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For the love of the outdoors

Grandpa and grandson fishing

By Ty Stockton - Guest columnist for AARP Wyoming

The average school-age child in the United States spends an average of seven hours a day in front of a screen – that includes television, video games, computers, or the ubiquitous smartphone.
That statistic, says Walt Gasson, is alarming.
“I don’t think that’s how human beings become well-adjusted, functional people,” says the Trout Unlimited director of endorsed businesses, who has also worked as the executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Foundation and as an administrator at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
He says he’s given a lot of thought to the amount of time – or lack of time – kids spend outside. “That study says kids spend an average of seven minutes of unstructured, outdoor play. That’s not enough.”
But Gasson says there’s more to raising the next generation than just plunking them down in front of a television screen, or even booting them outside for physical play. He is a firm believer in sharing new experiences with his children and grandchildren, no matter if they’re still in their single digits or well into their fourth decades.
“My family has three traditions that are really cool,” he says. They’re annual events that not only educate the kids, but also are among the most enjoyable activities the more senior members of the family do each year.
“The first is Camp Wapiti,” he says. Grandma and Grandpa Gasson take the kids camping, where everyone has the chance to shoot at targets, go fishing, take hikes, and generally enjoy what nature has to offer. “Our children have evolved into teachers, and they transfer those skills to their own kids and nieces and nephews at Camp Wapiti. They teach them how to identify edible plants, knife safety, you name it.”
Gasson says the kids learn a lot, as you’d expect, but even the adults learn from the experience. First and foremost, they learn more about their own children – what excites them, what makes them think, and what they’re passionate about.
Camp Wapiti is the Gasson family tradition that lays the groundwork for the other two traditions – it’s Gasson’s version of boot camp for skills his children and grandchildren will carry with them the rest of their lives.
“The second big event is Antelopealooza,” Gasson says. “Everybody goes. This year we had nine (antelope licenses), and the youngest hunter was 13 years old; the oldest was 62.”
Gasson says the participants – young or old – learn to stalk, make a good, clean shot, and why that’s important. They also learn about the sagebrush steppe ecosystem and how all the plants and animals that inhabit it are intertwined; and that if one piece of that puzzle disappears, it affects all the other members of the ecosystem.
“So, what’s the outcome of all of this?” Gasson says. “What’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?” He says the kids don’t simply learn how to cook dinner over a campfire, find their way using a map and compass, or shoot an antelope. That, he explains, is just the means to a more beneficial end.
After spending all this time with their family, outdoors, where they are far removed from those computer and television screens,
“We see in these young people a number of traits that are very important,” Gasson says. “The first of these is self-confidence. You can plunk them down anywhere, and if they have their backpacks, they’ll be fine. They could survive on their own, if they had to.”
He also says outings like the ones his family embarks on allow the participants to develop a trait that can’t be taught – one that has to come from within.
“They have ‘try,’ “ he says. Variously called “grit,” “determination,” or “stick-to-it-iveness,” Gasson says it can be innate, but it can’t be developed without some hard work.
He explains that when one of his grandsons was nine years old, the boy went fishing with his uncle and his great-uncle. They were exploring an area they’d never been to before, deep in the backcountry, where the creeks and streams only appear as thin, blue lines on the topographic maps. Avid trout anglers call this quest for huge fish inhabiting tiny waterways “blue-lining.”
“My grandson and his uncles were on a blue-lining trip,” Gasson says. “They ended up getting off the trail, as you do when you’re blue-lining, and they got turned around and mixed up. They were lost. They dragged into camp about midnight, and they were fine, but they looked like death warmed over. The little guy had dark circles under his eyes, and they all looked like they’d been through heck.”
Gasson says the wanderers gathered around the table to look over the map and retrace their steps, and they realized they’d walked at least 17 miles.
“My grandson was only nine,” he repeats, “and I looked at him and said, ‘That’s a heck of a long way for a youngster to walk.’ He looked right back at me and said, ‘That’s just how we do things in our family, Grandpa.’ “
In addition to these traits, Gasson says getting out in nature with the younger generation instills a unifying narrative for the whole family.
“It gives us all a common theme,” he says. “We can all say, ‘I can do hard things; I have self-confidence; I know where my food comes from; and I have a respect for life – all life.’ “
That unifying narrative idea occurred to Gasson a few years ago when he and one of his grandsons were hunting elk. They had killed one late in the day, as the sun was going down, and they knew they needed to get it field dressed and packed out before night fell in earnest. Gasson dressed the animal out as quickly as he could, loaded the meat in their backpacks, and started to head back to camp.
“My grandson said, ‘Grandpa, we forgot something.’ It was getting darker, and I was in a hurry to get out of there, so I was at a loss. He said, ‘We forgot to give thanks, Grandpa.’ It took a 12-year-old to remind this 60-year-old to stop long enough to give thanks to God.”
And that’s the moment when Gasson knew that all these opportunities to get together as a family, explore the natural world, and have fun mean more to the kids than just a way to pass the time. The adults know there’s a deeper meaning to the trips, but until that moment, Gasson wasn’t sure if the kids grasped it, too.
Now he knows, and nothing will keep him from taking the kids to the woods again next year.

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