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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Updated: Feb 2, 2021

Mariscal Canyon, Rio Grande River, Texas

Rio Grande River ("The Great Unknown")

I was born in Chicago and spent the first 14 years of my life there. We lived on the third floor of an apartment building in the heart of the city. There were no wild places nearby, not even a city park. The sidewalk and a weed field across the street were the only places to play. I loved the weed field—had a “hidden” fort and a pile of carefully chosen “weed spears” to fend off wild animals and enemies. My parents were concerned that I spent too much time there alone: while my friends raced around the block on their tricycles, I played Daniel Boone and Tarzan in the weed field.

The highlight of my young life was the monthly Boy Scout camping trip to “Camp Fort Dearborn” in Chicago. My troop-mates usually waited till the night before to pack their gear—I was ready-to-go a week ahead! Afraid of the dark or a thunderstorm, a weekend trip was long enough for most of them. I could have stayed for weeks!

How did I come to love the outdoors when the world around me was mostly concrete and steel?

For many years I believed that time spent in the wilderness, and a growing love for it, went hand-in-hand. Go often, especially at an early age, and you’ll be hooked! But marriage and children suggested something else was at play. I took my two daughters canoeing and camping before they could walk. By age six they balked when asked to go. At 11, it was NO, I won’t go! Only once, and much later in life, did they ask to take a trip with me—they worried I was getting old and feared that if I died, they would be embarrassed to tell their friends they’d never gone canoeing with their “wilderness-wacko" dad.

For two decades, the middle school where I taught offered a “Wilderness Experience” summer program. It included an Orienteering meet, rock climbing and rappelling, and a rugged six day Boundary Waters Wilderness canoe trip. On one trip it rained for four days—not light, soft rain, but cold, pounding sheets. The kids were comfortably congregated under a pair of tightly rigged nylon tarps, sipping hot chocolate when one asked, “Where’s Theresa?” I pointed to a large rock near the water where she was sitting, lightly protected by a hooded poncho—rain streaming down all around. She was loving every minute of it, oblivious to the weather. Theresa was 14 years old and this was her first wilderness trip. But it wouldn’t be her last. After college, she became an Outward Bound Instructor.

Then, there was Samantha who complained constantly (she said she missed her “curling iron!”) even though every day was warm and sunny and the water was perfect for swimming. She hated everything about the trip, even the campfires at night.

So that’s how I came to believe that love of wilderness is not solely learned by doing. It’s in the genes--you have them or you don’t. Hate can grow to tolerance; tolerance can rise to like; like to love. But skipping steps is rare. An article, entitled “Restless Genes,” by David Dobbs (January 2013 National Geographic magazine), supports this view. Dobbs questions why some of us are restless explorers, willing to chance the unexpected, while others are content to stay at home and bask in creature comforts. According to the article, around 20 percent of the world’s population share an amazing “adventure gene” which has been identified and labelled as DRD4-7R . Nicknamed “The Restless Gene” because those who have it are not content to sit around or stay long in one place, it has been found in high concentrations in worldly explorers and people on the move. DRD4-7R has encouraged the ancient Polynesians to explore the Pacific with just stars to guide them; it’s the driving force that pushes astronauts into space, and it’s why you and I go to the wilderness.

You probably have DRD4-7R or you wouldn’t be reading this right now!

My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, includes the input of more than 30 international world-class wilderness canoeists who definitely have this gene!

My latest book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL! is a riveting high-adventure tale and an outdoor skills book in one. A first for teen books of this type. Justin has the gene but he just doesn't know it!


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