5 Reasons To Keep Backpacking With a Baby

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Hiking, Outdoor Adventures, Parenting

“You sure have a high misery tolerance,” my friend Linsey remarks cheerfully, as she passes us on the trail. I gaze after her wistfully, coveting her easy pace as Talon screams and writhes in the pack on my back.

It’s a Friday evening in mid-July, and we’re hiking straight up the Swan Mountains to camp near some backcountry lakes for the weekend. Even though it’s mid-July, the temperature is plummeting toward freezing, and the threatening grey clouds and howling wind aren’t helping my frame of mind. Quite possibly nothing would help my frame of mind, though, since bringing a baby on a backpacking trip does indeed entail a certain level of misery.

On Trail - Rocky Mountain Front
Rob and Talon check out the view in Blackleaf Canyon on the Rocky Mountain Front.

Every time Rob and I start down a trail–with Talon on my back, and 50 pounds of camping gear on his–I vow within five minutes to never do it again. Somehow, we do it the next weekend anyway. Are we gluttons for punishment? Obviously.

We stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that our lives might not be as adventurous as before. But the real reason we keep hiting the trails, misery and all, is because by the end of the weekend in the woods, we’re both glad we got out in the wilderness.

Talon loves putting up the tent, since the poles are shiny.
Talon loves putting up the tent, since the poles are shiny.

Backpacking with a baby is hard. First there’s the whining, and kicking, and hair-pulling. Then there’s the poopy diapers–do you haul the dirty ones out? Use cloth diapers and bury the poo? (It’s a lose-lose situation either way.) Once you get to camp, it’s only slightly easier. You have to manage the wee babe for sunburn and bugs, and constantly corral him from crawling off boulders or tottering into the cook stove.

The hardest part, though, is actually the non-stop, nagging voice in my head: “This used to be fun. What if backpacking is never fun again? What if life is never fun again?” Single-track trail often breeds existential crisis–or at least walking alone for long periods adds fuel to the fire. I find, though, that if I walk for long enough, my footsteps eventually: 1) rock Talon to sleep, and 2) bring my thoughts (now influenced by the peaceful quiet of a sleeping baby) full circle to: “Life is awesome, and backpacking is the bomb.”

Picking huckleberries during a break on the trail in the Swan Mountains.
Picking huckleberries during a break on the trail in the Swan Mountains.

This cycle of misery and joy repeats more often, and with bigger peaks and valleys, than a typical day at home. Playing in the tent with a giggling baby is exhilarating; taking the 87th rock out of Talon’s mouth is exhausting. Catching a trout in the lake is a triumph; trying to cook it while Talon tips toward the flames is terrifying.

We’ve taken three backpacking trips with Talon this summer to three different mountain ranges in Montana. All in all, the impetus for our continued expeditions boils down to the fact that we love immersing ourselves in the wilderness, and enjoy introducing Talon to the magic of lakes, peaks, and trails, too.

A tight two-man tent with  all three of us is hours of fun for Talon and redefines "snuggling" at night.
A tight two-man tent with all three of us is hours of fun for Talon and redefines “snuggling” at night.

Here’s why I think it’s worth packing a baby into the woods:

1. You’ll have stories to tell. Regale your friends and family with exaggerated tales of your exploits and mis-adventures in the woods: “And then Talon took a header down the talus field toward the lake! But we caught him before that hawk swooped down to try and grab him.” They’ll think you’re insane, of course, but that’s half the fun.

2. Car camping becomes a walk in the park. Pitching a tent without having to carry it and your kid uphill several miles feels liberating. Plus, you can bring beer, games, and a big roomy tent instead of the two-man-that’s-really-a-one-man setup (which puts new meaning into the word “snuggle”).

3. It makes your home seem like a dream come true. Returning to the house lends a new appreciation for luxuries like running water, cribs, chairs, and countertops above your baby’s reach. The rooms that might have felt claustrophobic all week before your trip suddenly seem like lovely, comfy, safe zones for you and babe.

4. You get alone time surrounded by beauty. Once the baby falls asleep on your back (or switches to your partner’s back), the quiet reverberates ten-fold in the absence of his babble. The leaves look sharper, the air feels crisper, the peaks seem closer. You can breathe more deeply and think more clearly than ever before.

5. It builds endurance. Backpacking with a baby is a physical and mental strength-training exercise. Your muscle tone will improve, as will your reservoir of patience. As your tolerance for misery increases, so does your capacity for joy.

So, there you have it. Let me know how it goes if you brave the trail with a wee one on your back!

P.S. Stay tuned for my upcoming article in Backpacker for tips on taking a baby on outdoor adventures.

Practicing pad surfing in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Practicing pad surfing in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

 

All Photos: (C) Rob Roberts.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

The Wilderness of Mandalay

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Community and Culture, Traveling

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, a.k.a. Burma. Our 11th country this year, and by far the least developed. This country is truly a melting pot of hundreds of ethnic groups and religions, it’s borders hugging Bangladesh, India, Laos, Thailand, and China. Burma was a colony of Great Britain until 1948, lumped together with India for the majority of English rule. It just opened to tourists after Myanmar’s brutal 50-year dictatorship formally ended in 2011. Many parts of the country are still “off limits” to visitors, and all foreigners must get a visa from a Myanmar embassy before arriving.

We flew from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Mandalay, Myanmar’s northern urban center. Rob and I wanted to see Asia’s second largest country in Asia before tourism whitewashed its culture. And we were searching for a less trendy, more gritty destination than Thailand, which is overrun by foreigners looking for elephant rides, tiger-petting, and/or easy access to sex, drugs and alcohol.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

Our arrival in Mandalay’s deserted airport was heralded by enthusiastic taxi drivers in longyi, the traditional cloth wrap that men and women wear around their hips. We serenaded a half-dozen of these taxi drivers with a Johnny Cash song on our trusty Panamanian guitar in the parking lot. The men’s remaining teeth were stained blood red with beetlenut juice when they smiled, clapping along to the song.

In Thailand, we were constantly trying to escape the smoke of the summer burn season. We rode our rented motorcycle into the mountains near Chiang Mai, hoping to find moist forest and blue skies – to no avail. But when we drove into Mandalay at dusk, Thailand suddenly seemed like an environmental paradise. The dusky light of sunset revealed a scene more like India than Asia: a free-for-all of swerving traffic, people bathing in canals along the highway, food vendors selling from trays balanced on their heads, men pulling wooden carts loaded high and heavy. A cloud of choking dust from the dirt roads hung suspended in the air, mixing with wood-fire smoke and black exhaust.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

After chucking our bags into a government-approved tourist hotel room (ET Hotel), we set off to find dinner. Walking amidst the traffic and dust was an adventure, with no sidewalks and no streetlights to help navigate potholes, trash piles and the ubiquitous motorbikes. Breathing was a challenge, too, and our eyes stung as we watched the street scene over our fried rice and veggie platters.

Amidst the traffic and poor air quality, we made the potentially ridiculous choice to rent bikes to pedal through Mandalay the next day. They were hilarious bikes, old single-speed cruisers made for the barely-five-foot-tall tiny people that populate Myanmar. I felt like I was riding a unicycle, since the seat and pedals were so close together. Rob looked like two giant knees.

Turns out that it’s actually easier to bike than to walk in Mandalay. You feel a part of the impenetrable flow of traffic rather than at war with it. Setting off early, we headed to the ancient walled city to see the palace of King Mindon. We went slowly, taking in the sights: tiny stools where locals sat and spat beetlenut, tea houses, oily chapatis, orange juice stands, millions of scooters, a parade of Burmese girls with painted faces sitting in flatbed trucks, a game of hacky-sack volleyball. Everyone smiled and waved as we passed, still enamored by the novelty of white tourists in their midst.

We joined the endless streams of bikes and cars and tractors that edged out in clumps from intersections, using critical mass to cross main streets in lieu of a traffic light. A teak monastery was the highlight of our tour, intricately carved with thousands of buddhas and gargoyles and who knows what. After a lunch of delicious Shan noodles (khao suey), we beat a hasty retreat to the hotel before the 100-degree heat set in.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

That evening, we resumed the bike tour and headed west from downtown to find the Ayerwaddy River, the largest in the country. Rudyard Kipling called the river the “road to Mandalay” in his famous 1890 poem about Burma. And a road it is – a network of irrigation canals and transportation routes that link the north and south. This watery road was full of boats, people bathing, pipes collecting water and dumping waste, thatch huts lining the sandy shores. A busy and overwhelming place, far removed from my Montana-girl’s mental and emotional definition of “river.”

I realized as we biked home, coughing, in the growing darkness that Rob and I keep searching for the Southeast Asian version of “wilderness,” just as we searched out the South Pacific’s underwater version of “wilderness.” We seek out untouched nature to explore. But the pristine places we associate with our definition of wilderness – the back woods, remote rivers, uninhabited peaks of Montana – don’t exist here. People have been using every scrap of land and water for millennia to simply survive.

Traveling through Mandalay in Myanmar (Burma) - On the Horizon Line with Brianna Randall and Rob Roberts

The real wilderness in Asia lies within its seething cities. This is where the raw, primal, impenetrable and vast exist – in the region’s humming mass of people who are, after all, very much a part of nature. The wilderness of Mandalay or Bangkok or Yangon is just as challenging to navigate as the wilderness of Montana. We need a different set of survival skills, but many of our tools are the same: a water purifier, a headlamp, a med kit, a map, a sense of humor, patience.

This realization was both humbling and helpful. It let me ease into the city just a bit, rather than hold it at bay. But it still didn’t make me want to stay in Mandalay. As we returned the bikes for the day and paid our $2 each, I was undeniably relieved to be getting on a train to Kyaukme in the morning to begin a trek through tea-growing villages in the mountains of Myanmar. Even if they are a hard-working landscape rather than a wilderness, mountains will always feel more like home than a city.

Solo Backpack from Our Home to My Headwaters

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Fishing, Hiking

Bear hangs in the wilderness are like anchors at sea — it’s what let’s me sleep comfortably in the middle of the woods.

I made this connection during a solo journey into the Rattlesnake Wilderness the first weekend in August.  Rob was busy driving a forklift and playing with power tools, helping our friends build a cabin in Southwestern Montana.  So, I seized the glorious summer weekend, threw some gear in a backpack, threw a trailer on my bike, and headed out the front door at 3pm after work.

I ride my mountain bike up 5 miles of pavement, and then 16 miles of bumpy trail along Rattlesnake Creek, towing my heavy pack.  Around 7pm, I reached the Wilderness boundary, locked the bike to fir tree, and strapped on my backpack.  I hiked up Wrangell Creek about 5 miles, and reached Little Lake, a gorgeous high mountain lake, just as night fell.  Which meant I had to HURRY to set up camp, make dinner, and then get dinner hung out of the reach of hungry bears and curious critters. 

For me, I have to hang a rope right away, so I know my food will be out of range of hungry bears.  That way I can sleep more soundly, especially when I’m all alone in the middle of the woods.  Plus, I suck at throwing, so I figure I should get the dreaded (but critical!) chore out of the way first.

I finally found a good snag halfway around Little Lake (high elevation areas = subalpine firs = tiny branches that don’t hold the weight of my hefty food bag).  Whew.  Food safe for the night.  I settled in my sleeping bag to read, and fell asleep as a lightening storm gave way to gentle rain in my cozy tent.

The next morning, after retrieving the food from it’s bear-proof spot, I decided to hike to the next lake, Glacier Lake.  The first day alone in the mountains I’m usually jumpy, clapping and singing to scare away lions, tigers, and bears (and moose).

But then I settle into the rhythm of silence. By day two and day three, I almost forget I’m not a part of the forest, and rarely make noise.  Maybe this is just because I feel slightly invincible by not getting killed on the way in.

On the second night, my comfort level was tested by 5 mountain goats that interrupted

the silence of sunset as the scrambled over a sheer cliff about 100 yards from my tent.  Awesome creatures.

On the hike out, I catalog what I forgot in my rush to leave my home for the headwaters of my backyard creek: a compass, a utensil (good thing twigs make good chopsticks), a bandana.  And what I was most glad to have with me: a fly rod, my bear hang rope, and a good book.


The reason I love backpacking–and sailing, for that matter–is that you must live in exactly that moment.  You’re only mission is to survive, to plan the next meal and find the next shelter.  There’s a beauty in that, a simplicity and a purpose that leaves me satisfied…and ready to do it all over again.

 

 

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