I had just pulled my knife out of its worn leather sheath. It was raining and we had retreated into a picnic shelter at the camping area for the Atlin Music Festival to grab a bite to eat. I had barely cut into the banana bread when a child’s voice next to me  matter-of-factly noted, “Nice knife.” I finished the cut and looked to my right. Sitting a couple feet from me at the picnic table was a pixieish brown haired girl.

“Thanks,” I said. I was caught off guard as I had never been complimented by a young girl for the knife I carry.

“I’ve got one too,” she quickly added and in an instant she was holding up a handsome Swiss Army Knife. “My dad gave it to me last year.” I nodded. “Here take a look at it,” she added as she held it out for me.

In a few minutes I learned that she was named Emma and that her favorite of the multiple tools on her knife was the fact that it had not one, but two blades. “It’s easier to carve things with two different sized blades.”

I handed it back  and she kept up the testimonial. “The scissors attachment is pretty cool too but it’s the hardest one to open.”

I’m guessing that Emma was maybe ten or eleven years old. I thought of how astute it was that her father gave her  the gift of a knife the previous year. Seems to me that we need far more parents willing to give kids pocket knives. Oh blasmephous words! I can hear the cries of horror at the thought of giving a child, and a girl no less, a sharp-edged tool. A good, sharp knife gifted to a child is a rite of passage. It is a pronouncement of confidence that the youngster can and MUST handle and care for the knife properly . So such a bladed gift must come with a serious discussion on the proper handling and care of all knives.

Mors Kochanski, a friend and one of the top survival experts in North America, is the author of the highly regarded book, Northern Bushcraft. Last fall, Nancy and I stopped on our return trip to Minnesota to spend a couple nights with Mors at his home in northern Alberta. We got to talking about kids and bush skills. Mors said he always encouraged parents to teach knife skills and campfire building skills as early as five years old. He insists there is no better age to instill the correct and safe use of matches and knives.The real danger is having kids play with these things on their own without proper instruction.

In chatting with little Emma, I learned she liked to camp and was eager for the music to begin the following day. It was clear that her world did not revolve solely around knives. As she and I watched an impromptu music jam begin next to our table, Emma said, “I play piano and some guitar, but I really want to play a stand up bass.”

Suddenly something shifted and she got up and headed out into the drizzle. “Well Tom, I’ve got to go. . .see you later.”

I had just met an honest to goodness “bush kid!” Had I been an eleven or twelve year old boy, I would have been mightily smitten by Emma. The youth designation of “good bush kid” was a label I had never heard of until we came up to the Yukon in 2008. And right away I knew I wanted to be knighted with such a noble title. I became aware of such a designation in casual conversations.

“ Oh, Knute is a good bush kid,”  said one good friend.

And one mother declared , “My 16 year-old daughter, she’s a good bush kid.”

It’s not a title that is cast out freely; one has to earn it. I would have far preferred being known as a “good bush kid” than a good boy scout or good Lutheran.

So what are the qualifications for such an honor? There is no definition or secret order of bush kids. But here is what I have observed. A key component  of  bush status is you must be really confident. You can handle yourself well anywhere and you don’t loose your cool.

Clearly these are excellent bush skills for surviving in the wilds. But besides being super comfortable rooting around in the outdoors, these kids carry the confidence throughout their day whether they are in school or on a trip in the back country.

Emma seemed profoundly happy. And no surprise here as studies show that kids who play and explore outside are less stressed, more relaxed and tend to have greater social skills and confidence. Bingo!

Stephen Kellert, a Yale professor with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has written extensively on the subject of child development and nature. In his book Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection he argues that, not only is contact with nature important for children’s emotional, intellectual, and evaluative development, but that their “physical and mental well-being depends on the quality of their experience of the natural world.”

My guess is that if I looked closely at the lives of those “good bush kids,” I would likely find that each of them spent a lot of time outside messing around with their imaginations.

Two nights later I was in the main tent waiting for the next band to take the stage. Hundreds of people were in the tent enjoying the day’s music. I looked over to my right and sitting on the ground in the front row, about twenty feet from me, was my friend Emma. She had a bandanna wrapped around her forehead and was having a good time. She glanced my way and saw me looking towards her. She waved… and winked. Yes, she winked. Now that is confidence!

If we had a generation of optimistic and confident  bush kids on the rise, the world would be a better place. I have a “good knife,” received a wink and the band onstage was about to play a new song. Life is looking real good.

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