By Dylan Cooper, columnist
I never had a problem staying busy while growing up in Page County. School, hunting, and fishing were always my top priorities, the order of which was always alternating. School may only be for nine months of the year, but there is always a season in which to chase or catch something in spare time. Recently I read some online comments about a lack of opportunities for things for kids to do in Page County. It seems to me that compared to when I was a youth looking for something to do, none of those activities have gone away.
Maybe it’s because my parents were pretty “old school” as to why I was given the outdoors to calm my undiagnosed ADHD instead of a video game or iPad like nowadays. My dad, a member of the silent generation, was the sole income earner for our family of four. He was off to work well before I woke up and then appeared again at dinner time, and after a short evening of interaction, he was off to bed. So with a very limited schedule, we had to capitalize on his short weekends, and we often did so by floating the river, going trout fishing at a local stocked water or trout farm, hunting a wide variety of species, or taking a drive to see random landmarks, events, or family members. Even if it was mowing the grass or working on the never-ending list of improvement projects, we were outside for the majority of his spare time.
That was pretty similar to the way he grew up: a modest house on a rural gravel road with two busy parents and four other siblings keeping busy too. Even if there weren’t chores to do, he still found time to be outside and always stayed occupied. One day, he had made collecting box turtles his task for the day as seen in the title photo. That image is one that has stuck in my mind for many reasons. (As a side note, where have all the box turtles gone? I may spot one or two a year, not dozens in a day.) It’s a drastic comparison between the way things used to be, what they are now, and what they could be.
My mom, a baby boomer, took the stay-at-home roll for us two kids. Many of my first memories were our day trips to SNP, Lake Arrowhead, the river, or the Imagination Station (now Ralph Dean Park). We’d take our bikes, roller blades, scooters, snowboards, or ball gloves to many nearby fields, parking lots, or trails. As we got older, she took us to Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts, garden club, Little League, chess club, sports, and whatever else we got into.
She grew up in a quaint, suburban-like neighborhood with lots of neighborhood kids around, some of which she still keeps in touch with. There were three boys and three girls in the house of, yet again, two busy parents, and they all played their hearts out in the outside world. Sometimes the play was a little rough: from throwing bricks to snowball fights, and even losing one’s front teeth to the pavement in a bike wreck. Still, they survived to tell the tales and pass on the traditions. I have the VHS tapes to prove that my parents, aunts, and uncles all tried their hardest to fully immerse me in the outdoor-style playground they grew up in.
My sister and I were a mesh of the two styles of our parents, even growing up on a small rural neighborhood on a local gravel road. We had a long list of “stuff” to do outside at our home: a trampoline, a swing set or tire swing, bikes, scooters, skateboards, roller blades, a go-kart, and an ATV; played in the dirt, the gravel, the grass, or the garden; shot wrist rockets, bb guns, pellet guns, bows, crossbows. Playing outside with the other kids in our neighborhood was really the most memorable time of our lives. The wide array of the ages of our childhood friends was great for our development socially, physically, and mentally.
I’ll admit, I tried to get addicted to video games at one point in my childhood. I even watched a decent amount of TV at times too. But for some reason, I always had a greater itch to be outside, so I saved those things as a last resort for when the weather was unforgiving. I remember a snow day where I was home from school and played Halo from dawn to well-past dusk, only ever breaking to eat or use the bathroom. I felt awful after that day, both physically and mentally. I’m glad I did it so that it stuck in my mind as another reminder to cherish my “free” time and spend it outside doing things I loved, not getting sucked into one of the many distractions corporations have invented for us.
Recently, I was driving my aging father though town and as he stared out the window, he suddenly remarked: “You never see any kids out riding bikes anymore.” It may sound like another old man grumbling, but I can look at my short timespan of observation and realize there’s truth to that observation. Looking back, I can’t tell you how many bikes we went through as kids. We would make jumps out of anything we could get to hold up a few inches of gained elevation. We would mod out the handlebars, seats, and spokes. We would ride much farther than we were technically allowed, usually to the next neighborhood, in search of more adventure.
Through all of those years, I didn’t ever feel unsafe or unwelcome in the outdoors community. Sadly, now I think that mentality is changing, which has probably led to the decrease of youth participation in outdoor activity that we’ve seen in the last couple decades. Still, if you look there are plenty of safe and fun opportunities to get a child interested in the outdoors, including a few events coming up soon: youth hunting and fishing days.
Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria, Madison County, VA is hosting their annual Heritage Day celebration on Saturday, April 1, 2023. This is a free event for families to get to enjoy trout Heritage Day together. This section of the Rose River is stocked for children 12 and under ONLY with a 6 fish limit and it opens at 9 a.m. Prizes are awarded and hands-on activities are abundant. There will also be a number of regional craft vendors on-site and usually some food vendors as well.
The Town of Stanley is also hosting their Stanley Trout Day & Easter Egg Hunt this Saturday, April 1, 2023, at Hawksbill Recreation Park. A branch of Hawksbill Creek runs through the property and will be stocked with trout. This event is for children 12 and under and starts at 11 a.m. and lasts until 3 p.m. There will be an easter egg hunt, balloon twisting, and face painting starting at noon. This event is sponsored by the Stanley Police Department and Stanley Parks and Rec.
These two kids’ days do take place on the same day as Trout Heritage Day, happening this year on April 1, which is taking place on the nearby state stocked sections of Robinson River, Hawksbill Creek, Passage Creek, and other waters. That event, of course, is open to all ages with a valid fishing and trout license (for those who are old enough to require it).
Also happening statewide this weekend is Youth and Apprentice Spring Turkey Hunting Weekend. This gives the youngsters and newbies to the sport the first crack at a big gobbler. Two years ago on youth weekend, I was able to help guide a youngster to his first gobbler, and this year we will try to repeat it with his little brother. Wish us luck!
The Town of Luray is hosting their annual Youth Trout Derby on Saturday, April 15 this year. The Youth Trout Derby is for youth ages 15 and under, and it will occur from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. with prizes awarded from noon to 1 p.m. (for which you must be present to win)! Check-in will take place at the Luray Park-and-Ride Commuter Lot and includes goodie bags for the registrants from 7 to 9 a.m. They do encourage registering online beforehand so that the young anglers can get to fishing sooner on Derby day (pre-registration is not required though and must be done before noon on the Wednesday prior). The amount and quality of trout they stock in the Hawksbill for this event is the best I’ve ever seen. The creek will be “off limits” to everyone the day before and to adults on the day of the Derby usually until sometime in the afternoon.
I greatly appreciate the Town of Luray Parks and Recreation Department and their partners for continuing to host this local opportunity for families to enjoy trout fishing on a beautiful stretch of stream. I remember participating in this derby as a youth fisherman over 15 years ago and I won the award for the fastest limit of six trout. I believe the prize was a loaded tackle box. Now the prizes are awarded not just for memorable catches like the first golden trout or biggest trout overall, but also as a random drawing so that all kids have a chance at prizes regardless of age or fishing success. What a great way to be inclusive in the great sport of fishing!
Obviously, these events and my other youth experiences in the great outdoors have had a lasting impact on me. I wouldn’t be writing an Outdoors column without them. But the impact I can do now is barely a drop in the bucket to what our whole community can rise up and do collectively. So if we want to try to save the world, its best to start with getting our youth to explore and appreciate this amazing planet we have.
Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.
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