Do you ever look at your child and fill up with an overwhelming sense of pride? You love your child, and you would don a wing suit and dive headlong off the Eiger for them if you had to.
Memorial weekend had me feeling like the GoPro was set to extreme and capturing all kinds of footage. Kimberly was in Alaska with a high school group and Cai and I were home alone for two weeks. It made sense that we have an adventure of our own, so we planned for three days of backpacking in the Lost Creek Wilderness, 60 miles from our home in Denver.
Lost Creek is an incredibly beautiful spot, partially ravaged by the Hayman fire, which opened up amazing views while leaving much of the trail shaded by trees. The main attraction is that the snow melts earlier here than the alpine areas we are usually drawn to. It is also unique in that it is filled with granite cliffs and blocks, some of which have toppled, filling the valleys and hiding the creeks that flow through them. The topography is complex, and trails here have an unusual habit of roaming all over the place to find the line of least resistance.
Saturday morning we left the house by six in an effort to make sure we secured a parking spot at Goose Creek trailhead. We were hiking by nine. Our mantra was, "We have open minds and three days to do what we can." I had potentially lofty goals, but was not really tied to them.
Dropping down to the creek and our first junction, the charred remains from the 15-year-old fire allowed for new growth and wildflowers. A trail crew was tidying up after the winter deadfall. We stopped to chat. The leader had been taught to use a cross cut saw by Cai's godfather. I love how intimate the outdoor community can be.
We started to climb steadily, and by lunchtime we had reached our first pass (Hankins), four miles and 2000 feet above our starting point. We sat to ponder the next stage of the route. We had a choice, climb another 1200 feet over the Lake Park trail and drop back down 800 feet or head west and lose 1100 feet and climb up to the same spot. Cai elected the high route. I was happy because I knew the views would be spectacular. I was curious about the snow, however. We were proven right on both accounts. The views were amazing and at the highpoint. When we looked down the half-mile to the main trail, however, we were stopped dead in our tracks. Or stopped due to a lack of them, rather. Our way was blocked by snow, which was soft and knee- to waist-deep. No one had been on this part of the trail, and there was no compacted snow to support us
Cai blew me away by electing to get up early the following day, he did not want a repeat of the day's ordeal and was keen to be over the pass at McCurdy Park before the sun had time to soften the snow we were inevitably going to find. (My son is a smart kid.) We were packed and on the trail by six, opting to have our breakfast and coffee after crossing the pass. To fuel ourselves we filled our pockets with snacks. It was an early morning grind, and yet the cool air and different forest ecosystems we passed maintained our interest. Walking on a plush carpet of duff, the sound of a steep creek and birdsong accompanying our travail was particularly inspiring. There was also a huge satisfaction of walking quietly past closed tents, wondering who the occupants were and when they were going to surface.
By the time we reached the junction with the Lake Park trail, we had done a detour of seven miles and a lot of uphill. It seemed strange that we were only half a mile from our high point of the day before. Cai was happy with his decision, and I was glad I had let him make it. This detour had curtailed our loftiest goal of trying to go over Bison Peak, which at 12,431 is the highest point of the wilderness. It also meant that the 20-mile loop we had contemplated was now going to be a sporting 27 miles instead. At McCurdy Park three miles and 2000 feet later, we met a party who had pushed through from Lake Park the previous day. It was nine o'clock and they were nursing battered bodies and slowly eating breakfast. Their campsite was like a scene from Apocalypse Now. They said we had made a wise choice. Again, Cai was glad. The snow here was easy to cross at this time of day. A trail had been punched through and then frozen. We made light work of it, and found somewhere to sit and make coffee and oatmeal having dropped below snow-line. While we slouched in the shade, a number of the tent occupants we had passed earlier came hiking through. For the most part we were bemused by the size of their packs and wondered what we might feel like if carrying similar loads.
The rest of the day was hot. Being a Bank Holiday we saw lots of people coming in the opposite direction. Our trail lost a lot of height with continuous switchbacks, I doubt measuring the trail on the map will give a true representation of its length. The map said we walked 10 miles that day. It felt longer than the previous day, and we rocked into camp around 6:30. Again, we walked past a lot of the people who passed us earlier and chose to set up camp mid afternoon. We did not envy those toiling with big packs up the hills we were descending in that heat. Their sweat and grimaces did not look like fun.
Our last day was another early start but we had smelled the barn. The final four miles were gentle and completed by 8:00, giving us plenty of time for unpacking and ice cream. We had walked at least 26 1/2 miles with 6000 feet of ascent and descent. It had been an incredibly beautiful journey, challenging and yet manageable. Neither of us had been sick, had blisters or any other major discomfort.
So what can be learned from this trip? First and foremost, we realized that Cai had done his first backpacking trip a decade earlier. This is not his first rodeo. During our time out together we focused on a philosophy of "light is right." I devour ultra light backpacking guides and translate them into kid-friendly travel. For a shelter, we use the tarp from a mid-style tent. We do not bring luxury items, except for a fishing pole. When choosing a pack for him, rather than a child's backpacking pack, which all appeared heavy, we opted for a small, lightweight backpacker's pack. We carry only a set of thermal underwear and a pair of socks as spare clothes. A light summer-weight sleeping bag and down jacket are more versatile than a warmer bag.
Our meals are simple and usually only require us to boil water. We use a small wood burning (or alcohol) stove for heating the water. Having gone through the filter, chemical and UV treatment debates we have settled on a small squeeze filter. The water tastes great. Basically, our bags are small and light making travel far more efficient and easy. Due to our light bags we wear lightweight trail running shoes. I have taught Cai to read a map since he was very small. We focus on the 3 Ds: distance, direction and details. He always has a map and small compass in his pocket. This gives him autonomy and the confidence to make choices. I encourage him to make the choices. I carry bribes in the form of candy (usually chewy sours of some sort). I don't have to use them anymore.
Ultimately, it has to be fun. Dad is more easy going and more joking outside. We talk about things he wants to talk about and while observing what is around us. We highlight the metaphors and analogies for life from our adventures. Most of all, I do not push him. I ask him, I encourage him, I lay out the choices and he usually rises to the occasion. Waking up and seeing the angelic face of your child in the light cast by golden morning hues and tent fabric is one of the more beautiful sights I have witnessed. Listening to the "sleep breathing" earned by hard work the previous day helps etch this vision indelibly in my mind. There are very few things as good as sharing this nature time with a child. If there is anything I can do to help you experience it, please let me know.