I don’t remember when my grandpa – my Nonno – first took me fishing. It was one of my first memories of him, and I must have been around 4 years old. I remember the sometimes cold, sometimes rainy south Chicago mornings when he would rouse me early, Nona would have breakfast ready, and then we would go out a good ways to a lake. By the time we would get to the lake the sun would poke through the clouds. Before pollution took over, we would sometimes bring back our catch for my Nona to fry up.
When my dad first took me camping I was 6 years old. He borrowed a tent from my aunt and uncle and we drove in his Bronco some three hours to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. We canoed, roasted marshmallows and hot dogs over the fire, and I loved it. On Sunday we woke up to pouring rain and a partially flooded tent. Unsurprisingly the small pond in the tent and the rain did not serve as a deterrent to camping.
With no athletic ability, no interest in organized sports, my dad hunted around for an activity for me to get involved with. It was the 90’s and back then you had to be involved in extracurricular activities to improve your chances of getting into a good college. When my dad found the Boy Scouts, something clicked and it felt just right. I went on to get my Eagle and worked at the Chicago Area Council’s Boy Scout camp.
Working at Owasippe was the defining experience of my young adulthood. Where as my early childhood memories grew increasingly distant, the freedom of living totally immersed in the outdoors, working together with like minded individuals, and teaching younger scouts the skills of wilderness survival, camping, and archery, combined together to be a potent and powerful draw to the outdoors. It felt like home.
Still riding the fresh high of working at Boy Scout Camp, I unconsciously abstained from doing anything meaningful in the out doors during college. Some good friends and I did a couple of car camping trips, and I took my younger cousin camping once, but that was about it. Upon moving up to Chicago after college that there was something gnawing at me…
Sometimes we don’t know what we’ve lost until it’s gone. In Chicago, and the Chicagoland area, there are a scant few opportunities to get active in the outdoors and experience the solitude and rejuvenating effects of quality time spent in nature. No matter where one ventures in the Chicago vicinity, one is seldom alone and the nearest camping is generally more than an hour away. Owasippe is 3+ hours away from Chicago, much of that time spent in gridlock traffic on 90/94 trying to escape the city. Wisconsin is no different…and coming back from either state, you meet the soul-sucking snake of congestion and the unsightly horrors of massive urbanization. Starved Rock state park is where the city dumps a significant portion of its outdoor seeking population. Solitude is not on the menu. Turkey Run in Indiana, where my dad first took me camping, has exploded in popularity since my days as father and son camping. It is now booked a year in advance and suffers too from a population glut hitting the scenic trails and Sugar Creek in the summer and fall. All this is to say that if you want to experience the great outdoors from the Chicagoland area, one must travel long and far, and spend significant time in traffic both ways. A quick, impulsive weekend jaunt is all but out of the question; campsites are booked full and prior planning is a must.
A month before relocating away from Chicago two close friends and I took a trip up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Wilderness. Eight days and 60+ miles later, it left a profound impact on the three of us, and even inspired the name for my firstborn daughter. Incredible beauty, challenge, solitude, and history…the BWCAW is a national treasure and offers experiences like almost no other place in the lower 48. We all left changed men with a hunger for getting outside much greater than before.
No single one of these experiences can be attributed to my current ravenous appetite and drive for outdoor experiences. Each one of them left an undeniable mark, and each one serves as its own lesson. Spending nearly a decade in an urban environment, sequestered from nature, I sometimes felt like a caged animal. The inescapable feeling that something was missing from my life…that something wasn’t right…plagued me. Riding my bike – and the bus – down Lake Shore Drive would offer a scenic view of the vast Lake Michigan. On the other side, a hundred or so miles to the north and to the east, I knew that there were soft, sandy beaches and that Owasippe was just past that. Little good that it did, it offered me a chance to dream, and it offered a reminder that the concrete jungle, despite its magnificent buildings and world-class food, was not the right home for me.
Sitting in my home office writing this, less than a mile from a good sized lake with hunting, fishing, hiking, boating, equestrian, and camping opportunities in abundance, things feel different. Our daughter is about to turn two, and it is impossible not to brim with excitement with all that I am eager to share with her. My son will enter into this world a short time after my daughter’s second birthday and that very same excitement will more than double. There is just so much still to learn and so much to share about the outdoors with my children that it can be hard to know where to begin. But sometimes when the weather is just right, I can feel those early, gray mornings with my Nonno (and Nona who was up cooking breakfast for us) so closely, as if it was only just yesterday that I was a small child going fishing with my grandpa…and the path – just get out there with them – becomes clear.