A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, January 10, 2011

“This hike is not recommended for young children” -– Parks Canada: Hiking the Chilkoot

A motley assortment of camping stoves roared and hissed in the open-sided shelter overlooking the lake.  Just-add-water cuisine was clearly the order of the evening, as each group concocted steaming sacks of freeze-dried sustenance. Colorful bags optimistically advertised their contents:  chicken a la king, pasta primavera, beef stroganoff.   A few clouds had rolled in, and it was starting to drizzle.  Almost all the hikers were huddled on the wooden benches.  Some of them looked distinctly foot-sore. 
Lizzy and Molly were jumping. 
“D’you see the red lights?” Molly demanded, pointing to her sneakers.  “See?  They blink!“
                I was hovering nearby, ready to employ diversionary tactics (“Gosh, kids, let’s go look for bugs under rocks!”) if any of our fellow-hikers seemed less than thrilled by my offspring.  However, the middle-aged man from Montana had time to kill while his stomach rumbled.  His own teenage kids were busy preparing something starchy and beige.  He smiled, and duly admired Molly’s shoes.  “Did you hike over the pass wearing those?” he asked.
I winced a little at the question, and tried to judge whether Montana Guy was more amused than downright horrified by such a flagrant violation of the National Park Service’s Appropriate Gear List.  I’d considered trying to obtain miniature hiking boots, but the possibility of blisters in new footwear had seemed even more likely than the chance that third-hand playground-wear might simply disintegrate atop a rocky precipice. 
“These are my Thomas the Tank Engine sneakers,” said Molly, as if that explained everything.  “The old ones with Spiderman were too little.  These ones are size ten!” 
Toddler tens – my kid was practically Sasquatch. 
Since long before we even set out on the Chilkoot Trail – in fact, ever since Jay and I first casually mentioned our plans for our end-of-summer family trip – I’d seen eyebrows skyrocketing.  Were we sure it was really wise?  How could we cover thirty-three miles of rough terrain with twin four-year-olds, carrying all our own gear, and all their gear -- including the requisite stuffed animals, bedtime stories, and footy pajamas? What about gale force winds, mud, bugs, and unceasing rain?  What about bears?  What about the notorious Chilkoot Pass that tortured the grizzly-looking miners of the Yukon Gold Rush?  And that was the reaction from our friends.  Once we were on the trail, strangers outright stared.  “You’re not going the whole way, are you?”
I pointed out that, as on other hikes, we planned to carry the kids in backpack carriers for almost half the distance, usually encompassing post-lunch nap time.  This wasn’t taken as an effective comeback.  It seemed our questioners lacked faith in the ability of a thirty-something mom to carry a bundle of gear the size of a Volkswagen with a 35-pound kid tucked amongst it. “I’m just kind of used to it,” I protested lamely, but the consensus of incredulity began to undermine my confidence. 
I was pretty sure my kids were safe from rabid wolves and August frostbite, but that didn’t stop me from worrying.  What if we ran out of M&M’s?  What if we fainted from the fumes of four pairs of wet socks in a three-person tent?  What if Lizzy woke everyone in camp at three-thirty a.m. when Lamby became temporarily lost in the abyss of her sleeping bag?  What if (oh, the horror) Jay and I -- along with Jay’s dad and forty-five total strangers -- were subjected thirty-three miles of twins-in-stereo whining
In the week before the hike, as I packed up six zillion miniature Ziplocs of honey roasted peanuts, dried cranberries, and Tootsie Pops, I tried to talk myself out of my peer-induced paranoia.  The kids were experienced hikers.  They liked Powerbars.  They had warm -- albeit mismatched --homemade longjohns and raingear, and I could still get away with dressing them this way because they hadn’t yet realized Mommy wasn’t cool.  Earlier in the summer, they had demonstrated that they could be entertained for four hours straight, hiking through impenetrable fog, by my attempts to narrate all of “James and the Giant Peach” and the “Wizard of Oz”.  Given that most adults would start hyperventilating after 30 seconds of my rendition of “Yellow Brick Road,” I felt like we’d done pretty well.  But still, I was apprehensive.
Once we hit the trail, the questions grew even more pressing, and I proffered my rehearsed rationale for bringing the kids on a hike that the guidebooks and websites describe as “rugged” and “very challenging”.  Their daddy grew up here, I explained.  Well, not here, in this lean-to, but in the small town of Skagway, where we all started.  Their grandpa – now sixty-eight years old, and striding along the trail far ahead of us – served as the ranger for this National Park for more than a decade.  This wasn’t just a fun jaunt, it was more of a family pilgrimage. 
Of course, the whole explanation was disingenuous, coming from me.  I’d never been to the Chilkoot before – and it was a fun jaunt.  Still, everyone seemed at least partially placated.  The downside was that they then rushed off to mob my father-in-law with questions about the park.  There are no back-woods vacations for people wearing Park Service green pants. 
The real Park Service employees were as dubious as everyone else.  “The day over the pass takes the average hiker ten hours,” one of them pronounced, looking at us meaningfully.  Cowed, we departed from camp at 7 a.m. that morning, expecting everyone else to overtake us along the way.  As it turned out, little kids are substantially more squirrel-like than are middle-aged cubicle-dwellers.   Hours went by, and no one went past us.  Rocks were fun.  Despite the fog, there was plenty to see along the way: big, rusty, exciting stuff.
“The long-ago gold miners were litterbugs,” announced Lizzy, with all the righteous indignation of a kid who has learned and internalized the rules. If children are chastised for dropping paper scraps or fruit stickers, then how did those gold-rushers get away with leaving hundreds of cans, the soles of countless pairs of worn-out shoes, and mysterious yet fascinating pulleys, winches, levers, and gears?  Ah, but this was not trash, I told her – these were artifacts.  Artifacts!  That sounded important.  “Look, another artifact!” she informed me, every three feet.  Up, up, we went.
At the summit, the ranger on duty appeared from a tiny cabin that seemed to be perched on the edge of nothing, wind-swept and wild.  News of our group had preceded us by radio.  He peered at the kids as if expecting to see open sores, blood, or signs of extreme emotional distress.  Had he been hoping for the chance to report us to Child Social Services from the mountains of British Colombia?   “We don’t usually see ‘em below eight,” he grunted.  Molly and Lizzy told him about artifacts, around mouthfuls of peanut butter and jelly.
Now we were safely on the far side of that dastardly pass, and the twins had just started a busy game of Making Pretend Stuff with Twigs and Moss in the Drizzle.  Our fellow hikers’ meals progressed from chili mac to cherry cobbler to chunks of chocolate. Latecomers, looking as if they’d spent the day with the Spanish Inquisition, staggered into camp.
 “Do you remember?” asked Molly.  She has a penchant for talking about events from a few hours or days previously as if they happened eons ago.  “Do you remember, there was a stove at the top?”
This, I had to admit, had impressed me too, because I always like finding evidence that someone else is a bigger idiot than I am.  The Klondike would-be-gold-miners hiked endlessly in the dead of the sub-arctic winter, ferrying 400 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, and dense-sounding items such as scythe stones , whipsaws, and oakum.  They hauled stoves to the top of mountains, and abandoned them.  And, almost without exception, they didn’t find any gold.  A scenic summer stroll with a couple of kids seemed positively sensible in comparison.  None of us were carrying oakum or looking for gold, which is perhaps why the hike seemed so much easier to me than I’d expected it to.  We’d been getting to camp each day by mid afternoon.  There was plenty of time left to play Make A Hat For Mommy Out of Lichen, and to pick blueberries.
A few of the less travel-worn folks wandered over to chat.  Although more than one fellow-hiker mentioned that it was a little demoralizing to struggle along the trail all day, only to be greeted by kids too short to go eyeball-to-hip-belt with you, the dubiousness and disapproval I’d sensed two days ago seemed to be evaporating.  Our new-found friends commended the kids on their hiking prowess, and took photos of them.  They asked Molly and Lizzy what they liked best about the trail. They offered more chocolate.  After twenty miles, a national boundary, and several long hours of precipitous scrambling on the misty pass, it seemed the twins had earned their stripes, train-logo-sneakers and all.  By association, Jay, his dad, and I had gained the provisional status of Maybe Not Insane Guardians.
  The dad from Montana was taking a trip down memory lane.  “This is such a great age… I remember when my kids were that small… it seems like just yesterday….”  His eighteen-year-old daughter, to her credit, was keeping her eye-rolling to a bare minimum. 
The rain was ending, and a lean grey-haired man, more energized than the rest, walked a hundred feet up the nearest hummock of rock to check out the view.  A few moments later he called down to the rest of us, “A rainbow!  Come on up and see!”
A rainbow!  The stuff of a thousand wobbly-crayoned art projects!  The kids were up the hill in a flash, leaping and shrieking their joy.  A rainbow!  With all the colors!  A moment later it dipped into a full arc.  Then a double rainbow appeared.
A few others joined us on the hilltop, but the rest stayed below, either too weary or too jaded to bother.  Those of us in the rainbow clique shook our heads at their lack of initiative.
Five minutes after it appeared, the rainbow faded.  The kids’ joy, however, did not.  They scampered from rock to rock, effervescent on excitement and chocolate.   “Do you remember?” said Molly.  “It had purple and red and orange!  Do you remember?  It was double!”
The guy from Montana smiled at me.  “Those are the happiest kids I’ve ever seen,” he remarked.
Well, they certainly weren’t the cleanest, or the most polite, and they probably weren’t the smartest or most coordinated either.  But after all my jitters, I realized I could never have asked for a better compliment.  Someday, I can remind the kids of this trip.  “Do you remember?”  I’ll say.  I hope they at least humor me by pretending that they do.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

There are no penguins in Alaska... except for maybe two

“I’ll sit on your feet, Daddy, and you can regurgitate fish.”
            “I can do what?”  Jay seemed confused.  Personally, I thought Lizzy pronounced “regurgitate” pretty well, for a four-year-old.
            “You’re the daddy penguin,” Lizzy explained patiently.  “I’m the baby penguin.  Mommy is the mommy penguin, but it’s her turn to go to the ocean.”
“So… I have to regurgitate fish?”  Jay still seemed a little hung up on the dietary realities of penguin parenthood.  He shot me a look, mock-aggrieved, and I shrugged and grinned.  Don’t blame me, blame the road trip.
Admittedly, we live in a cold climate here in Fairbanks Alaska, but we didn’t actually encounter any penguins on our family vacation.  Contrary to popular belief, there are no penguins in the Arctic.  However, despite this salient ecological fact, somewhere between home and our destination near Skagway our kids morphed into flightless Antarctic waterfowl. 
When we started planning our summer, many of our friends seemed surprised and even perturbed that Jay and I were going to hike the challenging Chilkoot trail with the twins.  How would preschoolers would fare on the notorious the Chilkoot Pass, they asked?  I was a bit concerned, too.  But in the days preceding the trip, the potential rigors of the climb paled – at least in my mind – compared to the rigors of the car journey. 
The Chilkoot trailhead is seven hundred miles from Fairbanks – seven hundred and three miles, in fact.  Not that I was counting.  As I poured Goldfish crackers into Ziplocs and crammed sleeping bags into stuff-sacks, almost any potential entertainment started to seem like a good idea, including a few thousand plastic beads, an arsenal of picture books, and any form of food that takes a long time to consume, regardless of nutritional value.  Sunflower seeds in the shell?  Sure.  Tootsie Pops?  Bring em’ on. 
            I was worried that Molly and Lizzy would drive me nuts.  I was even more worried that they would drive their grandpa nuts.  Sure, he had six kids of his own, but that was a long time ago.  At sixty-eight years old, he was not used to the uninterrupted company of people whose idea of “singing” involves high-pitched bellowing of “one, two, buckle my shoe,” four hundred times.  My father-in-law is also a Catholic deacon.  I’m a little foggy on what that entails, but I’m sure it includes high standards of some sort or another. 
Would the kids whine?  Demand a potty break in every clump of willow from here to the Canadian border?  Blindside me with questions such as, “Why do grownups have hairy bottoms?”  I imagined many potentially disastrous scenarios. I did not, however, imagine that I would be forced to become a waddling, fish-eating bird.
For the first 200 miles, it was just the four of us in the car.  Breakfast was a crunchy mix of dry cereal – because a car that smells like sour spilled milk is even worse than a car that smells like five pairs of hiking socks.  Each baggie had lots of shapes – the more the better.  “Corn bran is my favorite,” declared Molly.  I gave silent thanks for her limited range of experience, because I couldn’t imagine what the rest of the day might be like if she had a bag of Froot Loops at her disposal. 
Done with breakfast?  Time for fun!  Let’s see what’s in this big bag…  Six Playmobil dogs?  Notepads?  Crayons?  My shoulders got tweaked from passing stuff to the back seat, but I could pretend I was taking part in beneficial automotive yoga.
We did a pretty thorough job of getting beads and crumbs all over the back seat, but everyone was still happy at lunchtime, when we picked up Grandpa and stretched our legs.  Impromptu hopscotch was highly encouraged.
Naptime follows lunch, so the next hour or two went by smoothly, despite my new vantage point in the back seat with my legs jammed among the bags of snacks and toys and my torso contorted between a car seat and a door handle. 
After nap?  More snacks!  More toys!  A scenic viewpoint!  A wayside outhouse!  A border crossing!  Look, kids, you can admire all our passport photos… but please don’t make mine quite so sticky... ok, please give that back, see the nice man in the booth needs it? See the flag with the maple leaf?  Oh, wait, you are growing up in Alaska.  We don’t have maple trees.  Well, but it’s a cool leaf anyhow, isn’t it?
“Mommy… are we there yet?”
It was time for the DVD player.
Compared to their peers, Molly and Lizzy have watched a miniscule amount of TV.  They know Dora the Explorer, but only from picture books.  They know Spiderman, but only via the imperfect cultural osmosis of preschool.  We don’t particularly want them to know more about these characters, and we’re pretty sure we don’t want them to know about Hannah Montana at all, ever.  Still, faced with fourteen hundred miles in a car, the loan of a portable DVD player seemed like a fabulous idea. 
I’d brought along plenty of choices, gleaned from friends and from the public library.  I had Disney.  I had cartoons.  I was even willing to suffer through Curious George.  The kids, however, were not.  Their viewing choice was March of the Penguins.
This selection seemed excellent, even laudable – the first time.  The second time, it still held passing interest to me.  Besides, we were almost there!  We made it to Skagway without tantrums, shot nerves, or wrecked upholstery, and I bounded onto the hiking trail with a family of happy campers.  The notorious pass turned out to be merely an adventuresome scramble, and my father-in-law a no point seemed to have grown weary of his grandchildren. 
I thought the stress and worry were largely surmounted – and this was true.  I also thought that by the time our return journey rolled around, the kids would have branched out in their cinematographic tastes.  They hadn’t.
We watched March of the Penguins twice more on the way home, and then moved on… to the bonus tracks.  The Making of March of the Penguins!  Meta-penguins are meta-fun for the meta-family!
I asked to watch Curious George.  I was denied.
When we got home, we played penguins.
“Daddy, I need to sit on your feet!”
I was grateful, at least, that the kids had fixated on a species in which the male does the bulk of the childcare.  “You have a special flap of skin for keeping the egg warm,” I coached my husband, trying not to sound too gleeful.  “You stand on the Antarctic ice for months at a time, without eating, as you incubate your chick.”
Nodding approvingly, Lizzy plopped all 33 pounds of herself down on Jay’s toes, and snuggled up with his imaginary ankle feathers. “Now you have to regurgitate the fish,” she insisted.
            As Morgan Freeman intones at the beginning of the film -- which I have now conveniently memorized -- March of the Penguins is a story about survival, and it is also a story about love.
            As Jay leaned down toward Lizzy and made a noise somewhere between retching and guffawing, it occurred to me that the same thing could be said about family vacations.