Somebody's got to stay outside

I was looking through the pictures of our last trip to Canada, and it occurred to me that all of the best moments were outside.

And when I thought some more, I realized that all of the best memories of my childhood were things that we were doing outside. Without exception.

Overnight canoe trips at camp; ten straight days of skiing from 8am til 11pm; annual camping trips where we spent nearly a whole month with just a tent and car full of supplies; lying – on a beach, in a field, on the flat pink granite of Georgian Bay – and looking for hours at the night sky, trying to read the stars, the Milky Way; triumphant moments in a small sailboat, where I felt I’d either accomplished or overcome something – a sort of caving to nature, acknowledging its power and gracefully yielding to it, but using it at the same time.

The best moments inside that I remember are things like falling asleep on the couch in front of a fire – and that felt good because we were tired and finally warm after having been outside that day. If we’d spent the whole day inside, it wouldn’t have felt nearly as good.

I spent a fall and part of a winter in Bergen, Norway, a few years ago. There’s a mountain near the harbour that makes for a lovely walk up. I used to try and do it every day, just to get out, away from work, clear my head. On my way there, I’d pass several daycares – or rather, several playgrounds where kids from the age of 6 months to 6 years were playing, dressed in full rain or snow gear. In Holland, a country with more than its fair share of wet weather (though not nearly as wet or bad as Bergen), the playgrounds clear out as soon as the first drop falls, and a great deal of daycares make no provisions for outside play. But in Norway, in rain or shine, sleet or gale, the kids would be outside, every day, all day.

Nearly every day on the way up that mountain, an older Norwegian would pass me at a good clip, mention that he or she was out for a 7 mile walk, and ask where I was from. Canada, I’d say, and their eyes would light up. “Oh, Canadians are so connected with nature!” They’d exclaim, and I’d just smile, thinking to myself that I knew few people in Canada – let alone seniors – that would walk 7 miles with such vigour, and certainly not every day. Where had this perception come from?

I worked at a camp in the Rocky Mountains one winter and was asked by the teacher of a group of students visiting the camp if I could light them a fire outside one night. I did, and the students came outside for about 15 minutes, then complained of the cold. The teacher said “OK, you can put it out now,” and they all went inside. I sat out there (it was cold), never one to pass up an opportunity to sit in front of a fire, even at -15, and worried about that. The teacher had asked me to light a fire because he and his students didn’t know how. And since they’d only shown up after it had been lit, they still didn’t know how, and clearly weren’t interested in learning. I wondered why they came in the first place and where their best memories would take place: inside or out? Probably in.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. They clearly didn’t get as much out of being outside as I did. But a great deal of research nowadays is revealing that being outside does us a lot of good. That, as easy as it is to stay inside these days, it might be prudent to do otherwise.

One of my favourite authors, Jim Harrison, said in an interview once that he’d turned down a cushy teaching job, even though he knew he’d have to live well below the poverty line if he did. When the school asked him why he was turning them down, he said “Somebody’s got to stay outside.” And he did.