Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Backpacking with Young Children: The Why, the How, and the When

My Backpacker's Field Manual includes only one reference to children under the "Leave No Trace" principle. It deals with packing diapers and baby wipes in and out. Helpful yes, but not for preschool and school-age children who can hike.

Sadly, backpacking is always assumed to be an adult-only activity because of the carrying part. But how about having the kids carry a small pack and you the rest? Since distance is greatly reduced because of the young ones' resistance, there's no need to carry the extra weight too long.

Backpacking with young children is a unique experience that's definitely doable and incredibly rewarding. Here is how we took our 4- and almost-6 year olds 3 miles in on the alpine trails of the Eastern Sierras.

Why? If you haven't read Richard Louv's eye-opening book Last Child In The Woods, our kids suffer from a a nature-deficit disorder. They need to go outside. Outside of the TV room, outside of the car, outside of their bedroom. Outside. Sure the neighborhood park is nice, but it's usually urban tamed nature that doesn't replace wild things. Children need to see what nature is if they are to become the future sentinels of the world.

What better place to show them local trees, babbling brooks and local birds than your local wilderness area, state parks or county parks? Camping is a step to get close to nature but if you don't want to wake up to your neighbor's RV engine, backpacking is the real deal. That's, unless you've signed up your child for an open-air classroom like the German Waldschule where kids learn the regular academic curriculum in forests year-round.

When? ... or how old is old enough? Let's go chronologically. Infants need to be carried all the way. While lightweight, they occupy one back and that's one less back to carry stuff. Toddlers can hike but neither far, nor consistently (hello, bugs?), nor in a straight line. Plus, they do like to be picked up. That opens up the backpacking candidacy to preschoolers and up. My choice on age weighed in two factors: (i) I wanted my children to be able to walk 4 miles at a leisurely pace on a regular hiking day so they'd be fine with 2 or 3 miles on backpacking day; (ii) I knew we parents would carry a lot (basically stuff for four) but I also wanted my older one to carry her own backpack to relieve us of a sleeping bag.

That set the age at 4 years for the non-backpack-carrying child, and almost 6 for the backpack-carrying child. However with only one child in tow (and maybe only two sleeping bags if you manage to zip them together and that's room enough for 2 adults and a small child), then go for it at a younger age.

How? Now the interesting question, how do you do it? It's a combination of getting the right gear, trip prep, and offering rewards. Possibly a little luck too.

The right gear My main investment consisted in a child-size backpack for my oldest. At San Francisco's REI store, I found only one backpack that fit children ages 6 to 10 years old, the REI Comet Pack. The torso was easily adjustable, as was the waistbelt with mesh zip pockets and chest strap. However the distance between shoulder straps cannot be adjusted and my girls' shoulders were narrower than the actual distance. I didn't realize it in the store as the backpack was empty. However loaded, the straps kept sliding down one shoulder. If you find a kids' backpack you like, make sure to measure the distance between shoulders or find a way to adjust it yourself.

As far as content, the pack fit: a sleeping bag and camping pillow in the main pocket, a chocolate bar and dining utensils (squishy bowl, sporks -or foons, spoon and fork combos- and 0.3 litre kid water bottle) inside the front mesh pocket, and lightweight flip-flops in the top pocket. All counted, it weighted in at about 8.5-9 lbs. My daughter weighs 48 lbs so that's a 18.75% pack weight to body weight ratio. Charles Lindsey known as The Lightweight Backpacker sets the ratio at 25% for adults and up to 33% for adults in shape. That's what I've always heard over the years but I think the ratio should be lower for childen since they're not used to carrying heavy loads.

Trip Prep A week or two before the expedition, I explained to my girls what we were going to do. "We are going to park the car, hike on mountain trails, carry the tent and our sleeping bags, and pitch the tent very far from the car." That seemed to be enough knowledge. Then I took them "shopping" with me at REI and they got to select their own dinner and breakfast menu. While I hate freeze-dried food, weight won over taste and we ended up with a Pasta with Chicken pack for 2 for dinner (that my girls gobbled up) and -no kidding- pre-cooked scrambled eggs with bacon for breakfast (that they ate even faster). Boil water, pour in bag, wait 8 minutes, serve. Hurray for mountain gastronomy!

As an extra incentive, they even got to select a camping pillow, the kind that can be rolled up to a fourth of its size. The small ThermaRest Compressible Pillow was as close as it gets to the snuggle feeling of a stuffed animal, and it was pretty darn comfy too. There, done. Now with packing. At home, we got together all the gear we needed and selected special treats to nibble on along the way. My girls call that "refueling on energy." They like to suck on tubes of honey, sweetened condensed milk or vanilla chestnut puree. Pick whatever your child likes that will be incentive enough.

The Right Clothing As obvious as it sounds, mountain weather is unpredictable and it can snow in August. You don't want a miserable cold child hours away from the nearest motel room. Since we were headed towards the sierras above 10,000 feet, I packed light long-sleeve shirts in case it was sunny, and snow coveralls and jackets in case it rained. The weather forecast gave a good chance a rain, thunderstorms and thunder lightning. Perfect backpacking weather! As it turned out, we got rained on and the temperatures dropped 20 degrees overnight so the snow garments were very much appreciated after the night.

The Official Backpacking Diploma
The ultimate reward came after the trip, thanks to the techie skills of my husband. Using one of the trip's photos as a background, he photoshopped a sample diploma, and crafted an Official Backpacking Diploma that certified that our girl had hiked so many miles at such age over such mountains carrying a full backpack. The little one got a Junior Hiking Diploma that congratulated her for "satisfactorily completing a hiking trip while displaying great courage and stamina." I printed them in color on cardboard paper and stuffed them in envelopes, mixing them with today's mail. Email me if you want more details on how to make your own. Stick there the semblance of a few US Forest Service and National Parks logos and you've got the happiest children on earth. They loved it!

And, they are so ready for another backpacking trip. "But not in the snow, no," objected the youngest one, "That would be too cold." Or... would it? Stephanie and Ryan Jordan have done it and judging by their photos and account of the experience, it looks like even more fun than the rain.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hiking the Marin Headlands: Remains of the War

Right outside of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands still hides a number of weathered treasures, like the 1877 Point Bonita lighthouse 124 feet above the sea and its swinging bridge, or scattered remains of the three wars that California prepared for and never fought: WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. If you like to hike, you've to check this out. Up on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Hill 88 is a sight to behold with its destroyed concrete platforms, its lonely heliport and its obsolete barbed wire - all surrounded by blackberry bushes and wild fennel plants.

For once, I opted for an evening/ night hike and decided to show the place to Swedish friends of ours. They knew about the Marin Headlands, she had been to the Headlands Institute, but the hills remained unexplored. Time to sweat it out!

We parked in front of the quaint chapel turned visitor chapel two hours before sunset. Our friends' little girl, 5 years old, wondered what we were up to while we were putting out shoes on (I had kept it a secret). "At least we're not going up there!" she said laughing, pointing at a hill. "Well..." I answered, "...what if we were?" At 6pm on a midsummer night, I thought it would be a blast. Three hours to hike 7 miles with 833 feet elevation sounded like a good plan with a picnic and a bottle of wine at the top to break the walk. That was without counting with (i) the flash light that's usually in the car but wasn't there that day; (ii) the moon that was full two days before and should have shone high above the hills right after sun down, but took a break that night.

I knew it would take us one and half to two hours to reach the picnic spot so we started without delay. We walked down the main road from the visitor center, then went north on Bunker Road. "What are we looking for? What are the clues" asked the children. The first clue was a wooden bridge on the left. It's the point of entry to join the Miwok Trail. Right there, the trail is wide and flat. In fact, it looks just like a fire road. Left and right, I pointed to some dinosaur plant, the perfect stackable plant whose leaves are barely visible. We also warned everybody to walk in the middle of the road because of poison oak. After a while, the path climbs gently and the rolling hills of Gerbode Valley and Oakwood Valley spread out before your eyes. There, you realize you're really out in the wild and it's really quite lovely. I love this low chaparral and it reminds me in a way of the Mediterranean garrigue (minus the thyme, rosemary and lavender).

As we reached Wolf Ridge Trail, we got the golden part of the sun rays and the tough part of the hike started. Just when we thought we were alone in the world, a runner passed by us, wearing a race number on his shirt. WTH? For better or worse, the Headlands Hundred ultra marathon was taking place that day on the same trail. I learned since that these people ran 50 to 100 miles (4 different loops) over a maximum time limit of 33 hours. Basically when we were just warming up, they already had 50 miles in the legs and the rest of the night to complete the challenge. Amazing. As you will see later, that ultra marathon saved us on the way down from the army base.

So we were going up, and up, and up and our junior crew started rebelling against the grade. "The top's right there," we kept saying, and the top took its time to come. Finally we saw a little flag (for the race) and there we were: the paved road that leads to Hill 88. On the other side the Pacific Ocean, Rodeo Beach at the bottom, Bird Island and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

We reached the army base and looked around. There's an eerie feeling when you step into an abandoned world that's not waiting for more than day and night. While some buildings look relatively unscathed, others look like they've been trashed by rockets and tanks. Our friends spread a blanket on the platform that overlooks the ocean and we put down our bags. The big show was about to begin. We were minutes away from the sky turning ablaze and the sun dropping in the sea.

Our three girls stood up motionless as the big orange disc disappeared behind the crimson horizon. We adults, while lending a distant eye, had more serious stuff to do such as: opening the box of tabouleh, cutting the bread, getting the boiled eggs, and sorting out the cheese - as well as uncorking the bottle of wine that nicely rewarded the effort. As the sun steeply dropped and bowed out of the day, the temperature felt like it dropped in unison. May I have another sip of wine please?

However, now was now the time to linger. The night would be upon us any minute and we had to make it back to the car - in the dark. I sort of knew the way because I used to lead environmental education hikes here seven years ago - during the day, that is. At night, things do look quite different and perspectives are lost. Fortunately, the ultra marathoners were organized and had lined the trail with green glow sticks that became our path to the holy grail. We followed them, at first briskly then more quietly as lights dimmed and twilight turned to pitch dark.

Should we go here or there? Should we take a shortcut or follow the main road? Each time, the ghastly green lights led us on the right path, if taking us on a longer way on occasion. One of those went through two WWII-era tunnels on the Coastal Trail that - I believe - are part of the Battery Townsley. It's like an underground fort that in its glory days (1940) could fire a one-ton shell to a battleship 25 miles away. At night, the place is either creepy or intimidating. For the children it was scary. To motivate them to go through the tunnels (ever darker than the dark outside), we all sang The Sound of Music's Do-Re-Mi song. It resonated so well that with the harmonies (our Swedish friends are singers), even the Trapp family would have approved.

An hour or so later, we reached beach level and breathed a sigh of relief. Next time, promise, I'll take a flash light or headlamps (like the runners).

However if you fancy a ranger-led full moon hike to the Point Bonita lighthouse in the Marin Headlands, follow the details here to sign up because they are extremely popular. They're organized once a month for the full moon and the place is truly gorgeous.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Bodie, Ghost Town, Turns 150

Feels like it's 1859. Bodie, the largest unrestored ghost town in the USA, is blowing 150 candles this Saturday August 8, 2009. It's not everyday you can celebrate a 150th anniversary in California, so grab your camera, get in the car and cross the sierras!

As I write this, a severe storm is moving in from the Central Valley and some wild weather, including snow, is expected above 8500 feet today and tomorrow. Bodie is situated in the Basin Range east of the Eastern Sierras at 8,375 feet, between Mono Lake and Lake Tahoe - a perfect location for freaky weather. However, the storm will have moved out by late Friday and if you are lucky, you'll snap a rare August shot of Bodie with snow patches.

On the Endangered Parks List Why go now to Bodie, why not wait til the fall? Sadly, Bodie State Historic Park is on the list of 100 parks that may close due to the California budget drama and the good or bad news will fall after Labor Day.

Saturday August 8 Highlights Saturday's big event will also feature exceptional "behind the scenes" opportunities:

- some buildings that are usually closed will be open, such as the church or the firehouse

- Friends of Bodie members will be treated to a night of entertainment in the city after hours.

How cool is that? "We're expecting 2,000 people," says Terri Geissinger, director of the Friends of Bodie non-profit. Get there early to get a good parking spot!

A Walk Through History When we went to Bodie in July (right after my swim across Tenaya Lake), Bodie was buzzing with visitors and the temperature reached the mid 80s, making the sun nicely bearable. Indeed As you walk down the streets, city map in hand (get it, it's worth it), the remains of Bodie's troubled past unfold before your eyes. Gold was discovered here in 1859, ten years after the Gold Rush. The town boomed and thrived, boasting a population of 10,000 people by 1879. So wicked were the citizens of Bodie that a little girl whose family was taking her to the infamous and remote town, wrote in her diary: "Goodbye God, I'm going to Bodie." The mine was up on the hill, a small gaping hole leading to a labyrinth of tunnels and shafts in the mountain. A riveting 65 saloons feasted on the miners' hard knock lives, offered social relaxing opportunities - and late-night fights and murders. Why, this was a real Wild West town.

However a vein of gold only lasts for so long and by 1912, the last newspaper was printed. In 1942, the post office closed. Twenty years later, only 10 people still lived in Bodie and the vandalized town was declared a California State Park.

Arrested Decay Of a Ghost Town What you see today is a ghost town in a state of arrested decay (see Rae Somarsono's Journey through Bodie photo gallery to judge of the place's beauty), not a restored ghost town with a theme park flavor like Calico Ghost Town. When you peek inside the houses, furniture, wall coverings and lightings will be just as they were when the last inhabitants departed. If a family dragged their oven in the living room and it decided to do without, well it might very well still be there. If the cupboards were left open after a last bowl of oatmeal, it'll be like the family left in a hurry ... only 50 years ago. The thin dust layer that coats the homes' interiors acts like a frame in time.

As we glued our faces to the windows of the school, our girls were thrilled to count the little desks and tried to decipher the neat cursive hand writing on the blackboard. Tom Miller's stable and icehouse bears witness to days gone by when ice would be cut off from local ponds during winter, and stored in sawdust to last through the summer.

A Gold Rush Chinatown Bodie's Chinatown offers a rare example of preserved mid-1800s Chinese town within a town, with a Taoist temple, opium parlors, boarding houses and gambling halls. The works. Other California examples of Chinese tradition include Weaverville's Josh House State Historic Park or the Sacramento Delta's Locke town.

Got Customers? The Boone Store & Warehouse's shelves are still waiting for clients to decide on the right brand of biscuit (in period tin cans) or the right shoe shine. Across the street, under the porch of the Wheaton & Hollis Hotel. are possibly the only inhabitants of Bodie: caked mud nests of sparrows with feathered mates peeping in and out of their holes. I could go on with a listing of jails, banks, carpenter shops, assay offices and other regulars of ghost towns. However to really take in the whole experience, you have to go there and stroll through the streets, trying to imagine life as it was.

Bodie in Books for Children One person who turned her creative juices about life as it was in Bodie into a children's book is Christiane Cassan Wiese. She co-authored Oliver and The Ghosts of Bodie with Allen Johnson, and illustrated it with her marvelous paintings. It's the story of a dog lost at night in Bodie and two children looking for him, wandering into friendly and not-so-friendly ghosts and memories. When I read the part about both children climbing into a silvery shining stagecoach at night with a mysterious lady in black, my girls shivered and huddled together. Quite an adventure. If you do decide to become a Friend of Bodie and attend the evening party on Saturday, make sure you read the book ahead to get a flavor of Gold Rush days. For another Gold Rush children's story on California ghost towns and how Redwood trees came to turn red, read Anne Isaacs' The Ghosts of Luckless Gulch. It is a fantastic read for children ages 6 and above, with eternal winter in a gold mining town and ghosts stealing fantastic creatures from a running young girl to make them slave away in the mine. Plus, Anne Isaacs is a gifted storyteller who excels in threading feisty yarns around American tall tales.

Epilogue Now back to Bodie. In two days the party will be over. You can still visit the town on occasion, but you won't get the costumed parade, the live music , or the costume rentals if you feel like dressing up. And if heaven forbid Arnold decides to close the city, you will have seen it in its arrested decaying splendor. There. Get the car keys. No public transit to Bodie.