Sometimes it takes getting away from media to really see the messages aimed at girls that are selling them short. And sometimes it takes getting away from media to meet people who defy all the stereotypes we are sold….It turns out I think our cabin is located on one of the most feminist lakes in Wisconsin.
A few weeks ago my family met at our cabin in northern Wisconsin for a gorgeous autumn weekend of hiking, kayaking, enjoying the fall color, avoiding bears, and spotting bald eagles. We arrived after dark and were greeted by the Milky Way floating in the sky above the house. The starry sky, for me, always brings the awareness that we are indeed each quite small and unique in this universe. The hugeness of the cosmos, the complete darkness once outside of the city, the soft night noises of the forest all do such a wonderful job of making sure you are officially unplugged for the weekend.
I love taking the kids up there because it is so remote, and with no television, internet, or phone service the only entertainment is reading, art projects, playing games as a family, or sitting and watching the lake. It is also nice to let the kids run loose and explore the woods,collecting as many sticks and rocks as their little hands can hold. This trip they were quite interested in building houses for Leafmen from their favorite movie “Epic”.
There had been black bear spotted on our property a few weeks back, so I was very leery this time around to let the kids run around by themselves. They were, of course, very anxious to do just that. I woke early on Saturday morning to take advantage of the light and photograph the trees and fall color. I wasn’t sure what time of day bears like to eat, but I was hoping not 7:12 am. While picking up some gorgeous leaves to make a cool pattern for a photo I found some very fresh bobcat scat on the drive. Now I don’t know exactly how big Wisconsin bobcats get, but judging by the size of the poo I’ll say it is bigger than a breadbox. In the event the wine I had been drinking the night before interfered with the scatological studies I had engrossed myself in while reading a field manual, I decided to quietly head back up the hill to the cabin on the off chance it was cougar poo instead. On my way back I saw a small snake sunning itself on the rocks, my announcement of which upon coming through the door sent my children scrambling for their clothes and shoes in order to catch it.
We are “free range parents” in the city, so it felt weird to keep such a close radar on the kids in the woods this weekend because of the bears. They were not allowed to be outside without an adult, nor could they walk back and forth from the lake to the cabin by themselves. For whatever reason, my seven year old Amelia seemed very unconcerned about the bears and the fact that one could eat her. She was going to have an adventure, she had literally declared it at the top of the hill before marching down. “I am going to have an adventure!” she yelled to the trees, smashing smaller rocks onto larger ones as she made her way down the hill. Her little brother Benny was hot on her heels, and off we went to the lake to spend forty five minutes throwing pebbles onto lily pads and trying to catch frogs.
We went for a family hike, but the hilly terrain quickly tired out the kids and their small legs. We headed back to the cabin for lunch and then down to the lake to kayak. The kids had gone ahead with my dad and my husband, my mom and I were going to load the kayaks and then drive them down to the lake. As I’m backing up the van and maneuvering it on the very steep drive, out of nowhere pops Amelia which gives me a small heart attack. She had walked back from the lake to the cabin by herself.
“YOU COULD HAVE BEEN EATEN!” I scream.
“Um, more likely I would die when my mom runs me over with the van. Anyway, I made weapons and I’m not scared of bears anymore,” Amelia informed me to reveal a small collection of twigs she had whittled into sharp-ish points. I was still concerned for her safety, because a fifty pound kid could make a good meal for something, still I could not help but smile that my little feisty had no doubt in her mind that she could take on a bear.
Kayaking lessons begin with my dad standing on the shore of the lake teaching the kids how to use the paddles and stay balanced. My mom and I discreetly tie a stern line onto Amelia’s kayak in an attempt to control her a bit before she heads into the open water. She hops in her green kayak, spends three minutes figuring out the rhythm of her arms moving the paddle through the water, and is soon gliding back in forth in the shallows in front of us. Then she notices the stern line.
“LET ME GO!” she hollers, as we try to explain to her we just want to keep her close by until we know she has the gist of it.
“LET! ME! GOOO!” this time using her paddle to try to pull on the stern line away from us.
“What do you want me to do?” my mom asks, enjoying the thought of me raising a daughter who is exactly like I was as a child.
“Let her go,” I say knowing Amelia will make good on her earlier declaration for adventure.
Within ten minutes she is clear across the lake having the time of her life. Benny and I hop in the other kayak and have a great time exploring the lake and trying to keep up with Amelia. The only way we got her off the water was because a storm was moving in. Amelia was soaked, cold, and euphoric when we got her back to shore.
“As soon as the rain stops I’m going back out there. Poppop said something about white water rapids. Where’s my fishing pole?” she asked through chattering teeth.
The following day we were out on the water by mid-morning, paddling to the far side of the lake that still had mist rising off of it. As we made our way across the water a bald eagle flew overhead. “This is AMAZING!” Amelia yelled, pumping her paddle in the air as she raised both of her little arms to the sky. Amelia talk and yapped the entire way across the lake, which caught the attention of one of our four neighbors. Each of the five homes on the lake is about a quarter mile away from each other by land, but on the water Amelia’s voice carries. As we reached the dock we met a kind lady in her late seventies who went on and on to Amelia about how proud she was of her for paddling all of the way across the lake. The lady complimented Amelia on her strong muscles and determination. It turns out, Midge, our new friend, had lived on the lake for years as her family had owned most of this acreage for decades. Her 96 year old sister still lives on the lake by herself year round. She told us about the bear and wolf they had seen in the past few weeks on the property next to ours, and gave us great advice on dinky diners in the area and info on some of the local folks. Next to our cabin lives “Doc” as she is called, a retired physician who lives there with her two dogs, one of whom had found fresh bear scat the night before. Then the 96 year old sister, then Midge’s house, and then one other house on the other side of the lake. Heading away from the lake, our neighbor was a lady who raises and races sled dogs. Midge asked if we’d be up for Christmas, but I said with the snows probably not because we didn’t think our vehicle could make it up to the cabin. She told us about how she used to bring her kids up and snowshoe in all of her supplies in on a toboggan and offered a few tips. She asked Amelia if she would snowshoe across the frozen lake this winter and visit her.
“I know how to do that!” Amelia said cheerfully, remembering that last winter her best friend had taught her how to snowshoe and ice fish in Tomahawk.
“Of course you do! How glorious!” said Midge. I heart Midge.
We bid Midge farewell and made our way back across the lake. The sunshine, fall color on the trees, and time with my girl was just perfect. My husband and Benny were on the shore waiting for us so that they could take the kayaks out. Benny had kept himself busy by making a bear trap out of sticks and leaves. We were getting ready to trade off the kayaks when we heard an insane noise coming from the road. We looked up to see a woman mushing a team of sled dogs on a wheeled dog sled. When she saw us she yelled for the team to stop and slammed on the brake. She hopped off and came over to say hello. At this point I was in “Redefining Girly Heaven”. Amelia’s and Benny’s mouths were hanging open.
We introduced ourselves to Deb, the kids asked if they could pet the dogs, and we chatted for awhile. Deb had been racing dogs for years and was out this morning training some of her year old pups. She was amazing to talk to and when it was time to go, she asked the kids if they could help her get the team up the hill. She told them to hop on the sled, lift the brake, and yell “MUSH!” She ran along with the lead dog as the kids held onto the sled with a mix of terror and delight. At the top of the hill our kids got off and Deb hopped on, gave the kids a high five, and then turned to her team and yelled “MUSH!” one more time, and off she raced down the gravel road.
“That? Was freaking amazing,” said Amelia in awe.
“Oh my gawd,” echoed Benny.
And in the span of 48 hours my kids had explored the woods, made houses and traps and weapons out of sticks, examined copious amounts of scat, kayaked, and spotted two eagles. If Amelia had been watching television on Sunday morning instead of kayaking she would have seen commercials aimed at her that sell beauty, fashion, baking and baby care in pink hues to the tune of glittery, sparkling music. Even LEGO has drank the Kool Aid. She would have seen those same messages if we had been out running errands, repeated on store shelves and billboards. Amelia would not have seen messages about girls going on great adventures, doing strong things with their bodies, taking care of themselves and being independent. But away from the media we met women who took living in the big Northwoods in stride, showing my children that girls most definitely are smart, daring, and adventurous. At home we probably wouldn’t have met female doctors who chase off black bears, women who run dog sled teams or snowshoe supplies to their house for the winter.
I am grateful for experiences like this for my daughter, so that I can reinforce to her that there are many ways to be a girl. Equally important, my son soaked in all of this. And they are both better for it.