This Winter has been a time of relaxation, recuperation, and introspection for our family. For a couple of months we had been kicking around the idea of taking a sabbatical next academic year and moving with our family to the mountains in France. Mat was eligible through his work, the boys seemed like the perfect age, and every time we landed in Chamonix we immediately said “What if we could move here one day?” And then, after weeks of digging into the logistics, the financials, and the bureaucracy, we looked at each other one Saturday morning and it clicked – we actually love our life right here, right now, in the Bay Area. That’s not to say that we’ll never pick up and head off on a crazy international adventure again, but for the time being we were really digging our life, community, and wilderness around us. With so much good happening right now it was going to be tough to pick up and leave it all behind. Once that decision was “made” a wave of relief and excitement swept over us – it was time to start planning our summer and scheming up an adventure a bit more close to home.
All eyes turned to the Sierra Mountains, as it’s a place near and dear to our hearts that we have not spent enough time in lately. Our boys are finally big enough to really dig in deep and experience the Range of Light, and we began floating the idea of a JMT Family Thru Hike. It had been decades since we had spent a summer in the Sierra, and a few quick Google searches made us realize that a lot had changed. No longer could you throw down a bag outside of the ranger station in the Valley and be guaranteed a Southbound permit. New lotteries, quotas, and a whole mess of logistics have accompanied the trail’s new found popularity (thanks Cheryl Strayed) and assured us that a trip down the JMT would not be like the ones we did 20 years ago.
While we scrambled for permits and dug out our backpacking gear we realized there were larger questions on the table as well. Could our boys consistently throw down decent mileage days in the mountains? How on earth would we carry bear canisters big enough to pack away all of our food? And how much food can a growing ten year old actually eat in a 7 day period between resupplies? To start answering these questions, as well as celebrate our beloved Mama Mo’s 40th (!) birthday, we headed to the local coastal forests and trails of Point Reyes National Seashore.
Point Reyes is one of our local treasures and we try to spend more time there each year. We often go up for day trips and big hikes, but it is also a unique spot that offers developed backcountry campgrounds that provide a “Backpacking Light” experience. There’s running water, trash cans, picnic tables, and pit toilets, but you still have to hike all of your stuff in. A few weeks ago we patched together a string of campsite reservations that would allow us head into Sky Camp on Thursday night, move to Coast Camp on Friday night, and end at Glen camp on Saturday night before heading back out to the Bear Valley Visitor Center on Sunday. All told the loop would be about 18 miles and a great chance to stretch our legs out and test some equipment along the way.
The night hike went smoothly on the way in and the kids didn’t even notice the 1200 foot climb past Mount Wittenberg and into the campsite as they hunted banana slugs and tarantulas in the evening darkness. If you are comfortable with it yourself, night hiking is a great way to get the kids into the adventure – the whole world changes and the novelty really helps the miles go down easily for all involved. We have become much more comfortable with night hiking after spending long hours in the dark during our runs, so 3 miles didn’t seem like a big deal to get into Sky.
The next morning we woke up to a beautiful morning and a nearly empty campground high above the ocean. There was one fellow camper that eagerly came over to say good morning and provide some unsolicited gear advice on how we could in fact go lighter (okay actually we asked him how he liked his pack, but still….) There is a niche and sub-culture of backpacking that is obsessed with going light and maximizing gear and equipment, often tracked meticulously down to the single gram in Google Spreadsheets and shared in online forums and message boards. Luckily I haven’t fully gone down that slippery slope yet (although it would be a lie to say that he had no gear spreadsheets calculated to tenths of a gram). Our discussion did make us realize that we had a slightly different objective for our gear on a JMT attempt – we would have to be moderately light, but not extreme, as we weren’t willing to sacrifice some basic means of comfort (GoLightGuy was critiquing the fact that we brought lightweight plastic bowls to eat our meals out of instead of just going directly from the pot). What would become more important to us is volume – with the boys likely not hauling their own food, they could take the lightweight, bulky stuff, but we would have to fit nearly everything else.
The hiking was smooth on Friday as we headed a short 4 miles over to Coast Camp, our usual go to spot on day trips and hikes with the cousins. Hiking with the boys is an experience, as their hiking styles closely match their personalities. Sage is a strong, steady hiker that is very destination driven and methodical with his actions along the trail. He will take breaks, but only if he is accomplishing something during those breaks – birdwatching, looking for snakes, re-fueling his belly, or adjusting his pack. He can seemingly go for miles without complaining, and it wasn’t until today that we realized his shoes are about 2 sizes too small for him and his big toe can’t even extend straight it is so pressed up against the end of his shoes. Oops!
Dev, on the other hand, is a hiker that would make John Muir proud. Rarely, if ever, is he actually looking at the trail and the ground ahead of him. Rather, he is constantly staring at the world around him – the trees, the birds, the spiders, the webs, the flies, the bugs, the leaves, the ocean… He is so present that he doesn’t realize how slowly he is often going, so engrossed with his observation of the world around him. It’s enough to infuriate a Papa wearing a 45 pound pack, but every trip we try to slow down and learn a few lessons from him. When he catches up to you and tells you about the conversations he was having with the trees behind him, it’s impossible to blame the little guy. We are aiming for 6-7 mile days on the JMT and Dev will be our limiting factor, as he can be a bit more of a moody, streaky hiker never really focused on the destination or end point.
The short walk into Coast left us with a full afternoon to really soak up the afternoon on the beach. The sun was shining brightly and Maureen and I reclined on the dunes while the boys dug holes in sand for hours and hours. Their creativity and ability to stay engaged while outside makes me so happy – dump them on a beach, and they can literally keep themselves occupied all day long. We headed back to camp when the grumblings in our tummies and the coastal winds both started to pick up and began to cook our meal.
Besides getting outside and enjoying some family time, this trip was also meant to be the first in a series of hammering out our gear and meals for an extended thru hike this summer. Mo is the master of all things food and meal related and she has clearly earned her ranking as CRO (Chief Rationing Officier). She did all the purchasing and meal prep for this trip in less than an hour at Berkeley Bowl, and even brought old journals from previous trips so that we could compare quantities and rations and adjust as needed. Cooking while backpacking is another area where we refuse to sacrifice everything in the quest for ease and lightness. We don’t eat expensive freeze dried food out of packages, instead choosing to assemble our own meals and dehydrate our own vegetables before we leave. This requires considerably more work than just raiding the Mountain House aisle at REI, but we like to think that it leaves us better fueled and slightly healthier in the backcountry.
The main calculation that needs to occur before a thru hike is determining exactly how much food we need. We have journal notes of most of our meals as rationed for 2 and 4 adults (Mo’s version of a spreadsheet!), but 2 adults and 2 kids is a bit of a variable that we need to solve. As one might guess we are going to be leaning more toward the 4 adult than 2 adult side of things, as it seems Sage’s appetite doesn’t slow down when he is away from home and Dev is always up for an extra helping of chocolate. On the JMT we will definitely be limited by how much we can fit in the largest size bear can we can find – my advice to the boys was to start practicing their trout-landing skills and pack enough oil and fuel to cook up the fish.
Saturday was Mo’s 40th Birthday and we woke up to beautiful, sunny skies again. The hike would be our longest, about 7 miles down the coast and up a short, steep climb to Glen camp. We had never stayed at nor even seen Glen before – it was the only place we could get a spot in the entire park that night. The coastal hike was mellow as we looked for whales (0), snakes (1), and banana slugs (63 total!). After some cold water swimming in our Birthday Suits at Kelham Beach we broke for lunch just across from the former Arch Rock at the end of the Bear Valley trail. We told the boys stories about trips to Point Reyes early in our relationship where we would step over the fence and eat lunch on top of the rock like very other day-hiker there (luckily just not on the day that it finally collapsed). The boys crushed the final climb up to Glen Camp, although Mo gets the Mom MVP for backtracking down the trail to collect Devin’s lost “Geode crystal” rock that he had been carrying for miles and finally dropped.
Glen Camp was fine for a night, and it made us realize how jungle-like the interior of Point Reyes actually is. It’s really just a tangle of briars, trees, vines, and poison oak, in which the Park Service appears to mow and cut back certain areas to make them suitable for humans. Glen didn’t really have any views or panoramic places to hang out, so the boys killed the time until Smackin’ Mackin’ Cheese by breaking out their watercolors and drawing some memories from the day. The subject of entertainment to bring on the JMT is a topic of hot debate, with ideas ranging from a paperback book to read out loud, to a single Kindle for all of us to share, to a frisbee, watercolors, or even knitting supplies. The watercolors made a strong showing on this trip and will definitely advance into the next round on the spreadsheet.
Our final night was peaceful and calm despite being in a full campground with some ten other groups around us. This in itself was good preparation for a trip on the JMT, as I imagine it is much more difficult to find solitude and secluded campsites unless you venture a bit off the trail. It was a good reminder to us however that we really do love backpacking, and being out in nature, even with some other people around us. We packed up and got our earliest start yet on the trail, heading back to Bear Valley Visitor Center by 9 am.
The hike back was mellow and uneventful, Sage driven by the half eaten bag of potato chips he remembered we left in the car (we had devoured every ounce of food we brought), Devin motivated by the stories the trees were telling him as he wandered down the path. We got back to the car and hesitantly walked into the sea of people in the completely full parking lot and visitor center, quickly washed up in the bathrooms, and headed down the road back to Berkeley.
All in all the Point Reyes Family Backpack Birthday Weekend was a resounding success! The boys did great and managed to hike all the miles without a problem, while carrying their heaviest packs to date. We made some good progress on our eventual gear and food list and while it is not going to be easy, packing for multiple 6-7 day legs on the JMT with some resupplies does seem doable. More importantly we all remembered how much we love being outside together – it really is something that our family does well, and we left the coast excited to do some more of it in the near future – Spring Break is coming soon!