Monday, July 22, 2013

Big Run Loop with a Small Addition

I've got a long standing joke with a friend of ours about how I'm going to be responsible for introducing her son to the joys of backpacking. Take him into the back country anytime I want, she keeps telling me. Well, be careful what you wish for, is all I have to say.

This last weekend our little joke became a reality. Shira and I did a short overnight backpacking trip in Shenandoah, and we brought her 4 year old son along. How many miles can a 4 year old walk? I didn't know, but was about to find out.

I picked a beginner backpacking trip from the Shenandoah's website. I selected Big Run Loop because it was (relatively) short, and for sentimental reasons as it covers a small section of the Appalachian Trail. We had no problem finding the trail head, eating lunch and getting underway.

At this point, I should probably point out that Shira is one heck of a trooper. Actually, trooper doesn't really cover it. She was stepping into the woods with a 4 year and carrying around 30lbs of gear on her back.

As we started on the first day's hike, we quickly learned that our 4 year old's boundless energy apparently did have a bound. A number of times he just stopped walking, and then would ask out loud, "why did we stop?" A few times he'd see an especially tempting down hill stretch and he would sit down on the trail as though he was going to slide down. Only once, after we'd been at it for a couple of hours, did he say with all sincerity: "OK, let's go home now."

We ended up covering about 2.3 miles in 3 hours. How much hiking can a preschooler tolerate? Apparently, not that much.

We got to the camp site and started setting up the tent. Our hiking buddy did a grand job of helping. When I say that a Timberline 4 Man tent is so easy to set up even a child can do it, I now have proof.

As is the case with *every other* backpacking trip I've done in Shenandoah, at 4pm, as we were finishing getting the tent set up, a thunderstorm started. We did like we always do, and piled in the tent to wait it out. A couple of times the thunder scared the little guy, but he just hid under his sleeping bag. After about 10 minutes in the tent he discovered that he could use our Thermarest inflatable mattreses as jumping platforms. Basically, he turned our tent into a bouncy house. He was having such fun, and I was amazed that our Neorests didn't burst under the punishment.

Finally the storm passed and we could start dinner. Shenandoah has a strict no-fires-in-the-backcountry policy, so we were going to have to pass on the iconic image of cooking over an open fire. Still, there was no way Shira was going to pass up cooking hot dogs on a stick, so that's exactly what we did. Instead of a crackling fire, we cooked over the subtle jet-engine sound of our MSR PocketRocket stove. Even though the method was a little unconventional, the dogs tasted great. And what 4 year old doesn't enjoy eating dinner off a stick? For dessert, Shira roasted some marshmallows. It was gourmet backpacking cooking at its best.

While we were unpacking, our trail buddy noticed the red plastic case that the MSR PocketRocket comes in. He immediately declared it a boat and asked if we could take it down to the small stream nearby for some sailing time. After dinner we did; and to my surprise, the top of the case floated perfectly. The whole thing was magical: he'd place the case in the stream and then give us blow by blow commentary of how the boat was making its away among the rocks. When it finally got hung up, I'd collect it up and give to him to repeat the process. We brought along a couple of kid friendly items to play with (crayons, a scavenger hunt sheet, Fresnel lens, etc.) but by far the most fun we had was with that red stove case.

And then it was bed time. On paper, the setup looked perfect: three handsome inflated mattresses in a 4 person tent. Plenty of space. Shira would sleep on one side, I on the other, and the little guy in the middle. Except he didn't quite see it that way. When we finally managed to get him into his sleeping bag he declared that he wanted to sleep with Shira, in her bag. Shira tried to explain that only person can fit into a mummy bag at a time. He ignored her, and after a minute or two, squirmed his way into her bag. It couldn't have been a more precious sight. After accomplishing it, Shira made him get out, and tried getting him to occupy his own space. Finally, exhaustion kicked in and I fell asleep. When I briefly awoke at 1am, everybody was sleeping. So, somehow they got it all figured out.

At 5am I woke up and started the morning routine. When I peeked back in the tent I found the little guy sleeping perpendicular across all three mattresses. So cute.

We cleaned up camp, did a little more "boating" and then it was time for our hike out. I suppose I should have taken a little closer look at the route before selecting it. What we had in front of us was about 2 miles of uphill hiking. And we're not talking gentle up hill; we're talking switchbacks and seemingly endless trail. And thus began our 2 and half hour negotiation to keep our little guy moving.

We tried it all: playing games (see how many colors you can find in the woods!), pointing out interesting sights ("Hey!, come here and check out this cool looking rock"), setting up challenges ("I bet you can't touch Shira's backpack, if you can you can be the leader!"), proposing rocks to have a rest on ("oooh, look up there, a perfect rest rock!"), having him jump off logs and bribery. A lot of bribery. If you had passed us on the trail, you would have heard many a variation on the following phrase: "At the next trail blaze you can have a banana chip, you want one of those, right?" And don't tell anyone, but I even dispensed with a little leave no trace camping rules and allowed the little guy to pick and carry a number of ferns. If ferns can survive on this planet for millions of years, surely they can handle a 4 year old?

Given the fact that you're reading this, you know how the story ends: we did manage to traverse the tail and all that was harmed were a few ferns.

We had a 3 hour ride home from Shenandoah, and the little guy slept every minute of it. The following night, I slept like a baby.

So, should you take your 4 year old backpacking? Absolutely. But keep the mileage low. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself. I'll even offer a 100% guarantee that your trip will be memorable.

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  1. Gosh, it almost sounds as if you took Dovid along. ;) I could see him doing just about all of that!

  2. Sounds like a good plan to me! Next time we're in Boston we should do an overnight with the kids (and adults, too!).