Tracking the Wild Child

There are times — usually on days when the kids spend 100 minutes in the car and 10 outside — when I wonder who I’m fooling. In those forehead-against-the steering-wheel moments, I worry that our children are just not spending enough time outside and are therefore missing a crucial part of their development.

I don’t think I over-estimate the hours I spent in imaginative outdoor play when I was a child. It’s hard to translate childhood memory into solid numbers, but I remember building forts with my brothers and returning to them over many weeks, remember freestyle roaming through woods and meadows, remember feeling that I was actually watching flowers grow. How can Ursula and Virgil develop a deep love of the outdoors, I ask myself at the end of too many days of too tight a family schedule, if we can’t give them that kind of time?

And then there are days like Saturday.

Saturday was a January-thaw day here and the start of a three-day weekend. Neither of the children got in the car, not even for a minute. Both — but especially Ursula — spent most of the day outside, in the sun and in the snow. Late in the afternoon, Jim sent me to look for Ursula, who had violin practice and some chores to get in before dinner. “I last saw her in the back yard,” he told me, so I headed out the back door.

I immediately came to bootprints that looked Ursula’s size. I tried to follow them, putting my feet into the same holes, but the tracks veered off at an oblique angle after only three or four steps, and then veered back again, crossing over the first set. What’s more, at each change of direction, the trail contained odd deep hollows. I stopped and looked more closely. What could have made those double indentations with the ridges that looked like ... bunched-up snowsuit? Now I had another question: What was Ursula doing on her knees?

I scanned the backyard. The setting sun cast its warm light and long shadows across the snow. I shaded my eyes and tried to get a general sense of where Ursula was headed. Nowhere in particular, it seemed. Her tracks marched — that is, if it was a drunken sailor doing the marching — up the hillside by the apple trees and back down, punctuated every few steps by those double knee-bends. I picked a set of wild zigzags at the far end of the yard and followed them toward the back pasture.

After a few weaving turns in her tracks, I started to smile. A few more and I laughed out loud. It was impossible not to. I saw Ursula up ahead. Or rather, I saw a mound of red and black in the middle of the pasture and recognized it as Ursula’s jacket. The mound moved, then stood up, facing away from me. There was a flurry of motion — a little jig in the snow, some windmilling of her right arm — and I saw something, a snowball, I guessed, flying off behind her. She whirled around and bounded off in the same direction as the snowball. She pounced. My first thought: She looks just like a fox. My second: Ah! Double knee-drops explained!

She saw me then and motioned me over. My little snow fox wanted to throw snowballs at me, and tell me about her game, and roll in the snow some more. Later, Jim and I figured that she’d been outside, doing whatever she’d been doing, for a good four hours. A rare experience? Yes, too rare. But she lived inside the outdoors on Saturday afternoon, really lived. And when she came in, she brought some of its wildness in with her.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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