This is the seventh blog in a series that describes how parks relate to our everyday lives. For many of us, parks and recreation played a pivotal role in our upbringing, and still do so today. In this installment, Eppley Institute Executive Director Steve Wolter considers how time spent outdoors has enriched his life, from childhood to the present day.
It is no small thing for all of us at the Eppley Institute, and for those who are involved in the parks, public lands, and recreation profession, to think through our personal connection to parks. We know the reasons why parks are important and we can repeat them to anyone upon demand – proximity principle, climate and sustainability values, habitat conservation, historic preservation, economic development, recreation and health . . . and the list goes on. But it is challenging to move beyond this training – how we interpret parks, public lands, and recreation as something that builds community and place – to articulate the vital and central role of parks in our own worldview.
My connection seems to be all I can remember from my childhood forward. It’s as if I can’t recall a time when I was not outdoors, involved in hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, backpacking, grubbing around, and getting dirty. Even though I was highly involved in sports and music, always had a summer job, and always paid attention in school, my mom and dad made sure we were experiencing the outdoors in some way. One clear memory I recalled after a National Association of State Park Directors meeting in Custer State Park, South Dakota, is a family trip to Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota. This place was so different from the plains, woodlands, rivers, and lakes of Minnesota, where I grew up. My family camped at Custer State Park and spent time in the outdoors hiking, watching bison (to this day I am still in awe of this animal), visiting Mt. Rushmore, and immersing ourselves in the outdoors. This early memory helped me recall how much parks meant to me as I grew up.
When I look at photographs of myself in the BWCA, Sierras, Cascades, deserts, Tom’s Place, Yosemite, Great Smoky, the Deam Wilderness, and all the other places I’ve visited, I think I can recall most details of every visit. The North Country seems to be my “listening point”; it was foundational to my love of the outdoors, whether I was fishing, camping, canoeing, backpacking (bugs and swamps, oh my!), or hunting, and it still is. More or less, it helped to define me and gave me the confidence to dive into parks in any way that I could. I have other photographs of me with my children and my spouse, outdoors in the Sierras and my much-loved Yosemite from our time in California. Add to that being outdoors in the Southern Indiana hills and it seems I’ve climbed, walked, hiked, swam, skied, and been in every major ecosystem of the US. It just seems that outdoors is where I have always been and where I belong.
Reflecting on how this happened, I can only think that my parents gave me this great gift, this trust that being outdoors is where you should be, and that it is healthy and good for you. I hope I’ve passed this gift to those I come in contact with and to my spouse and family. Hopefully, the wanderlust that comes with it won’t be too bad!