By the time we reached the trail, midway up the mountain, the night was black. No moon, no streetlights or porch lights, not a flashlight among us.

The little boys, a half-dozen of them, no more than 8 years old, huddled closer around. One grabbed my hand. Another whispered, “I don’t know if we should do this.” The others made not a sound.

“Trust me for just a minute, guys,” I assured my little Cub Scout den. “You’re really going to like this.”

Our quest: a nighttime hike on Mount Sentinel, less than 1,000 feet above the gravel pit, within shouting distance of my house. But all of those familiar sights and sounds had disappeared in the 10 minutes it took us to dash uphill. It was dark as could be, and I had six very frightened boys on my hands.

I grabbed a little piece of each one, a shirt, a hand, a finger, and started walking. “This is the trail we walk on all the time during the day,” I said. “It’s just dark. Be super quiet and something very cool will happen.”

We headed away from the canyon, toward the bend in the trail that would take us onto the face of Mount Sentinel. Gradually, our eyes adjusted to the darkness and our breathing quieted, keeping time with our slow march along the trail. Soon enough, still in the darkness above Pattee Canyon Drive, I whispered to the boys, “Stop. And look up on the hill.”

Sure enough, there above us on the hill were a half-dozen or more deer, their eyes the only clue to their presence. The night’s sentinels upon Mount Sentinel.

“Deer,” came the whispered announcement. “Lots of deer.”

“Cool, huh? Let’s keep going now.” Hands clutched my shirttails again, and we continued along the path, bound for that elusive bend.

When it came, and we curved onto the face of the mountain, the boys’ gasps were audible.

“We’re seeing something no one has ever seen before!” one announced.

“What is that?” another asked.

“It’s Missoula,” I said.

Their fears forgotten, the boys scurried along the trail, pointing out sights and “discovering” their town. Getting them to eventually turn around and head back for home was a struggle. This time, when we headed back into the darkness, no one held my hand.

Fact is, I soon “lost” the boys in the darkness.

That is, until they popped out of the trailside bushes and yelled, “Boo!”

I thought about that nighttime hike recently when an e-mail arrived from Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell, lamenting how little time children spend outdoors these days. My Cub Scouts are grown now; some are schoolteachers, some medical students, some businessmen. It was hard to believe that children had changed so much in two decades. And sad.

We ran Kimbell’s letter on the Missoulian’s Opinion page last week, hoping to help get children – and their parents – back outside. The more I thought about her words, the more I remembered the joy of sharing the outdoors with my children as they grew up: Going to Girl Scout camp at Stillwater Lake with my daughter, leeches and all! Building giant frontyard snow forts after the biggest snowfalls. Canoeing across Lake McDonald in a big, way-too-heavy canoe my dad and brother had built one winter long, long ago. Hiking to Grinnell Glacier and Hidden Lake and Avalanche Lake and the Ptarmigan tunnel, all in Glacier Park, and other just-as-wondrous trails across the border in Waterton Lakes.

All of which prompted me to write this overly long blog entry, cajoling anyone and everyone to get outside with their children or grandchildren or just their friends and neighbors. How else will we ever hear: “We’re seeing something no one has ever seen before!” And know, in our own special way, that it is true.

– Sherry Devlin