By Michael Lanza
On a morning when the late-summer sunshine sharpens the incisor points of every peak and spire in the jagged skyline of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, Nate and I step inside the Sawtooth National Recreation Area ranger station, south of the little town of Stanley, population sixty-three. I chat with the ranger behind the counter, mentioning that my son and I are heading out to backpack the 18-mile loop from Pettit Lake to Alice and Toxaway Lakes.
The ranger sizes up my six-year-old, 40-pound kid, and frowns skeptically. “You know, that’s a pretty rugged hike,” he tells me.
Over the years to follow, I would become accustomed to seeing that expression on the faces of well-intentioned people worried about what I was planning to do with my children. I would also get used to hearing the tone of voice someone uses when what they really want to tell me is: “You, sir, are a crazed lunatic, and coyotes will pick your child’s and your bones clean before we even find you.”
I try to explain that I know these trails and the little boy with the stuffed dolphin has done a fair bit of hiking already—for someone who weighs less than the backpack I’ll carry for the next three days. But as we leave, I doubt I’ve allayed that ranger’s concerns. He’s probably made a mental note to check for my car at the trailhead in a few days, to make sure that the overzealous dad and his bear-snack-size kid made it out of the wilderness alive.
On the trail a little while later, Nate and I set out at a very casual pace, slowed by the frequent demands of important business like stopping to eat more chocolate or throw rocks at trees and boulders. Nature, it turns out, is conveniently well stocked with excellent throwing rocks and worthy targets.
That first evening, I hurriedly throw the tent up just before a violent thunderstorm rents the sky open. Then Nate and I huddle inside, warm and dry in our bags, listening to the pounding of rain on our nylon walls and repeatedly exclaiming, “Wow, did you hear that one?!” after each tectonic rumble of thunder quakes the air around us.
The next morning, we spend close to an hour slam-dunking rocks into Alice Lake. Each time, Nate erupts with a heartfelt belly laugh over the concussive effect of the rocks on the water’s surface. I laugh almost as hard at his laughter. After a difficult hike over a pass around 9,200 feet, we descend to Toxaway Lake with Nate looking bleary-eyed at mid-afternoon. But when we find a campsite in the woods with a small creek gurgling nearby, he revives as suddenly as if he were Superman and I had just tossed the Kryptonite it into the lake. Nate passes the next couple of hours quietly constructing stone dams in the creek.
In the evening, we hurl rocks into Toxaway, and then sit together atop a big granite slab on the shore, talking about space travel and which dinosaurs would beat other dinosaurs in a fight. On our third and final day, my first-grader cranks out nine miles with more stamina than many adults—although, by the end, he’s so punch-drunk tired that the sound of air shrieking through the pinched neck of a balloon sends him into paroxysms of hysterical laughter that make me double over laughing, too. I’d actually planned on four days, but he comes up with the brilliant plan to finish in three, get milkshakes to celebrate, camp another night nearby, then rent a two-person, sit-on-top kayak to paddle around Redfish Lake tomorrow morning, before heading home.
That was our second outing in what has become an annual, multi-day, father-son adventure together. We call it our “Boy Trip,” a term coined by Nate years ago. He’s now a teenager, and for both of us, the Boy Trip has risen to a status among the most exalted events on the calendar. Partly that’s because we always get outdoors on a fun adventure. But mostly it’s because we love carving out time for just the two of us.
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Idaho’s Smoky Mountains
Fast-forward several years. Sunset looms but the air has hardly cooled in this August heat wave as we start the roughly two-mile hike to the Norton Lakes in central Idaho’s Smoky Mountains. My nine-year-old daughter, Alex, and I are backpacking in to spend two nights at the lakes with our friends Gary Davis and his girls, Mae, 11, and Adele, who’s eight.
Alex and Adele have been BFFs since they were old enough to comprehend that the world offered other children to play with besides the older siblings who snatched toys from them and occasionally dropped something on their head. As we hike, they walk side-by-side as if joined at the hip, talking constantly, which helpfully distracts them from the uphill effort.
Wildfires have been burning across the entire West for weeks. Temperatures at home in Boise have been hitting 100 too much lately, and the air quality is approximately as healthy as putting your mouth over a running car’s exhaust pipe. Gary had suggested we take the girls out to the mountains, where the smoke is at least more dissipated.
As it happened, Alex and I had set aside this same weekend for our Girl Trip—the name she gives to our annual father-daughter getaway, as a counterpoint to Nate’s and my Boy Trip. Alex generously grants me a waiver for my inferior gender to enable our Girl Trip.
Just before dark on this calm and mild evening, we reach the lower Norton Lake, its shore mostly ringed by ponderosa pines, with a steep scree slope rising from one side. While Gary and I pitch our tents, the girls scout the night woods around us with headlamps until everyone’s tired enough to head for our sleeping bags. Alex and I do a Sudoku puzzle together by headlamp in the tent. She somehow thinks she solves much more of it than I do. To protect her self-esteem, I don’t contest her claim.
In the morning, we all hike a trail through numerous switchbacks up to a pass several hundred feet above our camp, looking back down at the Norton Lakes. After a lunch capped with copious helpings of chocolate, we follow a steep, fainter user path up onto a narrow ridge crest of broken rock. (Early tomorrow, before anyone else is awake, I’ll make a quick, dawn hike up here again and surprise three mountain goats on this ridge.) Moving carefully through a few exposed spots, we scramble along the ridge to the summit of Norton Peak, at 10,336 feet the second highest in the Smoky Mountains. Although the air remains hazy with wildfire smoke, we can see most of this range of 10,000-footers, and across the Wood River Valley to the even more severely vertical and rocky Boulder Mountains.
At the summit, the three girls pump fists in the air. Then we carefully backtrack over the ridge and quickly descend the trail back to camp, where our expedition’s real celebration of our epic achievement ensues over s’mores.
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Never Easy to Make Time
It’s never easy to cram the Girl Trip and Boy Trip into any summer, when we usually take them. Our summers are consistently chock-full with outdoor travel either as a family or me going out sans family for my work. I’m usually away for upwards of half the summer—so much that, by fall, I’m burnt out on packing and unpacking gear and ready to stay home (a feeling that I get over within about a week, actually—but that’s another story).
Still, I commit to fitting in our Girl Trip and Boy Trip every year. Nate and Alex both consider it non-negotiable, as mandatory as celebrating their birthdays. I just love that they feel that strongly about it.
I’ve always tried to steer us toward outdoor adventures that are age-appropriate for my kids—who started young enough that they are, admittedly, fairly advanced in their abilities, stamina, and confidence for their ages. And I have deliberately avoided pushing my own agenda. I want them to feel we share the decision on what we’re doing.
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Sawtooths to the Grand Canyon
Our annual Boy Trip and Girl Trip don’t have to be major expeditions. We rarely leave our home state. The first, when Nate was five, consisted of him and me backpacking about a mile (he carried only a tiny daypack and his dolphin) to camp beside a creek in the Boise Foothills, a 10-minute drive from our home. To the occasional hikers and trail runners passing by, our campsite may have looked rather uninteresting; but to Nate, it felt as wild and remote as the Himalayan Mountains. Besides, we had enough sticks to launch into the creek and rocks to bomb them with to keep us occupied for hours.
Nate and I have backpacked to the Big Boulder Lakes in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, rock climbed at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park, and backpacked into the southern Sawtooths with one of his buddies and that kid’s dad, camping by the shore of an unnamed lake, fishing, and exploring off-trail around a little-visited lakes basin.
When Alex was younger, our first Girl Trips consisted of spending weekends skiing, biking, or dayhiking together. I didn’t push backpacking with her, waiting for her to welcome that idea. When she was 10, she and I joined two families I know on a three-day, Grand Canyon backpacking trip. When she was 14, we went to Costa Rica—raising the bar for Girl Trip and Boy Trip destinations.
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These outings deliver multiple benefits. The adventures always forge memories. They give me an excuse to get out. Plus, I’m hoping to nurture in my kids a love for the same activities I enjoy. But I have a broader agenda than all of those things.
On our first trips, when they were little, my one-on-one conversations with each of them focused on such weighty matters as their favorite toys and games. But as they have grown older, we talk about their relationships with their friends, how much freedom and responsibility they want to have, those odd creatures making up the opposite gender, and how they navigate the mysterious and confusing waters of growing up.
Always, our conversations focus on whatever’s on Nate’s or Alex’s mind and consist mostly of me listening with deep interest. I want them to remember these experiences not just for the fun we had together, but as times when we could talk about absolutely anything, and I would listen and care.
And, of course, we talk about what new adventures we want to take together in coming years—because one goal of any trip should be figuring out where and when you’ll take the next one.
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I intend to continue these father-son and father-daughter trips right through their high-school years, culminating with a big adventure when each of them graduates. I hope to create a tradition so vital to both of my kids that they each consider it critical to continue after they grow up and leave to build their own lives. Just like they hold me to it now, I intend to do the same when they’re grown.
But the only payoff I really need from these experiences are the moments like one when Nate reached high to throw an arm around my shoulders and told me, “I love these trips we do together.”
That’s enough right there.
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