Parenting in the Last Frontier

Nelli Williams and her children with their catch by the water.

For Nelli Williams, teaching her kids to love and protect nature is a priority.

“Spending time outdoors is the reason you live here,” says Nelli Williams, Alaska Program Director for Trout Unlimited, from her home in Anchorage. Becoming a mom didn’t change that calculation at all, and her two kids—nine-year-old Mason and six-year-old Morgan—have been raised on the water and in the wilderness that’s practically right outside their door. From spring through fall, Nelli and her husband, Austin, take the kids on all kinds of adventures, from fishing on the Kenai River, to blueberry picking, to mountain biking.

“Getting outside with kids makes you appreciate everything in a new way,” Nelli says. “You notice so much more, and you get to see things through a child’s eyes. A six-inch trout becomes just as exciting as a twenty-five incher.”

Nelli Williams smiling with her young son and daughter.
Nelli Williams and her son with their catch.
Nelli Williams with her son, friend, and mountain bikes.

She describes herself as a “third-generation bluegill fisher,” and growing up in Wisconsin, she and her sister spent lots of time at the family cabin on the Mississippi, sitting in a boat with family members, or simply exploring the seemingly endless fields, woods, and creeks near home. Nelli’s mom loved being outdoors and would take the kids to the Boundary Waters for week-long adventures.

Since both Nelli and Austin work for Trout Unlimited, fishing is the number one family activity, and Mason has created his own tradition of marking each birthday by catching a new species of fish. When the kids were very young, Nelli and Austin discovered pretty quickly that it was much easier to haul all the stuff you need for infants and toddlers—from diapers to food to clothes—if you’re in a boat. As an added bonus, wave action often puts the kids right to sleep. Mason took his first drift-boat ride when he was just six days old, and the family now has a jet boat, as well. 

Both kids enjoy being outside, and as they get older, they realize that they live in a special place. An important part of being an outdoor parent is to carefully manage experiences to help the kids develop their own sense of safety—especially when many of their wilderness trips are far from hospitals or other kinds of help. “I think it’s important to help them find their own limits . . . under supervision, of course,” Nelli says. Learning from mistakes is vital, and both kids have felt water pouring into their waders because they waded too deep. On one trip, when it looked like the weather might force them to spend the night on a gravel bar far from the boat ramp, Nelli asked Mason to help brainstorm the family’s next steps. (Luckily, the weather broke, but it was an important learning experience.)

Nelli Williams with her family and dog on a rocky shore.

Last year, the pandemic created a different kind of outdoor opportunity. Because the kids were home from school every day, they started focusing on the natural world in their own neighborhood. The ability to just run around in nature has been an important relief from the stress of Covid, Nelli says. One afternoon, Mason and Morgan led her on an expedition to follow the path of a local creek all the way to its mouth, something they had never thought of doing before. It required a couple of hours walking—turning over rocks to find insects, discovering how the creek found its course, and even picking up trash along the way. “It was a great reminder that you don’t always have to plan something epic,” Nelli says. “There are adventures in nature right outside your door.”

She realizes that, as the kids get older, the family’s outdoor adventures may have to compete with sports, friends, teen angst, and the desire for independence, but Nelli and Austin are making the most of Mason and Morgan’s current enthusiasm. “I believe that if we make the outdoors a priority and stick with family traditions, they will stick with it,” she says. And since both parents work for Trout Unlimited, the kids are well versed in the notion that if we want to enjoy the natural world, we have to work to protect it.