Take a hike Little feet make backpacking better for bigger folks

February 07, 1993|By Mary Mapes McConnell | Mary Mapes McConnell,Contributing Writer

We'd only hiked a quarter mile when Hunter asked if we could go wading. To a child, it was a perfectly logical question. To me, it was a revelation.

After years of what could only be called speed hiking and endurance backpacking with adult-led expeditions, I knew instantly that I was going to like backpacking with kids.

Within minutes, we had unbuckled our packs, kicked off our boots and stepped into Maroon Lake, a basin of cold mountain water just west of Aspen and within sight of Colorado's trademark Maroon Bells.

Late last summer my friend Bonnie and her sons Kelly, 7, and Hunter, 5, invited me to share a three-day adventure into Colorado's high country. Bonnie, with a background in public school administration and wilderness education, had taken her kids on hikes since they were toddlers.

Recently, the boys had graduated to backpacking. During our brief excursion, I realized that backpacking with children is not only easier than most people think, it's also more fun.

We began by planning the trip together. After much discussion, the kids chose the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Trail from a guidebook on Colorado trails. It was only two miles from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake, where we planned to camp, but the route presented some strenuous hiking because of an altitude gain of nearly 1,000 feet.

We bought a topographic map published by the U.S. Geological Survey, and Bonnie showed the children that its contour lines scrunched close together between the two lakes. That meant the trail was steep and would be harder to hike than walking over flat ground.

Kelly and Hunter also helped plan the menu, shop for groceries and pack. When the day came, we drove to Aspen Highlands, where we boarded a Roaring Fork Transit Authority bus bound for the popular Maroon Lake Campground. From there, we started our trek.

It was a Kodachrome day in the Rockies, and the grassy meadow beyond the lake was brilliant with wildflowers. We stopped to count the butterflies and smell the blooms, some nearly shoulder-high to a child -- red Indian paintbrush, yellow goldeneye, lavender bluebell and miner's candle, or green gentian.

Balancing our packs, we stepped across a brook and eventually found ourselves in a dense grove of aspen. Both children walked quietly so they could hear the leaves flutter in the breeze.

By 10 a.m., we'd gained enough altitude so the kids could look back down at Maroon Lake and try to estimate how far we'd come. Hunter said that this part of the trail was like climbing stairs.

A sign erected by the National Forest Service warned hikers of changeable mountain weather and advised us not to try climbing the Maroon Bells themselves. These richly colored, conspicuously layered peaks, each rising to an altitude of more than 14,000 feet, are made up of crumbly sedimentary rock that poses dangers even to experienced mountaineers.

Farther on, the path wound around giant boulders, and Kelly went on ahead to scout out a shady place off the trail to stop for lunch. We pulled off our boots again -- this time to check for blisters. Hunter was wearing the leather hiking boots his older brother had outgrown, and Kelly had opted for high-top tennis shoes, which provided just enough ankle support for a short trip like this.

We all drank from our plastic water bottles, and Kelly used his jackknife to prepare cheese and crackers. Hunter unzipped the side pocket of his backpack and brought out his teddy bear for a look around.

Hunter's pack weighed in at just under 9 pounds, about 20 percent of his body weight. He carried a change of clothes, rain gear, pajamas, sleeping pad and snacks. Kelly toted a few more items, but each child's pack was light enough to prevent fatigue. Bonnie and I shouldered the tents, cooking gear and food.

Back on the trail, we admired bright red clusters of sumac berries and tasted the last of the summer's crop of Lilliputian-sized wild raspberries. Finally, we crested a glacial moraine made up of sharp, jumbled rocks and caught our first glance of Crater Lake. This tiny lake, like the bigger Maroon Lake in the main valley below, had been formed by meltwater from a receding glacier.

The boys selected an established campsite about 300 feet from the water's edge. Coming so late in the season, we didn't have any fellow campers nearby. After helping put up the tents, Kelly and Hunter went fishing. Later, when I wandered down to the shoreline, Hunter proudly displayed his "catch" -- a bug-like creature that thrilled him every bit as much as if it had been a cutthroat trout.

Kelly helped his mom pump water out of the lake with a microporous filter. This purified our drinking water and prevented giardiasis, caused by a microorganism that found its way from Lebanon to the Western mountains a few years ago and threatens backcountry travelers who drink untreated water.

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