"What is that?" the TSA agent queried me. "It's a .22 shell." I replied. So began our flight out of Anchorage into the not-so-real world of the Lower 48. The .22 cartridge made it through the X-ray machine along with all of the other odds and ends I typically carry. My pocketknives went with the checked baggage but that single shell had escaped my notice.
I would have put it back in my pocket unwittingly but a sharp-eyed security guy spotted it in the tray at the end of the X-ray. He informed me that I wasn't in trouble but "they" wanted that shell! (Does this kid have a .22?) When we landed at Chicago O'Hare six hours later, I had come to realize that hardly anybody's kid in this land of concrete, fast food and endless rules owns a .22.
The Field Museum was great; the dinosaur exhibit was wonderful and the natural history section was good. I was able to see what animals might look like if I could find one in between buildings. A couple groups of students were walking the exhibits, taking notes on what they were reading about. That is better than nothing but it reminds me of the Joni Mitchell song "Big Yellow Taxi": "They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum. Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em."
We saw a doe whitetail feeding alongside the freeway a couple miles from the airport. I-90 had a fair scattering of smucked raccoons on the meridian as my family traveled north into Wisconsin. There was no bike path along the freeway. There were housing developments without yards and without a place for kids to get out and walk. They could walk the streets? Scary.
As we traveled north, there were more farms. There was more room to roam. There were places to ride bikes and maybe shoot the .22. How do kids learn how to hunt down in this part of the country? Children in the United States, including Anchorage, have less contact with the outdoors than ever. According to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children in the 8- to 18-year-old age group spend 53 hours per week with "entertainment media." In Britain, more kids are treated for injuries from falling out of bed than from falling out of trees.
I climbed a lot of trees as a kid but I was awake and didn't fall much. There were no hospital visits. Look back at your best memories as a child. Were they things you did outdoors? Today, the trend is to do less outside and talk about it more. Some folks I know recently spent a weekend in Anchorage for the grand opening of a sporting goods store. Seems that they were excited to get more camping gear.
What does one need to have a memorable camping trip? When you were a kid, a sleeping bag, a tarp or a small tent was sufficient. Today we have vestibules for our tents, fancy gas stoves, cots, slippers for wearing inside the tent (don't get dirt in there!) and portable outhouses. One has to own a three-quarter-ton truck to haul the gear. "Camping" is an RV in the Wal-Mart parking lot instead of a daypack tied to the back of a bicycle.
Spend less money on gadgets and more time on the experience. Teach your kids how to build a fire with a match and with wood from Alaska, not a vacuum-packed bundle that was shipped up from the state of Washington. If you are not inclined to firearms and hunting, that is fine. Get out for a walk and look at birds. If one happens to live in Chicago, coyotes can be your objective. Some research informed me that several thousand live within the city's limits.
However and wherever you do it; get outside, breathe deep of air that doesn't smell like wet asphalt and look at the natural world around you. Those paths through the woods need you, and you will find that they also fulfill a need within you.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.