, kit chaotically piled in the back and three tanned, tousled-haired youths with nothing on their agenda but the rivers. Driving dusty roads, searching for the put-ins, buying bunches of bananas from the locals crowding round the truck at every stop and questions answered of Where to go? Where to camp? Where to eat? More importantly, where to drink?
Camps set up, pushing through bush in multi-coloured clothes, plastic shells on their shoulders, paddles in hand, slipping down to the edge, slide into the small crafts, snap of elastic decks onto the rims and then they’re on. The waters carry them, bobbing along the wave train, they shoot the rapids, scout the falls, look for the line, debate, question, evaluate then off they go.
Muscle and eyes straining, keeping that line, a pry here – a draw there, lean this way, stay straight and then over the edge he goes.
Over and down, time seeming to slow, the boat in line with the falling waters, down, down, spray following parallel to his jaw, framing his body in sparkling crystals, falling, falling, in the flow, at one with the water.
And then the “boof” plunging into the boiling foam of the pool, momentarily submerged then popping up like a blue barrel, a raise of the paddle and a holler! The first descent of this hidden fall, deep in the African wilderness. And this is my child.
I watch the films of his exploits, listen to his tales, share my admiration and laughter with him and his close friend. I can live it with him up to a point, I can imagine the scene, hear the voices, feel his joy.
But later on my own I watch the films again and realise the height of the drops, think about the risks, no one had done it before, what if? What could have?
Do I worry? I’m not really sure. Sometimes in my private moments, my quiet times I dwell, I muse and sometimes allow myself to think but what if he missed the line? He tells me casually “If you don’t get in the right channel – you’re dead” like it is an accepted thing. If you put your fingers in the fire they will burn, so don’t put your fingers in the fire.
Is it really that simple?
Every parent worries about their children no matter what age, where they are, what they are doing, they just do – it is part of being a parent.
I have three sons, they love adventure. I worried about my eldest when as a younger man he ventured to the Arctic with a youth expedition to Svalbard and spent four months on skis pulling a sledge loaded with supplies across the ice inhabited by more polar bears per square kilometre that anywhere on the planet. Now a geologist working in the urbanised central belt I worry about him driving across the city to work every day. I listen to the traffic reports of accidents nonchalantly until I hear “accident on the M8 east bound” my heart quickens, a quick text answered by “I’m fine Mum, I’m at work”. I could not do that when he was pushing through the white-outs in the polar regions.
My youngest, 18, currently working to raise funds to embark on a charity gap year to Nepal, his project a three week trek into the mountains to where he’ll spend a year teaching English to village children. But currently I worry when he goes out with his friends to party, when he gets in their cars, youths recently passed their driver’s test, smiles and the promise of good times, memories to be made that night, alcohol and goodness knows what else.
“We tried to instil this love of the wild lands, the unexpected, the serenity of lofty peaks, the horizonless seas, the pounding breakers on remote beaches but most importantly of just being there.”
I guess its all my fault though and that of their like-minded father.
We are both outdoor activity guides and leaders, we lead people into the natural world and share our never ending joy for the green world that surrounds us, the wonders of our landscape and hope to share something of our special homeland. And so it was with our children. We took them to the hills, walked up the mountains, skied down them, paddled canoes across lochs, sailed along the coast and to the islands, we climbing the rock with them, clipped on and hung free. We scrambled up gorges and rode the trails mud spraying up our backs, we entered adventure races with them and lay next to them under canvas at night with little faces serene, breaths slow and even as they slept.
Trip to the Arctic
We tried to instil this love of the wild lands, the unexpected, the serenity of lofty peaks, the horizonless seas, the pounding breakers on remote beaches but most importantly of just being there. Being amongst it, feeling it, touching it, breathing it, living it.
So what do we expect? I guess we succeeded, we produced wild children, boys now men loving adventure. Seeking challenges, pushing boundaries, worrying their parents. I would not want it any other way. I don’t worry any more, as parents you do you best to prepare your offspring for life and what a job that is, a job never done. You support, guide, mentor, advise, teach, and show but that is all you can do – you can’t do it for them. It is our job to protect them as they grow but you can’t protect them from life. You can not stop their hearts from being broken, from the pain of the fall. All you can do is the give them the skills to deal with it when it happens.
What I have come to realise most is because of all that has gone before, I don’t worry because I trust them. I trust they will make the right decisions, trust they will choose the right trail, trust they will say the right words to the right person at the right time. I trust them to know the risks, to analyse them, to look them square in the face and then make that right decision. And trust them to seek the right advise when needed, to speak to the local guy who has fished that river since he had milk teeth. Trust them to ask for help if needed, trust them to pull back, say no, not today. I trust them to come home at the end of the adventure.
“Embarking on adventure whatever that means to us enriches us, it makes it who we are.”
It is a responsibility I have taken on as I lead and teach others, I am the one they trust.
The one whose parents meet with to prepare before their child sets of with me on month long expeditions to China, Mongolia or a week spent in the Cairngorms. The questions are asked, the facts searched for and I answer best I can but I know what they are looking for in my face, I see it as their eyes meet mine – can I trust you? I can not allay every fear, I can not remove every risk, I can only ask them to trust that I will make all those right decisions, that I will use all the years spent in the wilderness, knowledge I’ve built up, skills I’ve learned and mistakes I’ve made, to bring their love one home safe. At some point we just have to take that plunge and say ok, go.
But what I try to help them understand is not only will their child return safe, they will return changed.
For some it is a small change maybe of maturity, independence or perspective. For others it can be life changing, a different career is embarked on, the experience somehow allowing a previous difficult decision to be easily made.
My sons returned from their adventures changed.
I believe it gave them the essence of who they are. It gave them soul. Not that they were wayward creatures with no depth before but for my middle son a year spent at the very young age of 17 in China, returned a calm, determined goal-set young man. My eldest from the Arctic with the spirit of that wild but awesome land embedded in his psyche, a new beginning embarked on and a career choice made, also with a like minded lady, soon to be his wife – you never know what adventuring will bring you!
So would I stop them worrying me, I can’t. Would I stop them doing what they do, I would not want to. I watched a film recently of Cas and Jonesy, two Australian youths kayaking across the Tasman sea and their mothers in tears as they prepared to go, my heart went out to them. They could not stop them going but I could see in their faces as they talked about their sons, they trusted them. So they went and they achieved to this day an un-repeated challenge that they returned from safe and with the spirit of adventure in their souls.
Family trip canoeing in Sweden
Embarking on adventure whatever that means to us enriches us, it makes it who we are. We will never stop our loved ones worrying about us because they care about us. My 86 year old mother worries about me every time I go off on a trip and I’m the leader! When I stop and think about it I know I would worry more if they did not follow their dreams and passions, if they stifled the essence of who they are.
And so he clambers up the bank, cold but smiling. His friend behind him, that unspoken bond obvious between them, trust. We head back to the warm house, hot soup ready and chocolate cake cooling. Paddle kit hung up in the wood shed, boat lies dripping at the foot of the garden and I smile as I walk outside past the window looking in and I see him slumped on the bean bag fast asleep, tousled wet hair, serene smile, my wild child.
How do you handle the worry of loved-ones in the wilds?
“Lecturing now for the University of the Highland and Islands and currently delivering a further education course in Outdoor Leadership, introducing folks to my rugged backyard and sharing their joy in new found pleasures and landscapes is my privilege.”