Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Family Hike #3: Skinner Mountain, MA

Hike #17: Skinner Mountain with kids
Elevation: 935
Date: June 8, 2014
Location: Hadley, MA
Distance: 2 miles
Time: 2:16 (1:08/mile)

It’s been months since any hiking. I’ve been chafing, and keeping my legs fresh by walking the stairs and ramps in the parking garage at work or setting the treadmill at a steep incline. But it just isn’t the same. This wouldn’t go down as an epic hike, but it breaks the drought.

The girls and I were looking for something that wouldn’t be too difficult, to ease them into the hiking season. They are now proud owners of new day packs and were excited to use them. We settled on Skinner Mountain, in western Massachusetts; it wasn’t a long drive, nor was it a tough hike. A weekend work commitment required that Sara skip the hike, but she bought us treats to enjoy: fruit chews, Capri Suns to freeze and savor as they melted, cookies, and a Slim Jim for Sydney to have some salty, meaty deliciousness.

The packs were an important opportunity for the girls to show ownership over their hike, and they diligently packed their food and water. Each also had some group food, reinforcing that they’re part of a team. They donned new performance clothing after studying the weather and their options. Their new and, of course, fashionable gear instilled confidence and enthusiasm that made those offseason purchases worthwhile.

Hydrating and bug-fighting at Skinner Mtn.
Although I missed Sara’s company, conversation, and role modelling for the girls, I liked the quality time with them. They never touched iPods and instead played games and chatted the whole drive out. With the school year winding down, we talked about accomplishments, new friendships, growth, summer plans, and expectations of the next school year.

The hike started a little rough. I wouldn’t say the ranger at the park’s entrance was useless. But if you did I wouldn’t argue! She had a map and nothing else to offer. She couldn’t suggest a route, wasn’t a hiker, was unfamiliar with the mountain, and couldn’t even name the nearby trailhead. The state website’s reference to on-site restrooms also neglected to mention that they were only at the summit, and the girls were unwilling to use the woods. To top it off, the initial trail we chose was seriously bug-infested, with the steamy weather seeming to encourage their feeding frenzy. I wasn’t sure if the girls were going to mutiny or run to the summit.

Things improved briefly when we broke into a clearing, with a nice view and fewer skeeters. We caught our breath but the sun was cooking my younger daughter so we headed back into the woods. The trails weren’t well marked and the trail network was confusing. So when two college girls ran across us, we asked for help. Of course, as a man, I undoubtedly would have found my way. But, you know, it’s good role modelling to demonstrate safe hiking behaviors. It turned out they weren’t sure of our location either. But their description coupled with my cartography skills allowed me to figure out where we were – dad saves the day!

Hiking along the Connecticut River Valley
Inspecting bug bite damage and relishing frozen Capri Suns
Continuing on, the trail steepened and the girls stopped for a rest, breathless. We hadn’t hiked for a half-hour, and their fatigue showed that they didn’t have their hiking legs. Bugs again drove us on, and a few minutes later we hit a road and the Halfway House, a way station partway up the mountain. We snacked in the shade of the clearing, and the girls’ slushy Capri Suns reinvigorated them.

Not long into the next leg, I began worrying about my younger daughter. My reminders about staying hydrated in this heat and humidity fell on deaf ears. I tried to comment in a way that reminded them but let them manage themselves. Except, she wasn’t drinking enough. I asked her pointedly to drink more, and she stopped in front of me. Her sister and I discovered she was crying. She couldn’t explain why, and I knew heat was at least a contributing factor. I also saw it as an ominous sign that hormone changes may be starting to take effect. As a dad, I’m wanting to be supportive but over my head with such a topic. It’s a complete no-win situation for me. Even if I try to talk about it and say the right things, what daughter wants to talk about The Change with her dad? So, as any emotionally stunted and uncomfortable dad would do, I focused on hugging her and having her drink water while appreciating her sister’s help in comforting her.

Descending hikers approached and Sarah dried her eyes, not wanting to be caught crying on the trail. Luckily, the summit wasn’t far. As we came upon a clearing and the access road, we noticed bathrooms nearby. Relieved, the girls… well, relieved themselves. Then we climbed to the summit and collapsed on rocks for lunch. A building stands on the open summit, about 150 years old. Unfortunately, ongoing renovations incurred schedule overruns so we were unable to walk the wraparound porch and take in a 360-degree view. Still, the breeze kept away the bugs and cooled sweaty foreheads while we enjoyed a great panorama of the Connecticut River Valley, with the mountains ringing farms and the meandering river. The girls found plenty of conversation topics in their surroundings and we lingered as long as they wished.

Enjoying the view of the Connecticut River Valley from Skinner Mtn summit
Admit it: you like hiking AND your sister!
After giving the girls decision-making authority on the route down, we started off on the access road, which seemed to have fewer armies of bugs and plenty of shade. Sarah bounced back from her meltdown and Sydney’s red cheeks had lightened. We found interesting bugs to study, with the millipede infestation grossing the girls out. Their spirits improved, they joked, moved steadily, and bonded. When we hit the Halfway House, we agreed it was misnamed, as it wasn’t remotely a halfway point. However, with a picnic bench under a roof, it still offered a good place for a final break. We continued to chat in good spirits until we heard and then saw a bee big enough to saddle and ride. This thing was enormous and we all studied it warily. At one point, it approached closely enough to the side of the picnic table that Sarah and I were on, and she began speaking in tongue, as she clambered over to Sydney’s side. When it continued hovering, we decided we should continue on since Sydney and I were unable to decipher Sarah’s paranoid mix of unintelligible syllables.
We were within sight of the parking lot when Sarah encountered her final challenge, slipping on gravel and ending up with a bloody knee. It bookended a particularly tough hike for her, and demonstrated both of the girls’ need for more conditioning before a hike to an AMC hut later in the year.

On the ride back, the girls enjoyed the apr├Ęs-hike relaxation. They air-dried their stinky feet, munched on well-earned cookies and Combos, and discussed hiking as if they just finished their umpteenth 4,000-footer. We’d driven through Northampton, which is a fun college town with a great downtown. Amazingly, they expressed interest in coming back to hike another nearby mountain that was a little longer. Doing so could be part of a day trip including perusing the downtown, maybe buying something from a store that college kids used for accessorizing their dorm rooms, and having dinner and fro-yo from places we drove past. It’s the first hike they ever proposed. Whether it’s pride in having gear, an excuse to shop and have dessert, or both, I’ll take it! It’s still a first and a good sign my campaign to convert them into hikers is slowly but inexorably working. More seriously, I also like that they express more confidence, more willingness to challenge themselves, and that we can create memories as they continue to grow.

See you on the trail,

Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper