Wild kingdom



When I was a kid, I loved to watch nature shows on TV. Back then there was no Discovery Channel, so I had to scour the TV Guide for specials from National Geographic or Jacques Cousteau. But there was one show I knew I could count on every week.

Sunday evenings. Seven o'clock. Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

The host was a guy named Marlin Perkins. I never figured out how he landed such a sweet gig. To me, he looked about 90 years old, and he had these skinny little legs that stuck out from his safari shorts like pipe cleaners. Just before commercial breaks, he'd say things like: "A polar bear cub relies on his mother to keep him safe and secure. That's protection he can depend on – like the kind you get from Mutual of Omaha."

So lame.

Luckily, Marlin never appeared without his faithful sidekick: Jim. I was never sure if Jim had a last name – he was kind of like Tonto with the Lone Ranger. But he was the one who ended up doing all the really cool stuff.

"I'll stay here in the jeep," Marlin would say, peering through his binoculars, "while Jim crawls into the cave and takes a rectal temperature from the sleeping Komodo dragon …"

Sadly, Komodo dragons were hard to come by in my neighborhood, so I had to satisfy myself with smaller game. I waded after tadpoles, and kept them in a bucket so I could watch them sprout legs. I chased flies around the house and fed them to the big spider by the basement window. I crawled after garter snakes as they slithered through our garden. I caught fireflies in a jar and used it for a reading lamp under the covers.

Most kids spend a big chunk of their childhoods this way. It must be some kind of hard-wired hunting instinct. Give a kid a critter to chase, and their attention span suddenly stretches to infinity. Their fidgety little bodies go still, their ears stand up, and their nostrils start to twitch. The hunt is on.

As adults, women tend to lose this response. But in men it often survives – though it's masked by a thin veneer of domestication. We're like Labrador retrievers. We spend most of the day sniffing butts and licking ourselves, waiting for the food bowl to get filled. But as soon as some little critter wanders by, our primal inner hunter takes over. So long, Fido. Hello, White Fang.

One of the joys of becoming a dad is that it provides you with a pack of fellow hunters. Though my older daughter has discovered boys and lost her interest in smaller prey, my younger one still has the itch. I'm taking advantage of it while I can.

Part of the fun is devouring your kill. We've spent many happy hours fishing and crabbing and clamming, and having our prey for dinner. But our favorite expeditions are strictly catch-and-release. Every summer, we watch the tide charts and the weather reports, waiting for the perfect day. Then, when the sun shines down and the moon pulls the ocean back like a rug, we head for the tide pools.

A really low tide is an invitation to adventure. It doesn't matter if you're a toddler who just learned to walk, or a middle-aged man with a spare tire and a gimpy knee. It's like waking up on a strange and beautiful planet, with nothing to do but explore.

Welcome to Pandora. Enjoy your visit.

Giant sea stars flash their psychedelic colors: orange, purple and gold. Pulsing anemones close up like flower buds when you tickle them. Bug-eyed spider crabs sway and wave their claws like dancers at a rave.

Under every rock lurks a nest of tiny crabs, or a knot of baby eels. Sculpins and sand lances play hide-and-seek in the kelp. Hermit crabs fight over shells like they're rent-controlled apartments on the Upper East Side.

If your toes get cold, you can let your kids bury you in a solar-heated sand bed and give you a seaweed facial. That'd be $88.95 at Gene Juarez. Plus tip.

All you need is a pair of old sneakers and some sun block. You can take along a bucket and a little net if you want, and maybe a magnifying glass. Or if you want to get really fancy, bring a beach towel and a couple of sandwiches. Anything else is overkill. This is a low-tech, low-cost, big-fun proposition. What's not to like?

You may not be a kid anymore, but the call of the wild is still out there – and it's calling for you. So roll up your sleeves and get your butt out of that Jeep. Who are you, anyway? Marlin Perkins or Jim?

You decide.