Paul Schurke’s thirst for adventure had its roots in his childhood, he said, “in the soft white underbelly of Minneapolis, a long way from typical adventure resources.”

Schurke, 63, who owns Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely, Minn., with his wife, Susan, remembered the summer that the city dug a gigantic ditch through south Minneapolis that eventually became I-35W.

“This miles-long stretch of rocks and rubble became our playground,” Schurke said. “My friends and I pedaled up Nicollet near downtown and lowered our banana seat bikes into the storm sewer there. As luck would have it, it was all downhill from there to Minnehaha Creek, so we’d go screaming through this tunnel in total darkness, with flashes of light as we passed under a drain.

“I shudder to think what would’ve happened if we’d hit a brick or a piece of rebar. Those experiences are a treasured memory for me. It was an urban center of adventure that got my juices going, big time — creativity, the sense of possibility, of discovery. I reflect on that all the time. It was truly pivotal for me.”

Many, if not most, of Schurke’s peers had similar childhood experiences that shaped a generation’s sense of adventure. But it’s not simply nostalgia. Measurable features of the 1960s and ’70s — largely unscheduled childhoods with kid-led activities; life that was to a much greater degree hands-on, face-to-face, manual, analog; minimal student debt, and plentiful living-wage jobs — made the ideal environment for fostering adventure. Whether lifelong or short-term, modest or grand, lots of people undertook adventures. The zeitgeist of the era was one of possibility. Bike to Mexico? Do nothing but run and sleep for two years in hopes of making the Olympic team? Sure, why not?

That world is gone. None of those conditions that made adventure widely possible exist anymore. Has the general sense of adventure disappeared, too? We talked to some outdoors people about adventure, then and now.

Schurke’s generation, who had enjoyed great swaths of unscheduled, grownup-free time as children, grew into adults who were comfortable without structure. They were used to solving problems. They were used to being independent and assessing risk. Generally, they made it up as they went along. Childhoods like that produced, well, yes — flesh wounds — but also adventurers.

In sharp contrast, today’s children follow institutional schedules and rules almost from birth. Free time, the birthplace of ideas, is nearly nonexistent. Sports and outdoor activities are organized and led by adults. “It’s increasingly rare to have an outdoor childhood,” said Katie Arnold, writer and editor at Outside magazine and author of a new memoir, “Running Home.”

“Two parents working means there are more scheduled activities that are supervised and seen as safe. Kids who aren’t outside much by themselves are less comfortable doing that as adults.”

Boston College research psychologist Peter Gray compared childhoods of 50 or 60 years ago with today’s: “Adventures that used to be normal for 6-year-olds are now not allowed even for many teenagers.” It’s clear that a protected, directed and pressured childhood is not the recipe for an adventurous adult.

Striking out

How to raise an adventurer now? Arnold, mother of the only two elementary students in their school who commute by bike, recommended getting kids outdoors early: “Going out in inclement weather teaches resilience, and confidence with making choices when the consequences are low. It’s much harder to learn those things in your 20s.”

While dog sled trips at Wintergreen Lodge are thoroughly planned and far less risky than the adventures of his youth, Schurke has anecdotal evidence that the hands-on experiences they provide give clients the confidence to strike out on their own.

“Some of our guides came here as kids with their families, and now they’re leading adventurous lives, working summer and winter, and cutting loose in the spring and fall.”

One of those guides is Amy Freeman who, together with her husband, Dave, has made adventure and outdoor advocacy a full-time job. Freeman, 36, who was dosed with average St. Paul amounts of outdoor independence as a child, spoke to the role economics played in her life of adventure. She had worked summers during college (at Macalester) guiding kayak trips in Grand Marais, but in 2006, she had a master’s degree in art therapy, six years of student loans, and a 9-to-5 job offer in Grand Marais.

“Dave and I had planned to kayak around Lake Superior in the fall of 2006, so I had to decide between the job and this adventure,” Freeman recalled by e-mail. “The job was the safe option, but something in me couldn’t give up on kayaking around Lake Superior. It was a pivotal moment in my life that launched me into the adventurous life.”

Freeman found that guiding in the summer and winter — and getting by with a Toyota Yaris, an off-grid yurt, and little nightlife — allowed her to save money, pay off her school loans, and afford a life of adventure. Most of her peers, she said, jumped into the working world, sometimes settling for any job just to cover rent and loans.

“Many of my friends who remained in Chicago or the Twin Cities kept deferring their loans even though they were working at jobs that paid more than the guiding jobs I did,” she said. “So, even though student loan debt inhibited adventure for most, it led me to take guiding jobs I could start immediately. I have several friends who joined the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps because of that student loan forgiveness thing, which also pushed them into adventure, but I think we were the exception.”

By contrast, Schurke described the adventure-friendly economics he found on graduating from St. John’s University in 1977. “We had $3,000 to our name, about $3,000 in student loans, and not a care in the world. Moved to Ely and bought a house for $1,800. We turned in aluminum cans or made Christmas wreaths — making money took a back seat to adventure. We were very fortunate we came when we did, and sort of rode the wave as Ely became a center of outdoor adventure. But our kids have between $50,000 and $80,000 in student loans. They pretty much have to hit the street running full-bore to pay that off.”

The web effect

Creation of the internet and advances in communication technology have profoundly affected every aspect of life, including our sense of adventure. Some positively, and some not so much.

Freeman pointed out how GPS has made navigation easier and more accurate, and how social media has made it possible for people to share their adventures and inspire others. But, she admitted, technology makes our lives almost too easy: “Why would anyone ever want to work hard, sweat, be uncomfortable, engage in somewhat risky behavior?”

Schurke noted a lot of interesting trends around digital media. While what he called “electronic mall culture” caused a dip in outdoor adventure in the 1990s, since then, adventure travel has skyrocketed.

“We’re seeing a major shift away from consumerism toward experiences that feed the soul. Our adventurous tent camping trips (vs. lodge-based trips) are much more popular, which I find encouraging. Families and millennials seem keen on ditching the relentless digital distractions for hands-on adventures,” he said. “In fact, we’re increasingly putting a tongue-in-cheek twist into our marketing as being a ‘digital detox center.’ ”

And media, Schurke added, has made adventure travelers a savvy bunch — they reject “Disney-fication” in favor of authentic experiences, which in turn provides market incentive to protect and maintain truly wild places.

“Media cuts both ways. Yes, it sensationalizes fears, but by allowing us to post short videos on how comfortable it can be to camp in minus-20 degree weather, it also relieves those fears.”

Arnold’s kids, 8 and 10, don’t have cellphones. While she grew up with such screen-based distractions as TV (she had a half-hour limit as a kid) and video games, today’s pocket-size tech, she said, is much harder to limit and more addictive, insidious and ubiquitous.

“Technology is more and more an issue when it comes to wellness and physical activity,” she said. “Parental limits is what it comes down to.”

Despite major cultural and economic changes over the last 50 years, Schurke, Freeman and Arnold agreed, adventure is alive and well for those determined enough to make it happen. You don’t have to be dirtbagging it — Arnold talked about moms with full-time jobs finding time to run 100-mile trail races. Steep college loans? As Freeman demonstrated, a 9-to-5 job is not the only way to manage them. And Schurke is confident that a 7-year-old who chisels a hole in the ice for water on one of Wintergreen’s trips is getting almost as hefty a dose of adventure as if she were screaming through a storm sewer on a banana-seated bike.

 

Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.

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