Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Family Hike #7: Mount Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts

Hike #23: Mount Tom
Elevation: 627          
Date: August 8, 2015
Location: Holyoke, MA
Distance: 4.5 miles
Time: 3:26 (45:47/mile)

This was to be the final tune-up hike for my family before a Labor Day Weekend hike in which my girls would summit their first 4,000-foot mountains as part of a hut-to-hut hike. It was sunny and warm, but not brutally so, unlike their hike a month earlier when the heat messed with us.

This hike was re-planned following one daughter’s ankle injury. She was relegated to a medical boot for a couple of weeks to rest a chronic ankle problem that had worsened. Modifying the itinerary to be less mileage and elevation gain would avoid immediate stresses on the ankle that might result in re-injuring it. Mount Tom, in Western Massachusetts, is neither high nor strenuous. But the trail to its summit covers most of the elevation gain early, and often follows cliffs that provide fantastic views of the Connecticut River Valley. It’s also only about an hour’s drive from the house, avoiding the much longer ride into New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

My daughters' least favorite part of hiking: up.
After parking but before starting the hike, we checked out the visitor’s center. It’s not big, but features a mix of conversation-starters: a cross-section of a tree trunk several hundred years old; pelts you can touch; skulls to match with the right animals; and friendly staff who will explain those items and more. After the girls were sufficiently grossed out, especially by the animal pelts with no eyes, we started the hike.

Both girls were lethargic and slow, seeking excuses to stop. They had to be woken up in the morning, so their bodies didn’t have the amount of sleep they desired. But I also wondered about a less physically active summer contributing as well. As a training hike, one goal involved achieving a good pace.  The huts we’ll be hiking to are prompt about dinner, and bunks can be first come, first serve. Hiking in the dark is a whole other ball of wax, too. So, with the upcoming hike having a long day of seven miles, stopping every few minutes isn’t going to work. I finally felt forced to stop, explain, and request we maintain better speed. They obliged, and the second half of the ascent unfolded with great views and better time. The summit itself lay under a hot sun, so we descended slightly to a wooded area that served as a better spot for lunch.

It's unclear if they're enjoying the view
or procrastinating hiking further.
Descending the same way we’d climbed, we again enjoyed great views. We also shaved about 20% off our time. My older daughter continued to seem to struggle and wasn’t very talkative, but she persevered without complaint, spending more time toward the front of the group. I’d been setting the pace on the climb, but acted as a sweeper on the return trip, and mostly chatted with my younger daughter. She seemed in good spirits, but I soon noticed a limp that worsened during the remaining hike out.
Bravely standing on the edge of a cliff, soaring with the falcons.
She explained to me that her ankle had, in fact, sometimes hurt when her medical boot was on, and it continued to hurt since the two weeks expired. At this moment, it was hurting bad enough to almost warrant crying. When I’d checked on her during the preceding days, it turns out she answered literally: “it doesn’t hurt” meant that, at that precise moment in time, it was pain-free, unlike some other moments when it did hurt. Ugh, bad time to be so literal!
The faster you descend, the faster you get back to the truck.
P.S. if you look up, the views are beautiful!

After coming out of the woods, we got her off her feet. It leaves plans unsettled on a few fronts.  I’m unclear how much healing even occurred, let alone if it’s enough to keep our Labor Day Weekend hiking plans. I’m also unsure if she’ll be able to start up again with dance classes in the fall, which greatly contributed to the original issue. Those classes have given her more confidence, assertiveness, perseverance, feelings of accomplishment, and physical activity that anything else over the last year, so she’d be heartbroken at missing a month or two of classes. Lastly, I’m unclear how injured she is and what the exact injury might be. The doctor was sure the boot would do the trick, but she limped painfully by the end of a very gentle hike.

Although I questioned the doctor thoroughly at her appointment, and this activity was explicitly approved, I can’t help but now question myself for pushing her. I had the best of intentions, and the upcoming hike will be strenuous for them, requiring some training. But guilt is always easy for a parent to come by.

A big point of the upcoming hike is to push the girls outside of their comfort zones. While I’ll always want to protect my girls and see them happy, life won’t allow them to live entirely in a happy, easy space. Learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable becomes important; it creates coping skills, allowing the girls to better manage both themselves and difficult situations. If the girls are to have and pursue dreams, achieving those dreams and goals will only happen if they can deal with tough challenges. Rather than keep them in an alternate reality of easy bliss until adulthood, I’ve chosen to create challenges for them to overcome, with obvious rewards and a chance to experience the stress and then the pride of such experiences. Seems like a good plan, but not when the training plan involves crying on one hike and almost crying on another.

So, now the challenge is to figure out how best to move forward without compounding my guilt and her injury, but while still finding opportunities for the girls to challenge themselves and grow. Will we still hike? Will we cancel but look for an alternative adventure to push them beyond their comfort zone? I don’t know how this will play out, but who ever said parenting was easy?

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Family Hike #6: Welch-Dickey Loop, New Hampshire

Hike #22: Welch-Dickey Loop
Elevation: 2,605 (Welch Mountain) and 2,734 (Dickey Mountain)           
Date: July 11, 2015
Location: Thornton, NH
Distance: 4.5 miles
Time: 4:24 (58:40/mile)

I’d like to think I’m a good dad: I promote reading, creativity, physical activities. I have my special foods such as omelets and grilled cheeses that are as good as any chef could make. A few years ago, I even turned a rainy day into Spa Day, although the girls established that no amount of make-up can make me beautiful. And, of course, I worry that I’m constantly getting things wrong, which will inevitably lead to their therapy to come to grips with my mistakes (“Dad!  How could you tell us that swallowing apple seeds would cause us to poo crabapples in the Fall?!?!”).

We headed out for another training hike in mid-July, in advance of our three-day, hut-to-hut hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains over Labor Day Weekend. We’d purchased hiking boots for the girls and this was a second chance to break them in. The Welch-Dickey Loop is a 4.5-mile trail that is renowned for its views, and would offer the girls their first chance to hit two summits in a single hike. It is also a good hike for families. Allegedly.

She's either learning about delicate ecosystems
or finding an excuse to not hike.
Everyone was dressed appropriately, with plenty of water and food in their packs as we set out from the trailhead. The weather was beautiful but steamy, and later in the morning than I preferred. I quickly learned that the weather would dominate the hike.

Only a few hundred yards into the hike, I sensed that something was wrong with my older daughter. I suspected that if I were reading her right, she’d cry if I asked directly. Do I ask? Do I silently nudge her along? Do I stop and turn back and let the other two go on? I agonized in my head for a moment before probing. Sure enough, she broke down. She didn’t feel well, which I concluded was due to over-exertion and under-hydration the prior couple of (hot) days, so she was starting this hike at a deficit and the heat and humidity were quickly getting to her. The tears were partly because of how she felt, and partly out of frustration.

We didn’t quit the hike. Sara and my youngest daughter paired off for a bit while I coached my oldest to keep hydrating and showed her how she can soak her bandana in the nearby stream to cool off her neck. We continued on until we arrived at the first clearing, partway up Welch Mountain. Some brownies and water helped refresh a little before soldiering on.

Is it a lesson in disco or geography?
The trail continued steeply up open rock, under bright sun, with temperatures now well into the 80’s. The girls persevered but it took real effort. Reaching the summit of Welch Mountain wasn’t glorious; it was a relief. We found a secluded spot and rested. I noticed my oldest was again shedding some tears. She nestled her head on Sara’s lap and covered her face with the wet bandana, under the pretense of hiding from the sun beating down on us. Since her tears were silent and she laughed occasionally, we grown-ups pretended to not notice. We also eventually pushed the girls on, seeking a chance to get back under the tree canopy.

I proudly watched the girls faced their
fears on a challenging descent!
We were immediately faced with an intimidating descent in the saddle between Welch and Dickey. Scared, the girls still moved forward, scooting on their behinds through part of it, careful to avoid a steep drop-off on one side. The canopy was nowhere to be found, so we continued to cook as we moved to the summit of Dickey Mountain. We continued along a ridgeline for a while before coming out on a big expanse of cliff overlooking much of the loop we’d traversed. Then, finally, blessedly, we descended below tree line and after what seemed like forever, we emerged back at the parking lot.

I watched the girls closely much of the time, and when one had a water bottle with funky water, I gave my own to keep her going. I prompted refueling periodically, sometimes with brownies. But I kept pushing them. Tears have a way of making me question my actions. But, upon hitting the second summit and even over the next hour of mostly still being in the open, I noticed my oldest slowly but increasingly bounce back. She even became outgoing and animated for the first time even though we were over three hours into the hike, showing an ability to endure.
On the summit of Dicket, with Welch behind us.
"Quick, girls - pretend you're happy and smile!"
We dined at a restaurant and they earned the right to eat whatever they wanted. This was not billed as a tough hike, but the weather truly challenged us. Yet, I watched one who normally lags push herself, maintaining a much better pace than she normally does while remaining upbeat. Her commitment to dance and basketball and her increased physicality paid off in a way not previously seen, not to mention taking the lead over her sister near several cliffs. I watched another who can shy away from risks and challenges push herself as well. Seeing her grow stronger over the course of the hike, and push through her fears near very steep spots, allowed me chances to point out her successes, hopefully giving her more belief in herself.
One daughter bravely venturing onto a cliff

Actually, all of these hikes aren’t just about family bonding that the kids would be happy to skip. They’re opportunities for the girls take on very real and increasing challenges and equally real successes. It’s also about equipping them with the skills to navigate when outside their comfort zones. Pictures with them bravely (and timidly) standing on the edge of a cliff with a steep drop-off, or with the first summit in the background, aren’t just capturing family moments. They’re also trophies earned through perseverance. My Man Code requires that I be emotionally stunted and bury the few feelings I still feel. But it was poignant to watch them dig deep and offer up an achievement worthy of pride, and to laugh in the process. I am still as utterly confident I’ll screw something up in the near future as I am that science teachers would disapprove of my “teaching” the girls that oceans taste salty because of all of the fish pee. For this hike, however, it felt as if it weren’t just a demonstration of the kids’ triumphs, but also a great parenting moment.
Sibling humor - a sign of doing more than just surviving the hike!
See you on the trail,

Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Family Hike #5: Great Island, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

Hike #21: Great Island
Elevation: Not much
Date: July 3, 2015
Location: Wellfleet, Cape Cod, MA
Distance: 6.7 miles
Time: 3:55 (35:04/mile)
When I think of a vacation on Cape Cod, I think of relaxing in a beach chair and playing in the water. But with a week at the Cape, we wanted to enjoy such times and also mix things up a bit. A few months ago, a friend found a posting about an island most of the way down the Cape that was open to hiking, and it sounded fun.
Great Island, Wellfleet, Massachusetts:
OK, it's not actually an island. But, it is a great day hike on Cape Cod!
Great Island in Wellfleet turned out to possess an interesting history. It was an island as late as 1831, before the constant changes in currents and sand eventually connected it to Wellfleet through a new sandbar that became more prominent over the decades. Prior to that point, it already provided wood and land for houses and livestock, a tavern for sailors from whaling ships, and a home for the Punonakanits tribe, who had very good relations with the settlers until a smallpox epidemic led to their extinction. Woods have been reclaiming Great Island in the nearly two hundred years since, with planted pine trees helping to maintain the soil and reduce erosion. Now, a surprising variety of habitats exist across this fairly small peninsula, and it seemed to offer a good change of pace late in the vacation.

We headed out on a sunny morning from our mid-Cape starting point, and arrived in about an hour. Setting out with plenty of water, and with a secondary goal of breaking in new hiking shoes for the girls, we quickly found it to be more challenging than expected. We discovered the terrain to have surprising elevation changes, and sandy stretches made for tough traction, especially uphill. The heat and humidity added to the challenge, and poorly marked sections of trail led to occasional bushwhacking and exploratory scouting missions.
Pairing off and bonding during the search for the site of the tavern that served sailors, now lost to time and history.
Learning about the history of Great Island, Cape Cod
The hike’s purpose wasn’t solely to enjoy the variety of outdoor offerings on the Cape; it also served as a training hike for the girls. We have a three-day hike over Labor Day in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, covering about fifteen miles, and perhaps summiting three 4,000-footers. This will be, by far, the biggest challenge the girls have faced. Getting in a hike that wound up a little under seven miles created a new high water mark for the girls. Doing so in the open heat and sometimes through sand, with boots and packs, provided a good proving ground.  They took responsibility for their hydration and food. They learned that hiking can involve different techniques (such as to reduce the buckets of sand accumulating in one daughter’s boots). They showed some interest in history. They also pushed their pace compared to past hikes. They also bonded instead of complaining about heat or exertion.
See, girls? Hiking can be fun!
The girls’ willingness to make the most of the hike allowed for some great moments: checking out a bluff overlooking the picturesque bay below; pairing off and changing partners periodically, to discuss important topics such as upcoming birthday plans, summer camps, and what to eat for dinner; eating lunch in the sand as we gazed across Cape Cod Bay to the Provincetown Monument rising high above the end of the Cape; and finding a couple of monuments to an ancestor of the pilgrim’s Governor Bradford, who lived on this land at one point before donating it, and to a reinterred Native American woman, honoring the local tribe who helped the pilgrims gain a foothold in their New World.
These sorts of moments show that the girls are becoming stronger, and each new accomplishment gives them a new frame of reference. This allows “hard” hikes of a couple of miles to become no big deal, and allows “awful” hikes of foolhardy distances such as seven miles to become tiring but achievable. More importantly, these are transferable lessons: hard work leads to impressive accomplishments; breaking huge, intimidating efforts into little, easy parts makes daunting efforts manageable; what seemed impossible suddenly isn’t; self-sufficiency breeds confidence; attitudes can be chosen; and it’s important to enjoy the journey as well as the success.
Finish strong, girls!
Dessert before dinner: well-earned apres-hike ice cream!
We’ll definitely remember this vacation for the ladderball and bocce games on the beach, the seaweed fights in the ocean, and drying off in our beach chairs as we munched on watermelon. But we’ll also remember walking along the marsh, dunes, scrub pines, and bluffs. We’ll remember eating lunch with the waves of Cape Cod Bay lapping at our feet. I'll remember walking happily alongside one of my kids while watching Sara and the other in conversation ahead of us, before switching off, loving how our family continues to develop. And we’ll remember enjoying well-earned clam chowder and pub food for dinner afterwards as we took in some live music at an oceanfront restaurant. Those experiences add to the family memories. They also are more stepping stones as the girls continue to move towards adulthood.
See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper