An American couple is on a mission to identify the most remote locations in each state in the US, and mounts documentary expeditions to those places with their 10-year-old daughter, Skyla.
Ryan (47) and Rebecca (46) Means are conservation biologists and science educators from Wakulla County in Florida. A decade ago, they began Project Remote, where they precisely calculate and document the most remote location in each state, with the ‘remote spot’ defined as being farthest from a road. As biologists, they know the impact of roads on wildlife and ecological processes, and they want to raise awareness of the importance of preserving remote and roadless areas so the public will value and protect them.
Ryan and Rebecca have always loved wilderness travel and backpacked together through various continents before Skyla came along. Her arrival didn’t curb their adventurous spirits, and one of their objectives is to encourage families to explore with their children.
‘We wanted Skyla to experience the rewards that come from getting away from all the noises, distractions and buildings associated with humans,’ says Rebecca. ‘When you have everything you need on your back for weeks, you realize how little you actually need in life. We surround ourselves with so much stuff, but really, we just need food, water, shelter and spectacular scenery. As wilderness seekers, we know the benefit of roadless areas to our psyche.’
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As well as the founders of Project Remote, Ryan and Rebecca are directors of a small non-profit, Coastal Plains Institute, which aims to preserve the biodiversity of the Coastal Plain of the southeastern US. They also have started a new citizen science project, enlisting the help of other conservation explorers to document what's left between the roads. Details are available here.
As they home-school Skyla, Ryan and Rebecca use Project Remote as a learning platform for her, particularly in the areas of history and geography. They teach her all year ’round, but not intensively, with the goal of keeping learning fun and not a chore. ‘Skyla can learn more with us,’ says Ryan, ‘plus we can all be together and are flexible to do amazing things in this short life. She loves it, too.’
To prepare Skyla for the trips, the Means teach her about the states they are going to visit ahead of time. While on their trips, they aim to visit places that teach her about subjects like history and literature. ‘Our homeschool community is very active, and we have biography fairs, science fairs, social studies fairs, etc., throughout the year,’ says Rebecca. ‘Project Remote helps with that, too. Skyla’s science fair projects have included, ‘Learning to be a naturalist in the rocky mountains of Montana,’ and ‘Volcanic features from my recent trips.’ ’
The Means say the advantages of their lifestyle include sharing amazing outdoor adventures and experiences, bringing them closer as a family. ‘Traveling with Skyla is amazing and fulfilling,’ says Ryan. ‘The only slight disadvantage of traveling with young children might be that you can’t quite travel at an adult pace or undertake more difficult expeditions that require much wilderness and physical training.
‘The negatives eventually just work themselves out as children grow and learn,’ he says, ‘and we have saved the intensely-challenging state of Alaska as possibly our final undertaking for Project Remote, when Skyla is ready. We are preparing to make a month-long, 300-mile wilderness voyage to Alaska’s remotest spot as a family at some point in the next couple of years.'
With 13 states still left to visit, Ryan said he loved the family’s week-long expedition to Idaho, where they hiked to the center of the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness. ‘It featured snow and amazing mountain scenery,’ he says, ‘and we were awakened by loud howling wolves surrounding our tent under the full moon at midnight in the center of the wilderness.’
Ryan and Rebecca’s advice to other families considering embarking on a similar adventure is to slow down. ‘The sooner you embrace that, the easier and more enjoyable your travels will be,‘ says Rebecca. ‘You will not be traveling at the speed you normally do once you involve children. Another piece of advice I would give is that you don't need a lot of toys or other things to ‘entertain’ children.’
‘If you stop often, or leave time at the end or beginning of the day for children to explore and play, they will have a great time building homes for critters or watching squirrels,’ she adds. ‘Skyla had two little dolls, Cracker Barrel and Paris, that she carried with her. They provided hours of entertainment over the years and were really all she needed. She built homes for them, let them swim in creeks and gave them mud baths, etc.’
The Means say if you take the take the time and energy to help children feel comfortable at the beginning, you will be rewarded with their independence down the road. Skyla will happily sleep in a tent by herself because of the effort they put initially. ‘If you have kids older than five or six, involve them in your planning,’ they say. ‘Tell them about where you’re going and ask them if there is anything they would like to do or see, such as museums, playgrounds, dinosaur tracks, eating experiences, etc.’
Skyla loves traveling and is an easy-going child, although as she gets older, she thinks more about missing events, her parents say. ‘She still brings up missing Thanksgiving one year and the homeschool craft fair another time,’ laughs Rebecca. ‘She and I work together before we leave coming up with her ‘car box,’ so she has things to do in the car. That, and audio books, make the road-tripping part fun.’
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Ryan and Rebecca say they have an unusually high tolerance for wilderness elements bearing down upon them. Challenges on the road include dealing with unexpected weather conditions, such as lightning or national park closures. ‘What most people are afraid of – grizzlies and snakes and other wildlife – has never been a problem,’ says Rebecca. ‘We’re very experienced wilderness travelers, so we make sure we don't put ourselves into dangerous situations. We are bringing our daughter with us, after all.’
Ryan says the occasional low moment of quarreling or having to work through some aspect of the trip that isn’t so much fun does occur. But, he says, we all have low moments in life anyway, so we might as well have them while doing something amazing together. He and Rebecca use their brains and wilderness savvy to get through any challenges. ‘Lightning and hail were scary in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness Area, but we found a boulder with an overhang to get under,’ he says.
‘Canoeing through Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande in Texas presented some hairy rapids and scary paddling challenges. We had one marginally too-deep river crossing in Maine where one little slip could have cost us our toddler in a swift-flowing river. But we crossed ever-so-slowly, and with some thought-out contingency if slippage had occurred. A grizzly in Montana could have bolted directly at us instead of directly away from us, but we know that even big carnivores tend to just want to avoid humans if you do all the right things.’
So what is the attraction for the Means family to remote locations? ‘There seems to be an inner voice, feeling, connection and attraction within me that when I am in a vast, expansive wilderness, I experience feelings of euphoria and connection,’ says Ryan. ‘I tell my daughter that the outdoors is where life makes sense and feels right. I truly believe that most of us feel our own kind of connection and attraction to the outdoors or to our living planet, beyond the humdrum of urban living.’
Follow the Means family’s adventures on their Project Remote website, Instagram and Facebook.