My father’s first gift to me was the clean tracks he set through deep snow. Even now, when I walk in the winter forest or slide into my skis, I find my eyes tilted down and only a few steps ahead, still searching for the path he blazed. Losing your father is hard at any age. You pick up his tracks here and there, but it’s never the same.
There is an opening on Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis where the downtown skyscrapers rise like glassy mountains just beyond the mixed canopy of trees and rooftops. On the right kind of winter night, you can see this vista as you ski past glowing ice fishing tents and glide toward laughter and slapping sticks on the skating rink.
Similar sights have stopped me in my tracks at a broomball rink in Northeast and a sledding hill in Powderhorn Park, the skyline never as clear as on a cold night. One of my most vivid childhood memories of my father is of a crisp night like that, when he suddenly froze his skis in the tracks ahead of me and said, “You know, kid, there is no other place in the world like this.”
He was right, of course. At the time, I knew he was right because I knew he only spoke plainly and truthfully. In time, I realized how blessed we were to feel rooted in Minneapolis and how much of our identity is connected to winter. I also realized his statement was only true if you also had a sense of wonder.
And now I listen to my 4-year-old son shuffling his tiny skis behind me, awkwardly but persistently. Recently, he asked if he could ski in front of me. It’s his world now, I suppose.
There are really two things I hope to pass on to him. The value of kindness and a sense of wonder. I believe these are natural instincts, but both must be constantly rekindled. We can impart kindness by broadening our sense of who belongs to our community; all types of people, as well as our shared natural environment and all of its creatures. As for a sense of wonder, clearly we are born curious and brave, but somewhere along the road to adulthood, we stop paying real attention. The world becomes too much and somehow not enough.
When this happens, I begin again by finding my sense of place, being still and remembering that “Kid, there is no other place in the world like this.”
I want my son to experience and to feel what is unique about our particular place on earth. I want him to feel rooted. I hope he explores our world and settles where his heart desires, but that he first develops a true awareness and sense of connection to home.
And when I think of home, I think of this beautiful city that experiences the full and dramatic depths of each season. And most often, I think of being outside in the winter, my senses clear and sharpened. I don’t know how to tell our story any other way. The trouble is, I don’t know that winter will be there for him. I don’t know how much longer he’ll find my tracks in the snow.
For all my father did to guide me, his last gift was a gentle push out of his tracks. To create my own path and to believe that I was enough. As our climate changes rapidly, I fear that my son will have to leave my own tracks sooner than I left my father’s. Winters won’t be the same. Our home is going to change, but he will be enough.
I hope that I have the courage to speak to him plainly and truthfully, to acknowledge our mistakes, and to be open to new traditions. Most important, I hope for the kindness to embrace new communities and the courage to keep finding wonder in a changing environment.
I hope that we all find the tracks ahead of us, and that we then step out of them.
Join me at the Climate Conversations: Ice Harvest on Jan. 25 — our 21st annual ice harvest at Richardson Nature Center — to share what you love about winter with your community and discover what you can do to protect it.
Michael Gottschalk is outdoor education supervisor of Three Rivers Park.