How To Build Family Bonds In The Backcountry

Statistics show today’s youth are maxed out on television and gadget time, and we sometimes feel hard pressed to find ways to get total focus and engagement with our kids, and offer them new experiences. But sometimes the unexpected or tough subjects drive the most connectedness and build bonds in a family.

In our house, getting into the outdoors is one way we all stay connected to each other and nature. But I was surprised recently when I joined my 12-year-old son in signing up for an avalanche skills training course from the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre.

We head out into the mountains a lot, and are always seeking new experiences, but the real-life danger that avalanches present seemed to hit my son with a powerful wave of instinctual need to protect and lead his flock to safety. It also seemed to push an internal button to bond with those he cares about and, to my delight, cut the cord that ties him permanently to his Xbox, at least for a little while.

The first day was a classroom session. My son felt right at home, but considering it has been 30 years since I last rode the pine in the classroom, my eyes were reeling from the ravages of time as I strained to read what the mountain guide was putting up on the screen. Revelations about my son were happening quickly. I realized we both gravitate toward the nosebleed section of the class, feeling some shared comfort with our backs against the wall.

Defying my son’s strict orders not to raise my hand or say anything in class, I punched forward — I wanted to show that participating was good, that worrying about being right or wrong isn’t as important as being engaged. Our lives could depend on what we learn and I wanted him to see that you need to ask questions to get the most out of life while reducing risk as much as possible. He realized I was relentless about this point, and quit asking me to stop in favour of making fun of me when I said something dorky.

A serious look came over my son’s face as a real-life avalanche burial, captured on a victim’s Go Pro camera, aired on the big classroom screen. At one point, all you could hear was the victim, buried by snow, barely breathing, heart pounding loudly. This life-and-death situation gripped us both, hitting him was the seriousness and vital importance of paying close attention and learning all we could, so we would never end up in this situation.

Usually it is a bit of challenge in the best of times to get my son out of bed. He does normal 12-year-old stuff, like eating a cocktail of processed foods and candy late into the night, pushing his brain to the max with a head-spinning video game, falling asleep in exhaustion with cords dangling from his ears. But this was different. As we headed outside for some real-life training, even with the thermometer pushing to the freakish cold limits of -33 C, my son was up, dressed in full winter garb, and excited to go. Taking this very seriously, on his own accord, he was going to make sure were not going to be stars of a tragic video.

Suddenly, this back-of-the-class sitter was rising to the pole position, taking charge as a leader who wanted to learn everything possible. With five layers on to keep us warm, we moved like penguins, striding slowly, high in the Canadian Rockies, in deep snow, to our first practice session of the day.

Our mountain guide, young but full of experience beyond his years, connected directly with my son’s acute interest. Expecting us to be in the back of the pack, hiding behind the other overdressed Michelin men mascots, I couldn’t see my son, until I realized he was a beacon way up front, standing right next to the guide looking up, hanging on every word, like he was listening to the Dalai Lama.

My son rose up that day, shunning his usual style of being reserved around people he did not know. Now, he was fully engaged, sharing ideas with me, and even volunteering to take the leadership role in our group and yelling out search-and-rescue commands to 10 others with militarylike precision. Extreme cold, new people, long days — all these things could have been barriers, but the seriousness of the subject and the importance of knowing how to travel safely in the mountains on our father-and-son trips drove him to get engaged. Not only on the subject, but with me, as well.


Tips For A Deeper Bond With Your Kids

  • Screen time got your kid? Pick an adventure that uses electronic devices. Avalanche skills training requires one to become proficient in the use of the battery-powered avalanche transceiver. Go for a snowshoe trip and use a GPS device to find your way. Have your kids download some of the wayfinding apps, or visit reputable websites to get information on starting a new outdoor sport together.
  • Get crazy with your kids. Take on a challenge in the outdoors. Sign up for Avalanche Skills Training No. 1 with University of Calgary Outdoor Centre. Climb a mountain together or run a wild river. Get a guide and get going on a family adventure. These courses facilitate learning something new and get the whole family involved and engaged.
  • Get outside. Sometimes the best connections come from the craziest or wildest times in your life. That doesn’t mean you should go outside and get lost, when you camp, hike or ski as a family, memorable stuff happens. This is the stuff that creates connectedness and engagement. We were caught in a wicked snowstorm once and had to find immediate shelter. This drove everyone to work together in Swiss-like precision. Later, once we were warm and dry inside out tent, we were able to laugh at how crazy it was. We still talk about the time we were way out in the ocean on a paddleboard adventure and a pod of dolphins surrounded us. Special moments, crazy times and adventures outside bring you closer together, drive engagement and memories.