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Go west, Mr. President, to U.S. wilderness

President Barack Obama, daughter Malia, wife Michelle - in white hat - and daughter Sasha - slightly hidden - talk with park ranger Scott Kraynak at the Grand Canyon on Sunday.
President Barack Obama, daughter Malia, wife Michelle - in white hat - and daughter Sasha - slightly hidden - talk with park ranger Scott Kraynak at the Grand Canyon on Sunday.
Mandel Ngan,Afp/Getty Images

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. — President Barack Obama is hardly the consummate Western outdoorsman.

The Marlboro Man he's not.

He's spent his adult life in big cities — New York, Chicago and, now, Washington. Basketball, golf, and bodysurfing are how this jock rolls. Indoor daily gym workouts are the norm. Hunting, climbing, rafting — not so much.

Yet there he was on a summer weekend, enthusiastically soaking in America's vast wilderness. He toured Yellowstone National Park, checking out Old Faithful. He strolled trails along the Grand Canyon's rim. He cast a fly while fishing in a Montana river and spent a night in a mountainside lodge.

"Pretty nice, eh," Obama said Sunday as the family took in the breathtaking view from the Grand Canyon's Hopi Point under a magnificent blue sky and overlooking a 5,000-foot drop to the Colorado River. "Last time I was here was when I was 11 years old." Asked by a ranger if it looked the same, he said, "It does!"

A day earlier at Yellowstone, the first family watched the world's most famous geyser erupt. "Oh, that's pretty good. Cool! Look at that. That's a geyser there," Obama said. His entourage also traipsed across wooden walkways in the steamy Black Sand Basin, a brilliant-hued hydrothermal spot in the park dotted with hot springs, geysers, mudpots and fumaroles.

With the wonders of his country at his disposal, Obama did things that might seem a little out of his comfort zone. It's safe to say that this Hawaiian-born president has spent more time on beaches and in cities than he has in the mountains of the West.

But this is also a guy who clearly has a zest for recreation and a curiosity about the diverse nation he governs. He seems game for trying just about any sport or activity. And he appears intent on broadening his kids' interests and, perhaps, his own.

So it was of little wonder then that he brought his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha, as well as other relatives, including half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng and her young family, on a trip that was part family vacation, part policy promotion.

He held a couple of town hall style events to plug his efforts to overhaul health care. In Belgrade, Mont., he opened with this comment: "Here in Montana you've got bears and moose and elk. In Washington, you have mostly bull. So this is a nice change of pace!"

The president was in jovial spirits and appeared to relish his role as a father as he treated the girls to ice cream at a Yellowstone general store and talked with them about different kinds of rocks above the Grand Canyon.

He showed them sights he saw as a child when he visited national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, with his mother, grandmother and half-sister. At both parks, he peppered rangers with questions and seemed engrossed in the answers.

Obama, aides say, had pressed them for a while to schedule a parks trip. The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, often vacationed in the West; his pollster used surveys to decide the best place for him to spend his leisure time, politically.

As Obama tended to presidential duties this weekend, his wife and daughters spent 90 minutes whitewater rafting in rain and, at times, hail in Montana and went peach-picking in Colorado, bringing some back for travelers on Air Force One.

Reporters and photographers were shielded from some of Obama's weekend recreational activities, including his Montana fly fishing experience that advisers called a private event.

In the East Gallatin River near a residence, Obama spent about two hours in pouring rain and unseasonably chilly temperatures, making good on a campaign promise to learn how to fly fish when he returned to Montana. Locals called it perfect catch-and-release weather.

How'd he do?

Fishing guide Dan Vermillion, who runs the Sweetwater Fly Shop in Livingston, Mont., reported that Obama hooked half a dozen fish but he didn't land any.

But press secretary Robert Gibbs was less diplomatic: "Not as well as he wanted. He was a bit frustrated."