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 flows out of the restricted loch, forced through the narrows, falling over a fault in the rock out to sea. Foam gathers at the shore, swirling in eddies.
A fellow kayaker joins him and they dance in the waves – brightly coloured plastic toys in a cold 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’s the first time I have seen him at play in this way. My son is 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.
He recently returned from Kenya and Uganda after three months of coaching others on the rivers. He led trips down the rapids, imparted skills and knowledge, inspired others to join the wet and wild parade.
He tells me casually “If you don’t get in the right channel – you’re dead”, like it is an accepted thing
Then onto the mighty Nile for a “holiday” with a friend’s mother’s borrowed Land Rover. Boats on the roof, kit piled in the back, and three tanned, tousled-haired youths with nothing on their agenda but the rivers.
Camps set up, pushing through bush, plastic shells on their shoulders, paddles in hand. They slip down to the edge, slide into the small crafts, snap elastic decks onto the rims. And then they’re off.
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, 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 flowing parallel to his jaw, framing his body in sparkling crystals, falling, falling in the flow, at one with the water.
Then the “boof” as he plunges into the boiling foam of the pool, momentarily submerged before he pops up like a blue barrel, with a raise of the paddle and a holler. The first descent of this hidden fall, deep in the African wilderness. This is my child.
We produced wild children, boys now men loving adventure
I watch the films of his exploits, listen to his tales, share my admiration and laughter with him and his friend. I can live it with him up to a point, imagine the scene, hear the voices, feel his joy. Later, alone, I watch the films again and realise the height of the drops, think about the risks. Nobody had done it before. What if…? What could have happened?
Do I worry? I’m not really sure. Sometimes in my private moments, my quiet times I allow myself to think – what if he missed the line? He tells me casually, “If you don’t get in the right channel – you’re dead” – like it’s an accepted thing. If you put your fingers in the fire they will burn – so don’t put your fingers in the fire.
Every parent worries about their children no matter how old they are, where they are, what they are doing. I have three sons, Kyle, Saul, and Seori, who love adventure and it’s down to us. John and I 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 and the wonders of our landscape.
We took our children to the hills, walked up mountains and skied down them. We paddled canoes across lochs, sailed along the coast and to the islands, climbed the rocks with them. We clipped on and hung free. We scrambled up gorges and rode the trails, mud spraying up our backs. We entered adventure races and lay next to them under canvas at night, their little faces serene, breaths slow and even as they slept.
We tried to instill in them this love of the wild lands, of the unexpected, the serenity of lofty peaks and horizonless seas, the pounding breakers on remote beaches. But most importantly, we wanted them to love just being there, among it all. Feeling it, touching it, breathing it, living it.
We produced wild children, boys who are now men. They love adventure, seek challenges, push boundaries and worry their parents. I wouldn’t want it any other way. You do your best to prepare your offspring for life and that’s a job never done. You support, guide, mentor, advise, teach and show but that’s all you can do – you can’t do it for them.
It’s our job to protect them as they grow but you can’t protect them from life. You can’t stop their hearts from being broken, from the pain of the fall. All you can do is give them the skills to deal with it when it happens.
I don’t worry now because I trust them. I trust they will make the right decisions, choose the right trail, say the right words to the right person at the right time. I trust them to know the risks, to analyse them, look them square in the face and then choose correctly. Trust them to seek the right advice, to speak to the local guy who’s fished that river since he had milk teeth. Trust them to ask for help, to pull back, to say no, not today. I trust them to come home at the end of the adventure.
I smile as I look in the window and see him slumped on the bean bag. He’s fast asleep, with tousled wet hair and A serene smile about his lips. my wild child
My sons returned from these adventures changed. It gave them soul. At 17 my middle son spent a year in China, returning as a calm, determined, goal-set young man. My eldest came back from the Arctic with the spirit of that wild but awesome land embedded in his psyche. My youngest is a glacier guide in Iceland.
Now John and I are setting off on a sailing trip we’ve planned since our teens, from our home near Oban via Ireland to Bayona, down the Portuguese coast into and round the Mediterranean for a year. It’ll be quite an adventure and our sons will join us at various points.
My son finishes paddling and clambers up the bank, cold but smiling. His friend behind him, that unspoken bond of trust obvious between them. We head back to the warm house, hot soup ready and chocolate cake cooling.
His paddle kit hangs in the woodshed, the boat lies dripping at the foot of the garden. I smile as I look in the window and see him slumped on the bean bag. He’s fast asleep, with tousled wet hair and a serene smile about his lips. My wild child.
The Rarest Of Species – The Unplugged Teenager