July 14th, 2015

By Jon Wogen, TBC Board member and outdoorsman, printed with permission from the Renville County Register newspaper

A “Free-range Kid” could also be called a “wild child”. Last week we discussed childhood in a pre-electronic age. Kids with no computers, few TVs, no electronic games or cell phones had to learn to entertain themselves.

Tom Fenton reminded us of a Free-range Kid during his May 23 presentation on the Active Community Day in Bird Island and Olivia.

May I share how a Free-range Kid might have spent a day in the summer when school was out? After a good breakfast of oatmeal, toast, a piece of cheese and/or sausage, our Mom helped us to pack a lunch. We made peanut butter/jelly sandwiches, packed a candy bar, a can of beans, two home-made cooking cans with a wire bale, and coffee. Eating utensils were enclosed too and the Boy Scout knife had a can opener built in. We packed coffee and canteens of water for drinking and cooking.

Yes, we were only upper elementary age kids when we did this. No, the coffee didn’t stunt our growth, and yes, the beans gave us gas for the trip.

All of this stuff was packed into bike bags, back packs, bike baskets or whatever we had. Many of us were Boy Scouts and we had backpacks with the logo on it in plain view. We were proud of those packs. A small hatchet or saw was included to help us to make firewood for our cooking fire.

Strapped to the bike was a Red Ryder BB gun or a fishing pole or both. The fishing pole was hand-made from a small willow tree with line, split shot sinker, hook and sometimes a bobber.

We had to be home by supper time. Once again, that is “dinner” for you moderns. That was the only rule in this game of “Free-range Kid”; “Be home for supper!”

When the group of friends hit the road with their load of “survival gear”, we headed out of town on a gravel road. The destination was a glacial moraine that formed a high ridge of gravel and soil a couple of miles north of our home town called the “Hog’s Back”, because of the shape of the hills.

This ridge was covered with oak trees in much of the area, but native prairie with grass and wild flowers abounded among the oaks and between groups of trees. Some of the Hog’s Back was grazed or maybe had cattle in it at the time of our adventures. A small creek flowed along the moraine and joined a drainage ditch near our destination.

There had been some gravel mining done at points along the moraine and that provided the Free-range Kids with a place to look for precious stones like agates. There were some dandies there as well as an occasional piece of limestone with fossils in it. This told us that the glacier had brought this gravel down from somewhere up in Northern Minnesota thousands of years before.

Was this a great place for a Free-range Kid? It was the best place for a kid to develop knowledge of wild places, learn about fishing and nature and learn to identify wildlife. We learned to appreciate the native prairie grass and wildflowers. Our group of friends seldom saw another human being all day long during these adventures. Well, there was one place on the moraine where a guy and his wife carved an earth-sheltered home out of the hills and had a few pigs and sheep in a fenced in area. It was definitely fun to spy on them without being seen as we played the part of our Indian predecessors at this place.

These Free-range Kids hiked, played, built shelters and fished. And, of course we got hungry for the food we had brought along. Trained as Boy Scouts, we understood fire safety. We built a small safe fire and hung a pail of water over the fire to make coffee. The beans were heated in another home-made can pail on some coals. Of course Sven thought he would be smart and he set his can of beans directly on the coals to show us that we weren’t doing it right.

As we sat there by the small fire, smelling the cooking coffee and watching our beans so they wouldn’t burn, we noticed that Sven hadn’t removed the top of the can before setting it in the coals. It had started to swell so much it was almost round. We stepped back from the fire as quickly as we could but it wasn’t far enough away. Many hot bean missiles flew all over our exposed body parts and burned us a bit. Red welts were common among the friends for a couple of days after this adventure.

We all felt sorry for Sven as he now had little to eat for dinner (lunch to you moderns). Well we all shared some of our beans with Sven so he would receive enough nourishment to continue to survive under these adverse conditions.

After coffee had washed down the beans and candy bars, we continued to be Free-range Kids for the remainder of the afternoon. A few bandaids were applied to some of the bean “wounds” with some ointment on them to dull the pain. Scouts were prepared with a small first aid kit, as you can imagine. That is what being a well-prepared Free-range Kid is all about; learning to be self-sufficient and how to handle bad situations, through experience learning. There was nothing we could to for the coffee-burned tongues from being too eager to drink that friendly-smelling liquid. That was also a learning experience.

How we wish we could repeat some of those childhood adventures. Well, how about your kids? Start them with training and equip them with what they will need and send them on their way. Is there any wild place left to send a “Wild Child”. You may need to take them down to one of the Renville County parks and supervise them for a while. You can let them make decisions about what to do and about their survival experience. You can read a good book in the park while the kids do their adventure. A park fire-pit must be used for cooking fires. We think a Free-range Kid will become better equipped for life than if he or she sat before the computer or TV or with his or her ear pressed by a cell phone all day.


Leave a Reply