My adult kids found themselves in nature. Will my youngest lose herself in her phone?

When my son Hatcher and I started our hike down Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River during the fall of 2023, we feared what we might see.

We were backpacking through our favorite place, the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. It’s almost 2.4 million acres of central Idaho that shelters wolves, black bears, river otters, and lynx; the Salmon River threads through it for 200 breathtaking miles.

One of America’s longest free-flowing rivers, the Salmon is so fierce that in spots it cuts a chasm deeper than the Grand Canyon. And even though its tributary, the Middle Fork, is stacked with whitewater rapids that can flip your boat and suck you under, most drop into forgiving pools that let you recover.

The main fork of the Salmon stretches across hundreds of miles and two time zones, existing as a dividing line between Mountain Time and Pacific. This means that for as long as you are on it, you are between time. Anthropologists call zones like this “ambiguous.”

To the Irish, they are “thin places.” To my husband, Shawn, and me, anywhere on the Salmon has always been the best place to raise our children.

Salmon Time gave Scout, our oldest child, a reverence for wilderness and taught him that he can survive anywhere with the right skills and the right friends. He has since become an accomplished adventurer, outdoor writer, and justice seeker, a defender of wild places.

top left: a little boy with long brown hair and bangs smiles in front of reddish rock formations; bottom left: a boy with curly brown hair and a girl with long blond hair smile, posing arm-in-arm while wearing life-jackets. Behind them is a body of water; top right: a figure standing on a rock formation raises a walking stick in the air, posing above the valley below; bottom right: two young boys wearing baseball caps and life-jackets stand next to an inflatable raft floating in a river.

Growing up throughout the years: Scout Edmondson as a boy (top left); Hatcher Edmondson pictured with a classmate in South America (bottom left); Hatcher posing on a high point above the Middle Fork River in the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness (top right); Scout (left) and Hatcher (right) on the San Juan River when they were preteens (bottom right).
Courtesy of Tracy Ross

It gave Hatcher a taste of independence he’d never known, introduced him to kayaking, and started him on a journey that would make him one of the youngest licensed guides working multiday trips on this wild river.

But this place, where both of my sons gained such reverence for the natural world, would also soon confront them with the environmental toll that the climate crisis exacts. During Hatcher’s first year of guiding, in 2021, fires torched 87,000 acres along the upper Middle Fork corridor. No one was hurt, but several groups, including a few of Hatcher’s, had to row through smoke and past flames raging just off the river banks.

The next summer, torrential rains released tons of mud laden with rocks, boulders, bushes, and hundreds of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine trees into the river. I imagine it sounding like a freight train crashing through the wilderness.

That’s one of the reasons Hatcher and I were here: to witness how fire had altered the river we consider a kind of home away from home.

But here’s the other reason: I was working through some serious anxiety over the state of the world and my children’s places in it.

Scout will be 23 this spring, Hatcher is 21, and their little sister, Hollis, a member of Generation Alpha, is 12. If you lay their births out on a timeline of climate-change acceleration, you will understand why I lie awake at night worrying about their futures.

The dividing line between my low(er) anxiety and high is the year Hollis was born: 2011. That’s the year the World Meteorological Service says we entered the “decade of [global warming] acceleration.” The “acceleration” was caused by an unprecedented rise in greenhouse gas emissions that fueled record land and ocean temperature increases and turbocharged a dramatic acceleration in ice melt and sea-level rise from 2011 to 2020 and beyond.

And, indeed, it does feel as though we’ve entered a new chapter of the climate crisis. Where I live, chronic overuse of water resources coupled with a 20-year, climate-change-spurred drought has sucked more than 10 trillion gallons out of the Colorado River Basin, threatening supply to more than 40 million people. This February, the Atlantic Ocean was warmer than it had ever been, causing whales to move north following plankton in search of cooler temps and foreshadowing another devastating hurricane season this summer.

Over the same span of time, I’ve also witnessed the way technology’s grip on our children has tightened. The average 12-year-old spends 5.3 hours a day staring into their cellphone, according to Sapien Labs, a nonprofit organization that runs an ongoing survey into global mental health. Kids’ eyes are even elongating to “adapt” to their addiction. And “technology overload” is creating symptoms in kids that look a lot like ADHD, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I see the signs in Hollis: She doesn’t want to go outside anymore. She barely looks up from her screen.

Like most parents I know, I want to grab Hollis’s phone and throw it in the nearest toilet. But she’d immediately start begging me for a new one because her “entire life” is on it.

When I think back to Scout’s and Hatcher’s childhoods, only a decade before Hollis’s, they seem like a relative Eden. Climate change still seemed a distant and abstract threat, and they didn’t have cellphones. Lucky kids, they grew up believing in Arctic sea ice and that play dates only occurred in person. And I believe the time they spent outside, in nature, gave them some skills to help them find their way in a more complicated world.

Three photos. Left: aboard a floating raft, a woman in a blue baseball cap and reflective sunglasses smiles, posing for a photo with a toddler wearing a top-big baseball bat and sticking her tongue out. Middle: bare trees, burnt in a fire, flank a small sandy path that cuts through tall grass. Right: Rafts pulled up to a rocky shoreline flanked by tall evergreens.

Tracy Ross, pictured with her daughter, Hollis, when she was 7. A trail pierces through the remnants of a burn in the Frank. Rafts edge up to the shoreline of the Middle Fork during the same trip that Hollis found herself alone on the raft.
Courtesy of Tracy Ross

Hollis is coming of age during an age of disaster.

The childhood I want to give her, one immersed in nature, is changing, becoming more dangerous. All the while, the lure of her cellphone threatens to disconnect her even more.

As her mother, I want to help her navigate this new world, but I’m not entirely sure how. I hoped days hiking along the Middle Fork with Hatcher might help me sort it out.

Our home, in the woods outside of Boulder, Colorado, lies within the Roosevelt National Forest. At any given time, moose, deer, bobcats, mountain lions, black bears, and coyotes walk through our property. Sometimes they do more than walk. The moose trap us indoors while they lick salt off our truck and the bears know how to open car doors, especially when there’s a week-old burrito heel, wadded up in tinfoil, inside.

And because the early aughts were still the dial-up age for the average consumer, 5G hadn’t been invented, and Elon Musk hadn’t littered the night sky with his snaking chain of satellites, the boys had zero access (yes, literally) to that sort of technology. So when they cried boredom inside, we shooed them outside.

Out on our forested property with a seasonal stream running through it, they hunted Bigfoot and convinced themselves that they saw him in every shaded space between the lodgepole pine trees. They built entire worlds out of rocks and dirt — Trolls Town and Bombs Berg, over which “Scout was a dwarf guy armed with pine cones for bombs,” says Hatcher, and where both boys could disappear for hours — with The Lord of The Rings looping in their imaginations. Their outside play imbued them with the skills we believed they needed to become well-adjusted adults.

Scout and Hatcher sometimes moaned about going out when they wanted to stay in and play their Nintendos and later Xbox (we let them have those; we weren’t monsters!). Yet they loved the camaraderie of doing outdoor adventures with like-minded families, of non-school-approved vacations, and of snacks with no end.

But rafting was a different story altogether, a different level of nature immersion and freedom. On a multiday raft trip on a river that limits crowds by requiring a permit, all the parents needed to do was row, set up camps, know how to negotiate the rapids, and keep the kids in life jackets, sun-screened, hydrated, fed, and safe from falling overboard, poison ivy, scorpions, and snakes.

Seven people, wearing white helmets and orange life-vests, paddle atop a blue inflatable raft, sprayed by churning water.

Hatcher Edmondson guides a tour group in 2022 along the Middle Fork River.
Courtesy of Tracy Ross

The Salmon’s waters were emerald green and primordial, coursing over Volkswagen Beetle-size boulders. We were awestruck by the evidence of the Indigenous Sheepeater people, a Shoshone band, that could be found in depressions on the river banks where they camped. The bright red salmon swimming toward their ancestral homes to spawn were cool as hell and spooky.

We all felt held and nurtured by things you could only find out there, in that wilderness. Those trips imprinted Scout and Hatcher with some of the most important lessons they would ever learn, including self-reliance, respect for nature, and the value of a tight-knit community. And the power of rivers.

As Scout and Hatcher grew from children to teens, Hollis grew up, too, eventually into the 7-year-old singing along to Frozen playing on my iPad as we drove across Idaho for a family trip to the Middle Fork.

Like millions of caregivers, we weren’t immune to the lull of sleek devices, sometimes letting our iPhones babysit our children.

We did it even though we knew it was a terrible way to rear them. We did it even as CEOs of the most powerful tech companies were starting to admit they’d never let their own children have a cellphone. And we did it knowing the lithium batteries that power cellphones — and the phones themselves — are a major contributor to climate change through the mining of the raw materials they’re made of, the energy it takes to build and distribute them, and our habit of tossing millions of them each year for new ones, our dopamine levels spiking with the transaction.

But during the first week of July in 2019, I was so excited to finally introduce Hollis to the river. I couldn’t wait to be unreachable for six days, to hold her tight on the boat while Shawn rowed us through rapids, to swim with her in the deep, clear eddies, and to trace constellations in the stars from our sleeping bags laid next to the Salmon.

But as humans are sometimes like to do, we made a mistake. Our desire to raft the Middle Fork with our daughter eclipsed our instinct that it was too dangerous to bring her.

A series of misjudgments led us into a situation where Hollis was alone, on our boat, headed for a treacherous rapid. We’d slowed to pull our boat to the shoreline, before a blind corner. Approaching the shore, Shawn and I jumped out, leaving Hollis alone, and tried to pull the raft in with a bowline, a rope rigged to the boat.

But it was too heavy, and the raft — and Hollis — headed for the bend and, somewhere below it, the rapid.

As I stood on the shore screaming and Shawn tried to pull himself back into the boat, a kayaker in our group saw what was happening, paddled over, climbed on, and saved Hollis. When I finally reached her, she scrambled into my lap crying and said, “I thought I was never going to see Scout again. I thought I would never see Boone” — that’s our Chesapeake Bay Retriever — “again.”

Throughout the rest of the trip, we stuck together. I piggybacked her a mile to a storied hot spring. We made s’mores, spread our sleeping bags next to the river, counted shooting stars, wished on them, and slept cozied up together. But when the trip was over and we were driving away, she stared at the Salmon out of our truck window, squeezed my hand so hard it left tiny fingernail marks, and said she never wanted to see the Middle Fork again.

We went home and in six months, Covid was upon us. Before it arrived, we could coax Hollis outside to ride bikes, play in our stream, or do campouts in our woods: no screens. When it hit, I could still get her to gear up, go outside, and ski laps on the hill across from our house. At first, I was the mom I’d always wanted to be: baking homemade whoopie pies while she licked the bowl, lazing in bed reading her The Wind in the Willows, cheering her on as we skipped down our deserted road.

But as the weeks wore on, I wore out, and the pull of our screens was stronger than ever.

I know I’m no different from millions of other parents who’ve been plugging in their kids while they worked or cleaned or “took a break.”

It’s no wonder, then, that by 2019 more than half of American children owned a cellphone by age 11 and a third of TikTok users were 14 or younger. I remember loosening my parental controls on social media during Covid because I wanted Hollis to “stay connected” to her friends during the forced absence. I saw how quickly that lifeline became a reason for her to stay on her iPad longer and longer each day, as warnings about the dangers of letting kids access social media increased.

There’s still much we don’t understand about the long-term effects, and some recent studies have cast doubt that media use behavior is altering our kids’ cognition, underlying neurological function, or neurobiological processes. We need more data.

Three pictures. From left to right: a toddler in a yellow life-jacket sits on a raft beside a woman wearing a life-jacket and sunhat, a young girl wears large pink visor glasses and holds a silver juice pouch, a young girl wearing sunglasses and a sunhat sits crosslegged atop a kayak bow with a paddle balanced across her lap, floating on calm, green water.

Hollis, over the years, embracing the outdoors — away from any WiFi connection.
Courtesy of the Ross and Edmondson family

But I can confirm changes I saw in Hollis’s happiness and self-confidence when, as a grade-schooler, she got into a conflict with a former friend. Hollis said her friend began controlling her, laying on guilt — usually through text and social media messages — whenever she didn’t do what the friend demanded.

Hollis is a “normal” kid — pleasant, kind, fun to be around. But between fourth grade through sixth, I started hearing from other parents that their daughters said she was crying in the school bathroom. She stopped confiding in me, for fear of letting details slip, because I would tell the friend’s mom and the friend would retaliate. After asking her to “be brave” in a situation that was clearly wearing her down, Shawn and I decided to take her out of school.

What followed was a disastrous second half of self-guided sixth grade — guess where — on screens. But even when she tried to start a new life as a seventh grader at a new school, Hollis still faced pressure from the same friend group on her social media. We pulled her out again.

Watching a bright, goofy, formerly confident kid dissolve into one wracked with anxiety upset me. But the thing that saddens me about Hollis’s phone now is how it turns her into Gollum to Sauron’s ring. Even when I can get her outside — which I still can, if we go skiing — she’s so distracted by the rectangle in her hand or pinging constantly in her jacket pocket, she can’t notice the beauty around her.

Here, you’re supposed to say: “Parent. You’re in charge. Do something.”

Give me a minute.

Back on the Middle Fork, Hatcher and I saw no one. It was just us and the Frank. Normally that would be perfect, but under the circumstances, it was ominous.

On our first night, we huddled in our tents and listened to thunder that sounded like moaning aliens as a storm blew in.

On day two, we entered a section of trail where all of the trees had been torched to blackened husks, evidence of the fires that had recently ripped through.

“It’s Mordor,” I said to Hatcher.

“Is it?” he asked.

“Look around,” I answered.

“But there’s fireweed,” he said, pointing to one of the beautiful, purple-flowered plants. “That’s hope.”

Later that evening, we found our second camp, along the river. As we sat on the bank watching the current, a slick, brown creature swam past us.

“Look, Hatch! An otter!” I yelled. “My favorite!”

“Oh my god!” he shouted. “It’s huge!”

We continued marveling over our luck. It was only when the “otter” slapped its big, flat tail on the water that we realized it was really a beaver. But it didn’t matter. We were in our favorite place. And apparently the beaver wanted to hang out. It swam upstream past us, and then floated back down toward us. “An otter would never do that!” Hatcher said, and we laughed.

Two photos. Left: a woman wearing overalls, a baseball cap, and sunglasses, wades in a shallow creek holding a net. Right: a young man wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses extends a hand toward a flowing, rocky river below him.

Tracy Ross catches a fish in her home state, Colorado (left). Hatcher during their 2023 trip on the Middle Fork River (right).
Courtesy of Tracy Ross

During rare stretches when he and I were talked out, I thought about ways nature had helped Hatcher when he was in trouble. As a young teen, he was lured by the escape of marijuana. One evening during his first year of high school, I found a significant amount of it in his jacket and admitted to myself that if I didn’t step in and do something to help him, I’d be partially to blame if he continued down a bad path.

That year, I helped him apply for a Youth Conservation Corps job in Denali National Park in Alaska. I figured plunging him into a 6-million-acre wilderness could only help — and I believe it did. That summer kicked off a new trajectory that would eventually set him up for his guide job in Idaho.

But now, back in the Frank together, we were getting close to the damage we’d come to see on the Salmon. We made camp at the toe of one of the biggest rock slides I’d ever seen. It was at a small unnamed creek and had stripped the drainage it ran through down to bedrock. Tons of loose dirt and rocks spread across the river bar and into the river.

But that didn’t prepare us for what we’d see next.

The inundation of tons of mud, boulders, bushes, flowers, and dozens of trees from a landslide in the aftermath of the Boundary Creek Fire had completely dammed parts of the Middle Fork. As in, you could walk on the bottom. As in, there was no water.

Miles farther downstream, we were stunned by more damage.

Debris at a rapid called Hell’s Half Mile had blocked the river to the point that a large, unstirring lake now sat above it. When we saw the lake, we knew two of our favorite things had been forever altered by fires. There was the Middle Fork itself, and then the salmon that swam there. A lake shouldn’t sit in a free-flowing river, and salmon can’t live for very long in water that sluggish. Because they are a vital part of the food chain, when salmon die in large numbers, a cascade of other deaths follows.

We stayed at the narrowing of the river and the lake above it for a long time. And then, with heavy hearts, we started hiking back the way we’d come.

Post-wildfire, the Salmon River and the forest kept on doing their thing: adapting. Wildfires have recently gotten bigger, hotter, and more out of control in a forest of desperately dry trees, other flora, and soils. Only a month or so before my trip with Hatcher, another 26,000 acres burned on the Main Salmon, in what the incident report called “the perfectly wrong alignment of fuels, terrain and weather” and the 90-mile-per-hour wind “blowing from all directions.”

It was terrifying to imagine. Yet I still had hope.

Our path back to the trailhead took us along the most beautiful spot on the Middle Fork, where Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s and ’40s carved a trail out of rock. At one spot, it’s big enough that a not-too-tall person can lie down on their stomach and stare into the river.

I did that when we got there, and I saw the Middle Fork as it had always been to me: cool, refreshing, and free-flowing, with fish lingering along the shaded banks.

It was a perfect autumn day, with the sun shining, the temperature cool, and the mineral smell of the river rising around me. Everything felt right.

I wished Hollis was with us. I imagined her wanting to find an eddy, take off her shoes, and slip her toes into the water.

When Hatcher had been at his worst in high school, we tried everything to keep him from succumbing to the lure of drugs by transporting him to a new place — Denali, and later South America — with no technology, no cellphone. We didn’t think about it, we just did it, and he healed and started thriving.

In the years since, I’ve thought a lot about why that is. Why Shawn and I kept being drawn back to the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness with our kids. Why we were drawn to nature in the first place. And why we think it’s important for our children to connect with the outdoor world, too.

Left: Underneath a blue sky dotted with white clouds, tall evergreens grow from the mountainside and a greenish river flows. Right: a young girl wearing striped pajamas steps into shallow river water by the shore, leaning on an inflatable raft.

The Middle Fork flows away from a valley in the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness. Hollis, wearing a matching PJ set and a protective floatation device, with her feet in the river.
Courtesy of Tracy Ross

For our family, nature has been a fix, an antidote; the Frank, a vital and healing part of our story.

But there’s something deeper to that, which extends beyond my own family, beyond a far-away wilderness in Idaho. In 35 states, nature has been recognized as an effective therapeutic approach to integrative health care in the US. Time spent outside is being prescribed for many conditions, including anxiety and depression. I think of the times I’ve spent in green space, even in the middle of a bustling city, and the way the fresh air slowed my thoughts and relaxed my tightly coiled mind.

In our increasingly technological society, more aspects of our lives are becoming digitized — separating us from the literal dirt of the Earth.

In a world where cellphones reign, time in nature grounds us.

Hollis is 12. She’s preoccupied with makeup tutorials and candy salad recipes on YouTube and TikTok. I want to let her be 12. And so we haven’t yet talked about the ways the climate crisis will impact her future. I can’t bring myself to bring it up. Even though I know someday soon we’ll have to have that talk. Scientists predict that by 2060, 10 extreme heat waves will hit Colorado each year (compared to just one on average between 1970 and 2000). Wildfires, too, will be substantially worse, as additional warming further increases fuel dryness and enhances fire ignition and spread. It isn’t a stretch to imagine our personal Eden gone.

When I went back to the Frank with Hatcher last year, I was afraid that, destroyed by fire, it could no longer be a place for our family. But by returning with him under less-than-ideal circumstances, investigating our favorite place with curiosity, and letting ourselves laugh and sing as well as tear up, our bond grew stronger.

As we navigate the climate crisis, you reach for what matters most to you, what your soul understands. For my family, I’ve chosen to confront the state of the world as it is, not try to change it or run away from it, but to get close. The world will continue to adapt. Climate change is an existential human problem. If I want to give Hollis half of what I’ve been able to give Scout and Hatcher, despite the wilderness most certainly continuing to burn, I need to bring her back.

The nature I show 12-year-old Hollis may be more hostile than the world my sons grew up in, but I still believe in its power to provide a respite. That’s why I’m planning a trip back to the Salmon River this summer.

There’s a sweet spot, usually, in early summer after the spring runoff has subsided, before the fires start to ramp up. It’s a place on the Main Salmon, with big pools, sandy beaches, emerald green water, and more forgiving rapids. A place out of time, without technology, where a kid can learn to be a kid again.

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