The hydration backpack was adult-sized, nearly stretching to his hamstrings. He was excited to go hiking from the moment he woke up that day, but carrying the drinking water on his back was the thing he most anticipated.
Driving out to Blue Mound State Park through the rolling hills of western Dane County, I thought about the many ways that this day could go sour. The foreboding clouds on the western horizon taunted us, laughing at me for taking a 7 year-old hiking. Sure, it could rain. This was the day to go because it was the least likely precipitation of the whole week, according to the experts. Still, rain looked to be a possibility. Indeed, the amount of rain that we already received in the previous days could pose its own challenge, potentially washing out the trails or making them difficult to navigate.
Weather was only one of the threats we faced in our father-son bonding experiment. Little man wore a pair of old and slightly tattered shoes that, at any moment, could tear and make the simple task of walking painful and difficult. There was always the possibility that my absent-minded, slightly clumsy son could slip or trip on a root and the adventure would end with me carrying him in tears back out of the forest. He might be crying too! These kinds of things could happen on any hike, and will continue to be potential pitfalls. But, most of all, I worried that he would not like hiking and incessantly complain about it.
From the time that he began to walk and talk, my youngest son has always liked the outdoors. The kid could be the poster child for summer itself. You might find him riding his bike down the street and flinging it into a neighbor’s driveway, preparing to play with the hose and sprinkler, or kicking the soccer ball around the yard. Oh, and playgrounds! He is a playground connoisseur. He was 2 or 3 when he coined the phrase “dat look like fun!”, spoken each time we merely passed a playground.
Of course, the common theme is outside play. He wanted to be outside as much as possible, kind of a throwback to how my generation lived in the 70s and 80s. That nostalgia has been discussed in blogs ad nauseam, but it was a different time, back before scheduled play dates and busy kid calendars. I liked that he just wanted to go play, and our neighborhood accommodated that freedom.
In addition to the outdoor activities near home, we provided our family with opportunities to connect with nature. We camped for the first time when he was 9 months old, and have camped every year since then. I’ve taken both of my sons (his brother is 7 years older) bike riding at relatively long distances (15 or so miles). Yet, simply hiking was never a common item on our outdoor list of things to do.
When we arrived at the park office to purchase our yearly sticker, I took my son inside to look at some of the displays and to ask the ranger if he had any recommendations on hiking trails. He still seemed excited to be there. I took that as a good sign, but I was only cautiously optimistic.
“What trail would you recommend we start with today?” I asked the way-too-young park ranger.
“I think you’d be happy with the Pleasure Valley Trail. It’s an easy trail, but I don’t know how much of a challenge you would want.”
I grabbed a park map and a sheet of trail descriptions, motioned for my son to follow me out the door, and we walked back to the car. I opened the map and found the Pleasure Valley Trail. Perfect. 1.3 miles and listed as easy on the trail guide. The boy agreed, so we set off.
We parked near the pool (yes, a state park with a pool!) and found the trailhead. As we headed up the trail, a woman and her little girl (maybe a tad older than my son) set out before us. I could tell that they were more experienced hikers than we. They both had backpacks and were wearing long sleeves, socks, and hats. I did manage to spray insect repellent on both of us but realized that we may have been better served to wear long sleeves and socks. Store that in the memory bank.
Looking at the map, I noticed there was a trail extension to the Pleasure Valley. The Weeping Rock Trail took hikers down into the ravine where they saw rocks “weep”. With all of the rain we’d had lately, there was a chance that these rocks might be sobbing. I asked my son if he’d be up for an addition to our original trail, and he responded affirmatively with an enthusiasm I did not anticipate.
We found the spot where the trails diverged, and I took one last look at the trail description for the Weeping Rock. Looks good.
“Oh wait!” I stopped in my tracks. “This trail is rated as ‘difficult’. You ok with that?” I didn’t want to disappoint him but I expected him to decide against this new challenge. This is, after all, the kid who complains about a quick trip to the grocery store.
“Yes! Let’s do that one.”
“Uh OK, just don’t tell your mom.”
“Yeah, she’s gonna be real mad at you.” He laughed, turned, and started down the trail.
Shaking my head, I caught up to him. We quickly realized why the trail was rated as difficult. The first 100 feet included a steep, winding descent along a narrow edge of the ravine. Roots poking through the trail trolled us like hairy fingers, threatening to toss us into the stream. The ground was soft from the rains, so footing was not great. Despite these obstacles, we carefully trudged on. Still no complaints. Amazing!
A metal pipe cut through the organic trail, which led my little explorer to announce that he had made a discovery – a mysterious hidden tube. With the agility of a drugged up cat, he bounded down to the floor of the ravine. I saw the loose rock before he did, but to my astonishment, he caught himself before he fell into the stream. I finally exhaled, under the assumption that this event scared him into being much more careful. Nope.
Several streams were traversed with only an 8 inch wide board as a bridge. My brave pioneer led the way and easily conquered more lands as he triumphantly announced his arrival on each new shore. His confidence growing, he appeared almost disappointed when we joined back up with the original Pleasure Valley trail. Here comes the complaint, I thought. But, he had one more surprise in store for me.
“Can we do another hike like that one?”
That makes for one proud moment.