Monday, November 18, 2013

Family Hike #1: Mount Wachusett, Massachusetts

Hike #13: Mount Wachusett with kids
Elevation: 2,006
Date: August 18, 2013
Location: Princeton, MA
Distance: 3.1 miles
Time: 3:00 (58:06 /mile)

I love the outdoors. Always have, always will. I spend time in the woods in a variety of ways, all fun in their own right. But my daughters, 8 and 10, participate more reluctantly. Skiing’s an easy draw, and I’ve had marginal luck with letterboxing. But they’ve generally sought to avoid the woods.  I think kids can learn a lot about themselves and their world through outdoor activities, so on a late-summer day, they were about to bag their first peak.

We chose Mount Wachusett because it isn’t far from our house, is only a couple thousand feet of elevation (with only one thousand feet of climbing), and we ski there in the winter. On the drive, I probed the girls to better understand their mindset, and how I could find ways for the outdoors to appeal to them.

Sarah, my younger daughter, attended a summer camp the year before. On a hike, several kids were  stung by bees, so that was about the extent of the less-than-stellar association she had with hiking. Sydney, my older daughter, had more to say, enjoying rock climbing, but not wanting to sweat, smell bad, or get tired. She did acknowledge that being physically worn out from an activity might mean she’s having fun, though. They also both disliked bugs and mud, although Sydney would enjoy mud if getting a spa treatment, something she’s never had before. I smiled at that one and tried a different line of questioning.

When I asked them about accomplishments achieved through physical effort, they acknowledged that trying really hard and attaining a goal can make them feel proud. Skiing their first black diamond trail last winter was one example both cited, and Sarah also pointed to her climb up the 24-foot-high rock wall when we vacationed at New Hampshire’s Attitash ski resort the prior summer.

If it’s just about pure enjoyment outdoors, Sydney preferred skiing and Sarah tennis, but both for the same reasons: there’s an engaging pace to it, with some variety that also helps maintain their attention and interest.

Both appreciated nature, and what it provides for people. It’s a source of oxygen, food, and beauty. And, very importantly, without it we’d have no raw materials to make paper for mailing letters. So it should be protected. Besides, without it, we’d not only have an ugly world, but one with a lot of dirt and mud, requiring a lot of showers to stay clean, which isn’t fun. They’d begun learning about nature in school, but not to any significant degree. And they saw Sara and I enjoying it solely as a source of fun, which isn’t correct. It allows us to push ourselves, to grow, to connect with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. It re-grounds us even as we achieve new accomplishments and memories.

Mapping the route

Armed with a better understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and knowledge, we arrived at the largely-empty parking lot, showed them the potential route on a map, and set out.

We let the girls dictate the pace and when to break. Given their distaste for sweating, and hiking on an August day, it took exactly twelve minutes before we stopped to rest. But, amidst breaks and snacks of fruit chews and granola bars, the girls learned about how different trees and plants have different seeds and strategies to reproduce.

Admiring the aptly named Balance Rock
 We also came across Balance Rock, a feature that led to a conversation about erosion and glaciers. 
So that's erosion in action, huh?

Earning the pride from a free climb!

As the trail transitioned between rockier sections and hardpack, level and steeper parts, woods and open ski slopes, conversation continued to flow between science topics and stories about hikes and remembering times we skied on these slopes. Sarah even found a tricky section of rock that allowed her to free climb. I’d initially resisted letting her tackle it, but reversed course to let her see what she could achieve. She earned her pride, as it was steep and there was a point where neither grown-up would be able to help her if she slipped.

The girls bag their first peak!

Despite the intermittent, ongoing complaining about exertion and fatigue, they bagged their first peak an hour and a half into the hike. Both girls felt a modest sense of accomplishment, far happier to just be done climbing. We rested on the summit, taking in views, munching on sandwiches and fruit. They opted for a different route back down, looking for some variety.

It initially included a lot of rock steps. As the girls complained about rubbery legs, we pointed out the kids half their age heading uphill, with smiles. Worse, one kid was so little he was still learning to walk! When it flattened out, we found ourselves at the visitor’s center. It allowed the girls to go to the bathroom in an actual bathroom, which I think was a relief to them.  Afterwards, the route flattened out a lot, and Sydney began talking about seeing flowers and wondering how to use them creatively in an art project, or how to save ones over multiple hikes as souvenirs.

Wildflowers and a possible art project?

Their first peak hike is officially in the bag!
When we came out onto the beginner’s ski slope near the lodge, Sarah suddenly had enough energy to go bounding off, and the three-hour hike concluded with ice cream cones at a nearby store. We talked about the hike in between licks, and the girls felt proud of their accomplishment and were interested in another one, which was a great sign. However, the girls preferred one not as hard as this. That led to explaining about having a new “frame of reference”, and how they could find parallels in their progress at skiing. Mount Monadnock will be the next one we tackle, which, like almost any mountain in New Hampshire, is unfortunately higher. But the views should be breathtaking, it’s not much higher, and they may soon enjoy getting some real hiking gear that goes along with real hikes. The girls definitely did not conclude the day with a newfound affinity for hiking. But they didn’t see it as awful, either. Hopefully, I can continue searching for enough ways to make it appealing enough that it offsets the exertion, sweat, and dirt that accompanies it. 
Well-earned apres-hike refreshments!
See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper