Saturday, June 20, 2015


When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry. - William Shakespeare 
I was lying on my back listening to songbirds whistling while the mountain breeze brushed across my face, the rest of my body tightly wrapped in my sleeping bag. The sound of snowshoe hares playing on the trail beside our lean-to might have worried me that larger animals were approaching if I hadn’t seen them the previous morning. The sun was just rising over Pamola Peak, the mountain that our campsite was nestled against. My original plan was to hop out of bed at first light and get an early start on hiking down the mountain. I scooted to the edge of the wooden platform, my family still sound asleep next to me, and slipped on my shoes. My feet and legs were still sore and quite stiff from a week full of hiking. After taking in the scenery I decided I was in no hurry to leave this amazing place. And I’ve never been a morning person anyway. I crept back into my sleeping bag, laid my head down and began thinking about fatherhood.
My father speaks of his parenting days regretfully. He never showed us much affection and he peaked early. He started out as an involved, family man but, by the time I was 14, my relationship with my father was non-existent. Yet my earliest memories are of a charismatic man who enjoyed entertaining friends and family. He told corny jokes, drank cheap beer and grilled like a champ on his charcoal grill. In the backyard was our family RV, a class C motorhome complete with a CB radio and cassette player for listening to Bill Cosby stand-up. We spent our summer weekends RVing at state parks across Michigan, with the occasional trip to Florida.
On weekends when we didn’t have the time or money to take a big trip Up North, my dad would park the RV at Algonac State Park, just a 30 minute drive away. We would pull up, unfold our aluminum folding chairs and cast our fishing poles into Lake St. Clair. He would always manage to hook a walleye that he would promptly clean and prepare for dinner.
Even when we weren’t vacationing in our RV my dad would let me use it to host sleepovers in our backyard. I was fascinated with our house on wheels. It was a symbol of adventures, past and future. As long as it was in our backyard, I knew a family trip was never far away.
Meanwhile, across town, Jessica was being raised by a father who believed in having a strong connection to nature. While most families were saving up for a summer vacation, her dad was preparing his family for a backpacking trip on Isle Royale.
Isle Royale, Michigan’s only national park, encompasses a remote island in Lake Superior. The only way to get there is by boat or small aircraft. The park is the least visited in the NPS system. It is a crown jewel for backcountry campers in search of total seclusion.
Jessica’s dad spent the summer before the trip acquiring gear and taking her and her younger sister, Autumn, on practice hikes at nearby Pinckney Recreation Area. Jessica was 13 and Autumn was 8 when they set out on the trip in the summer of 1995. The family survived five days and miles of hiking on a remote island, creating family memories that will last forever. Not a day goes by that Jessica doesn’t talk about that trip.
Given our backgrounds, it’s easy to see why we had the ambition to tour the country. We set up home base in our RV and look for places to hike and camp. Our passions, inspired in us by our fathers, combined into one awesome journey. The best of both worlds.
I often wonder if our fathers knew they were setting the stage for us all those years ago. Was there a look of contentment on our faces? Did we give any indication that we were, in that moment, forming a connection to something that would last us the rest of our lives?
These are the things I pondered as I lay in that peaceful forest, my sleeping bag starting to warm back up and my eyelids becoming heavy. There is something about the serenity of nature that invokes a clarity in me. It is also very easy to find sleep in the woods, which is what happened shortly afterwards.

In the weeks before this day, our plans were to finish our first lap around America in Acadia National Park. We had never been to Maine and figured you can’t go wrong with a national park. We planned to climb a few mountains, eat some lobster and do the “Maine thing” before heading back to Michigan for the summer. Then Jessica brought up Mount Katahdin. She has read about a dozen books written by people who have hiked the Appalachian Trail, along with the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. It’s an obsession of hers.
As most hikers know, Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, a path that goes through 14 states and covers over 2000 miles. The majority of A.T. hikers start in Georgia and end in Maine, on Mount Katahdin, sometime around early fall. Jessica wanted to see the mountain and do some nearby hiking, just because it was special to her.
Katahdin is in the middle of a wilderness called Baxter State Park in north/central Maine. The park is over 200,000 acres yet has only two roads, both dirt and under 10 miles long. The rest of the park is only accessible by trail. The more we researched the more we fell in love. It was a remote wilderness with amazing mountain views and plenty of hiking. We made some phone calls to the Baxter State Park Authority, locked down some reservations and a 4-day backcountry trip up Mount Katahdin was on the calendar.

We arrived on a Monday after ditching the RV and our dog the day before. Our first campground was a small, rustic outpost called “Roaring Brook”. The camp had a bunkhouse, a row of tent sites and a row a lean-tos located on the edge of the brook. We stayed in a lean-to, our first time camping in one of these structures. The thought of being exposed with nothing but an awning over our heads made me both excited and nervous.  It was the last campground that allowed campfires along the trail so we burned some wood and drank a few beers before turning in for the night. We woke the next morning, after an uneventful night, despite my worries, and began the strenuous, 3.5 mile hike up Chimney Pond.
Our campsite at Roaring Brook
Chimney Pond is a small, quiet campground with a bunkhouse, a handful of lean-tos and a small cabin where park rangers take turns living five days at a time. The campsites are spaced far apart, giving a real feeling of seclusion. The pond looks like an image from a Maine Department of Tourism advertisement. The peaks of Mount Katahdin rise above the undisturbed pond in dramatic fashion. I would say the view takes your breath away, but those words don’t do it justice. We settled into our lean-to, had dinner, and got some much deserved shut-eye.
There is not a camera on earth that can capture the awe that this view inspires.
The next morning Jessica woke up early to climb to the summit while I stayed back with the boys. The park does not, under any circumstances, allow children under the age of six above tree line. This presented a challenge for us since Noah just turned six and Sammy is only four. Our solution was to summit the mountain separately while someone stayed back with the boys. We gave Noah the option to try it but it wasn’t looking like he was up for the challenge.
While Jessica was climbing to the summit I hung out at the pond with the boys. They threw rocks in the pond and pretended to be ninjas while I worked on crossword puzzles.
During lunch I talked to Noah about coming with me to the summit. I could tell he was really on the fence so I decided to persuade him by offering to fill his pack with a large supply of Skylanders Fruit Snacks. This felt like a cheap shot but he immediately agreed and was eager to climb the mountain with me.
At around 12:15 there was still no sign of Jessica. The cutoff for climbing to the summit in mid June is 12:00 P.M. After that, the park DOES NOT recommend you attempt the climb. I started to worry that we wouldn’t be able to do the hike when Jessica appeared. The cutoff time is very conservative and I felt we had plenty of time to at least attempt the summit.  I filled our water packs, grabbed some fruit snacks and granola bars and headed up the trail with Noah.
Let me explain what a “trail” in Baxter State Park looks like. The terrain changes quickly and can be anything from a narrow dirt path to a steep slide covered in boulders the size of cars. There are points on the trail when I was looking at a giant wall of broken rock with a blue trail blazer painted 50 feet up thinking “this can’t be the trail.” Where I am from, you can do a two-mile hike while you’re waiting for water to boil. If you are covering more than one mile in an hour at Baxter, you are a seasoned pro.

Yet the first part of the hike was relatively tame. We talked about cartoons, toys and what we miss most about home. Occasionally we would slow down while Noah tried to find a line through the piles of huge rocks. After about an hour we reached a point called “the slide”, a one mile, nearly vertical scramble covered in jagged rocks that fall beneath you as you ascend.
All we knew of this trail was what our topographical map told us (it’s extremely steep) and what other campers had told us (It’s extremely difficult). We agreed that we would attempt to make it up the slide and if things got too hairy, we would turn around. We also agreed that no matter how far along we were at 4 p.m. we would call it quits to ensure we wouldn’t get stuck in the dark.
Armed with a plan we started making out way up the slide, inching along at a stagnant pace. I stayed immediately behind Noah as he grunted along the loose piles of rocks. There were a couple times when I started to question if this was a safe place for a kid. I was reassured when I observed his great attitude. He was inspired to make it up this mountain and I could feel it in his every step. When we came to large rocks or steep cliffs he would turn to me and reluctantly ask for help. I would either lift him up and place him above or climb ahead and reach back for him, all while nervously reminding him to stay put and hang on with both hands. We worked as a team for over two hours climbing that rock slide and next thing we knew, we were standing on the saddle between Hamlin and Baxter Peaks.

We sat on a rock and ate granola bars while looking at the amazing 360-degree view. We were above tree line, sitting on top of the world, with the beautiful Maine wilderness surrounding us. I pulled out our map and did some calculating. We were less than one mile from the summit. I pointed at the hill to the south of us and told Noah this was it. Time to finish. Without a word of protest he stood up, put his pack on, and started leading us along the trail. We both knew the hard part was over. I felt proud of him already but it was obvious he needed to go all the way up to validate his sense of accomplishment. I followed him.

The trail ascended steadily up two false summits, points in the climb that look like the top until you are upon them when more of the mountain appears.  We hiked along more loose rocks before the trail disappeared into a massive boulder field. The only way to navigate through the field was to loosely follow the cairns and blue paint while hopping and climbing through the giant rocks. Again, we worked together, forgetting for a moment how much progress we were making. We got to another walkable section and looked into the distance. There it was. A huge pile of rocks, a large wooden sign and a small group of people enjoying the view. Noah walked ahead, his strides long and quick, to the summit of the mountain. He placed his hand on the wooden sign, looked back at me and said, “Dad! We made it!”

The other hikers on the summit offered him high fives and nodded with respect at his accomplishment. I stood back, took pictures and smiled. I was so incredibly proud of my little dude. We sat on a rock and took the remaining snacks out of our packs. I asked Noah, “Did you really do all of this just for some fruit snacks?”
“Well, that and I wanted to see this beautiful view,” he replied.
We took more pictures and chatted with the other hikers before heading back down. We knew the hike down was going to be just as difficult as the way up. We had our work cut out for us. When we got to the rock slide we patiently worked together and before we knew it, we were back at camp. Noah ran to his mom and showed her the picture of us on the summit and began excitedly telling her all about it.
We had a big meal and ate lots of cookies. Noah was the first one snoring that night.
There are often times when I doubt myself as a parent. I think I speak for all dads when I say we are our own worst critics. As I laid next to my family, the morning after our big mountain climb, pondering fatherhood, a feeling of reassurance came over me. Just four years ago Noah took his first steps and now, he is a mountain climber. This is one of those moments where, as a dad, I get a glimpse through the curtain of doubt and can see directly into the window of my son’s heart. No matter where he ends up in life, no matter what things happen to him, good or bad, we will always, for as long as we live, have this profound memory. The day we inspired each other to climb Mount Katahdin.