On Sailing to Alaska With Two Toddlers in Tow

©. Patrick Farrell (used with permission)

Author Caroline Van Hemert talks about the importance of exposing kids to challenging situations and the rewards that come of it.

There are so many different ways to raise a child, but one approach you don't hear about often is parents taking young kids on lengthy back-country adventures. And yet, why not? Kids are natural-born explorers, curious about the world and impressively flexible. They're happy to be anywhere, as long as they're with their parents.

Caroline Van Hemert is a biologist, author, long-time back-country traveler, and parent who embarked on an impressive journey with her young family in tow. Together with husband Patrick and two little sons, ages 2 and 4, the family took ten weeks to sail the Inside Passage from Bellingham, Washington, to Haines, Alaska, last summer on a 32-foot sailboat.

She wrote about the experience for the New York Times earlier this month. Called "Sailing in Treacherous Waters to Alaska. With Toddlers for Crew," I thought her article was a beautiful description of family life and how changing one's surroundings still brings the same challenges that every parent faces on a daily basis, while offering so many rewards. The story, however, was criticized by many parents who accused Van Hemert of being irresponsible and selfish for taking her children on such a journey – an attack that I consider to be unjustified and sad.

Caroline and sons

© Patrick Farrell (used with permission)

In an interview with Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids (and now Let Grow), Van Hemert explained how she has realized in the aftermath of the article "just how uncomfortable we are as a society with risk of any sort (and how often misguided our calculations are when it comes to identifying the true 'riskiness' of a situation)."

The fact is, everything we do with our children comes with a risk. And yet, only certain kinds of risks have been normalized and thus are deemed acceptable by society. As Van Hemert told Skenazy, "Driving a car down the highway at sixty miles an hours is dangerous and could result in terrible consequences, but we use child safety seats to mitigate this risk. The same is true when boating, or spending time outdoors in other capacities."

She described some of the ways in which her boys are kept safe on the sailboat:

"Life jackets on deck are mandatory for us, and the boys are down below or clipped into lines if it’s rough. We have a complete first aid kit and options for emergency communication, but getting ill is much less likely when our kids aren’t in school or at daycare. Bumps and bruises are always an issue, but the kids learn quickly how to handle themselves on a moving boat (always hold onto something, move like a crab, watch your head)."
boys near water

© Patrick Farrell (used with permission)

Then she distills so much of what I've written about here on TreeHugger into a single revealing sentence:

"We sometimes presume safety to be the highest calling of parenthood, and forget that life itself is risky (no matter how hard a person may try to shelter their children), and our kids need to learn the tools to manage these risks."

This is a powerful observation. We do our kids no favors by telling them constantly to "be safe." A wiser approach is to acknowledge that risk can never be fully eliminated and to give them the tools to analyze and handle it effectively.

Van Hemert's advice to other parents is to foster a sense of adventure in kids by taking them outside. Then let them take the lead. You don't have to be in exotic, remote places: "The wilds are everywhere around us if we’re willing to slow down and pay attention."

family sailboat

© Patrick Farrell (used with permission)

Her story is an inspiring one, a reminder to other parents that it's OK to pursue adventures with kids in tow. Sure, it's a lot more work when you have to take care of little people in addition to yourself, but taking care of kids is hard no matter where you are, so you might as well pursue a personal travel or adventure goal at the same time.

Van Hemert is the author of "The Sun is a Compass."