Part. 1: Building the Seasonal Family Dynamic
For professional nomads, the seasonal lifestyle is not about stringing jobs together, it’s about weaving employment into a lifestyle guided by passion. For some, the idea of raising a child in that lifestyle sounds irresponsible if not impossible—but it doesn’t have to. There is no reason the driving, architectural force of one’s young adulthood should be stymied by parenthood. By adopting that commonality as the cornerstone for their seasonal family’s foundation, couples that meet while working seasonally can remain in the lifestyle that attracted them together and still raise a child responsibly. The unknown path, though intimidating, is not unnavigable. For the Overingtons of Healy, Alaska and Salt Lake City, Utah, it’s been a series of calculated risks.
Bill “Buckwheat” Overington and Louise Lovrich have raised their 12-year old son, Louis, entirely in the seasonal lifestyle. They own a rafting business in Denali National Park that operates in the summer, and the rest of the year find themselves in Salt Lake City where Louise works in pharmacy and Buckwheat drives for the transportation concessionaire at Snowbird ski resort.
That recipe has produced interesting results. If the fear of raising a kid seasonally is that transferring between schools twice a year will stunt him socially, fill him with loneliness, instill a penchant for over-compensation, and—yaddah yaddah—ultimately leave him homeless and in a ditch, we can probably shelve that one. In reality, what’s emerged from the oven is a well-adjusted kid who looks up to his dad, kayaks with his parents regularly, out-paddles boaters twice his age, and last year became the national freeride ski champion in his age group. He’s confident, smart, and supportive of his peers. Although there’s still time for him to end up homeless in a ditch, the evidence suggests he’ll be fine.
Beyond passion for the outdoors, as business owners the Overingtons’ livelihood depended on blending parenthood into the seasonal lifestyle successfully. “The thing is, most people have never done it themselves and they don’t know anyone else who’s really done it that way either, so in their mind you can’t do it—until someone does it and it seems to work. Then they’re pretty supportive,” Buckwheat explains. Trailblazing requires fortitude, but the Overingtons’ sagaciousness enabled another Salt Lake City family to set up a seasonal lifestyle in Panama. Most of the anticipated roadblocks, both families discovered, were nothing more than untested parenting taboos.
“It’s all about risk, all of these things,” Buckwheat says. “It doesn’t always work out, and it doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to, but if you have the fortitude and the gumption to accept the consequences as they be, whatever it is, you know, you learn from it, you grow from it.”
Navigating the school system presented the first hurdles, and tested the family dynamic they’d constructed. Until this year, Louis began each school year in Healy, Alaska before transferring to Salt Lake City in the fall. “[People] ask us, ‘Does the Utah school allow that?’ It’s like, ‘how can they not?’” Buckwheat laughs.
Louise recalls being warned by the school that Louis would lose enrollment if he accompanied her to New Zealand for six weeks in kindergarden. Louise asked, “Can I just re-enroll him when we show up?” Well, yes, she could. By testing the perimeter, they’ve teased out opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise existed, and for the first time they’re carving out a more significant slice of their year to devote to New Zealand.
In an effort to integrate Louise’s home landscape deeper into their lives, this year the family has made an opportunity to visit Louise’s parents and explore New Zealand kayaking and mountain biking. After beginning the school year in Healy the “Wheats,” as friends often refer to them, are trying out homeschooling.
So what’s the recipe behind the recipe? What aspects of their seasonal lives became the pillars of their seasonal family? Where were forks in the road where they could have folded? By evaluating the risks they took as individuals, and then as a couple, we can understand how the Overingtons beat odds to become the seasonal family they are today.
Louise grew up in New Zealand, the daughter of Croatian immigrants. Her parents, WWII survivors, had made aversion to danger the guiding force in their life and that was reflected in their daughter’s upbringing. Louise felt sheltered from many benign experiences. Family beach outings provided an egress but a desire for something more burned inside of her. Although New Zealand would become the adventure sport capital of the world, that exploded after Louise’s time, and like many Kiwis she looked out from her country in search of more world than could fit onto her tiny island. Thus, as a young adult Louise left the country in search of adventure.
After pharmacy school, a ski week in Austria inspired Louise to make plans with a friend to move to Colorado and become ski bums for one winter. At the last minute, however, her friend bailed to get married. This was an important moment for Louise. Her friend married and never again had the chance for that one winter at a ski resort, and it would have been easy for Louise to bow out and follow suit. Louise was intimidated but the departure date was approaching fast so she stuck to the plan, found a restaurant job near Aspen, and fell skis first into a twenty-five year passion for powder. A series of events led to her renewing her visa, living in Durango, and meeting Buckwheat. What was intended as one winter abroad quickly evolved into a lifestyle of adventure.
By age ten Buckwheat was already riding his motorcycle solo through the woods. Although he claims his mom was “a bit of a scaredy cat,” she was apparently out riding motorcycles at times, as well. Regardless, Buckwheat’s childhood provided more room for scrapes and bruises than Louise’s, and he mitigated the doldrums of suburban Florida by channeling his energy into motocross and football. At twelve, his parents divorced and he and his mom moved to Colorado where winters suddenly impeded on the Floridian’s hobbies. An extracurricular ski class at fifteen, however, gave winter purpose. “Winter was just a pain in the ass up to that point. Skiing opened up a whole new side of life,” he reflects.
Under the guidance of his best friend, Rick, Buckwheat evolved into an aggressive skier. The pair often skipped school for powder days and were gifted enough students that it bore little affect on their academics. Adventures amplified their lives until one fateful night when Rick was killed in a car accident. Rick’s ashes were scattered on Telluride and since then skiing has become more spiritual for Buckwheat, who still thinks of his friend often while on the mountain.
In college, Buckwheat couldn’t afford motorized bikes anymore so he ditched the motor and joined the pioneer mountain biking scene in Durango. An outdoors class at Fort Lewis introduced him to kayaking and soon this trifecta—skiing, mountain biking, and kayaking—vied for his attention and became the guiding framework of his young adult life. Eventually, photography and driving work for a Grand Canyon raft company led Buckwheat to raft guiding on the Animas in Durango. That segue planted a major life seed that years later blossomed into the founding of Denali Outdoor Center, but it’s significance lay dormant at first.
Initially, sports were about adrenaline—even skiing to an extent. Buckwheat’s first overnight river trip on the San Juan, however, developed his spiritual connection to the outdoors. “Finding solitude in the canyons of southern Utah, reading Desert Solitaire, and discovering the tranquility of isolation, truly turned me on to river life,” he explains. “[Adventure sports] became a catalyst for spiritual and physical happiness; connecting me with the power and humility of the experience, and maintaining my physical well-being as they continued to satisfy my desire for the next adrenaline rush.” What began as hobbies escalated into indispensable intimacy. Since then, these pursuits have infiltrated every aspect of his life.
Louise hit the jackpot. Her first ever river trip comprised three weeks on the most coveted section of high volume whitewater in the country and even introduced her to her future husband. They didn’t date immediately, however. Buckwheat would drive Louise twice that year, first as her shuttle driver for the Grand Canyon and then again for public transit in Durango that winter. After the second meeting, Buckwheat invited Louise out for a drink but in an effort to stick to a new personal restriction about not agreeing to every date proposal, she turned down the man she would eventually marry. Providence provided a second chance meeting at the laundromat that evening, however, and afterward they found themselves getting that drink after all.
Many adventures later, Buckwheat would get hired at a rafting company in Denali, but bailed on the idea after doing some research at the library. “We’re looking at the rainfall amounts and stuff and we’re like ‘we don’t want to go there, drive all the way up there and have it be cold and rainy all the time,'” Buckwheat says.
“I just remember that picture of everyone [rafting] in Helly Hansen,” Louise laments. “I was like, uh, looks like it rains a lot there.”
It does, which they discovered firsthand that year when low water on the Animas expanded their migration to Alaska despite themselves. Denali revealed something more desirable than rain, however. The Nenana proved to be a high volume, low traffic, non-permitted river through incendiary landscape. Over the next few years, they built a home, built a business, and made that glacial-fed river their backyard, rain and all.
The Denali business originated as an idea for an inflatable kayak school with little hope of getting off the ground. Banks continually refused Buckwheat’s proposal until finally he met with a loan officer who happened to recognize him as the now grown son of her husband’s good friend. She took a chance on his risky idea and, thus, the Denali Park Paddling Center was formed in 1993. Eventually, that evolved into the Denali Outdoor Center (DOC), one of the most respected rafting companies in Alaska today.
Until then, Louise was building a pharmacy career but she quit her full-time gig to start DOC. They had hoped DOC would make enough money for Louise to quit pharmacy all together, but it didn’t work out that way. Although the business is successful, it’s difficult to make enough money in four months to fund their preferred lifestyle. “There’s a certain level of income that’s required to meet those needs to raise a family, it’s one of the reasons why we only have one child. We can afford the tickets to New Zealand, we can afford the toys for everybody, and still live the lifestyle. At 2 or 3 kids we might have to reassess and have a different lifestyle.” Buckwheat analyzes. Therefore, both parents maintain employment in the off-season. Louise became a relief pharmacist which allowed her to work when and where she wanted. It also took her over Colorado mountain passes and away from home for several days at a time—an arrangement unsustainable into parenthood.
They searched Alaska and the West for a place that allowed all facets of their lives to synchronize. Louise offered Walmart winter pharmacy work strictly in Salt Lake City and they accepted. “Back then it was easy since they were so short of pharmacists and they took what you could offer. Hence, I created a seasonal job due to the need for pharmacists. I don’t think I could get away with it now.” In Salt Lake City, they could afford a 4-bedroom, 2-and-a-half bath, decent house in a nice neighborhood, ten minutes from the world class skiing of Snowbird-Alta, for $170,000. “To be able to afford a home that we were only going to live in half the year and that we didn’t want to rent out the other half of the year—you can’t do that anywhere else that I’ve found. You couldn’t pull those pieces together, the work, the other shoulder season activities, great mountain biking in spring and fall there, close to the desert, you know, all the elements. International airport, direct flights to Anchorage.”
Louise adds, “Everything gets negated because of the smog.”
Undoubtedly, her comment represents the underlying truth: there isn’t one landscape that currently meets the family’s needs and desires. Thus, the migration persists, something everyone processes differently. Buckwheat accepts it as a necessary discomfort because neither landscape is attractive to him in the opposite season, whereas Louise is reminded that she would prefer to integrate into one, year-round community. For Louis, the seasonal cadence has permeated his entire life so he has no basis for comparison. Despite the obvious inconvenience, the fall drive south—peppered with kayaking and mountain biking adventures—has developed into a beloved, annual, two-week family vacation capable of dissolving the rest of the bullshit. Indeed, the parents especially know how rare it is to share adventure with the whole family.
Built-in adventure buddies
If the couple that plays together stays together, then the family who extends that gift to their children fortifies their bond that much more. For those who disbelieve that a person can chase their passion and raise a happy family, the Wheats shatter that illusion. Parenthood mellows the terrain temporarily and adventures metabolize at a different pace for a few years, but seeing passion mirrored in the incredulous eyes of one’s own child deepens that activity’s value forever. In the long run, it can even keep adults engaged in the outdoors at a greater intensity for more years than they naturally would otherwise. It certainly has for Buckwheat and Louise.
Louise admits she satiated her addiction to powder and no longer needs to alter her life for it, however engaging in her passion for the outdoors with her family remains paramount. Buckwheat recognizes that parenthood now has him playing on his skis and kayak with the intensity of his young adult years. As a family of three, the Overingtons travel as a self-contained unit—built-in adventure buddies looking out for each other’s safety and sharing the stoke. For professional nomads, that qualifies as living the dream.
To succeed as a parent in the seasonal lifestyle only the rules need change. As with everything, there’s a way to do it responsibly and a way to do it irresponsibly, and this one starts with a change in the narrative. It’s not a rootless existence but migration between seasonal habitats. Pick your playgrounds, create a niche, and the resultant passion will foster a dynamic learning environment for a child. Adventurous couples have the opportunity to break the paradigm and see their passions take on new life in the next generation. If life is a series of calculated risks, then parenthood is the last place to start taking the easy way out.