Creek Valley with Elk Peak and Reward Peak rising
in the background. Photo credit Mark Wilcox
A Family Grows Together in Idaho’s High Peaks
BY MARK WILCOX
Plodding up “Devil Hill” with 60 pounds of gear, a baby strapped to my chest and a 5-year-old on my shoulders, I wonder why we tack- led this three-day backpacking trip with all six of our children. And I have time to think. Devil Hill (our nickname) demands prolonged attention under any load as the trail rises, steep and steady, up a 1,000-foot bluff. Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains tower over the teal water of Redfish Lake, offering periodic distractions from the suffering. My 3-year-old, Lincoln, has had enough and wants to go back to the fun part.
“Can I try the slide now?” he asks, puppy dog eyes peering up through his blonde bangs.
The natural water slide over smooth granite is several miles behind us, but the resulting pain lingers. I think I may have fractured a rib from ride- testing the Class V portion of the slide, which torpedoed me into a rock shelf. The Class II section that the whole family rode for a joyous, refresh- ing hour, seemed too scary to him when it was convenient.
“Do you really want to go all the way back?” my wife, AmberLynn, asks patiently.
His calculation is an open book as he eyes the steep trail stretching behind us. What goes down, must come up. Lincoln frantically shakes his head when he discovers what we already know: No way in heck are we going back. This year, anyway.
While planning the trek, AmberLynn and I have plenty of discussions about the sanity of this expedition: Three days. An anticipated 11 miles roundtrip based on topo maps and trip reports we’ve studied. All six of our kids, aged 1 to 11. No pack animals, no Sherpa. Just us.
We decide the potential rewards merit the challenge. All kids benefit from an early introduction to the outdoor life. And frankly, it’s been far too long since we’ve done something like this as a family due to the whole “six kids thing.”
As soon as we hit the trail, passing hikers with far smaller packs count the backpacks in our group. Heads bob as they tally the rascals in tow. We’re used to this wherever we go together, but it’s immensely satisfying out here.
Friendly variations of “Are you crazy or something?” comprise our FAQs from other hikers who also usually tell us how impressed they are we’re pulling it off.
“Yep! Isn’t it awesome?” is our general reply. We hear from a number of people who wish they’d done this with their kids, and from plenty who would never attempt it—too dangerous, too exhausting, too hard.
It certainly didn’t come easy.
“… Frankly, it’s been far too long since we’ve done something like this as a family due to the whole “six kids thing.”
The first day, we discover our mileage calculations are way off. The trail follows Redfish Lake for the first several miles, a stretch most people boat across to shave distance off their treks. That gets pricey with eight passengers, though.
We think we’ll be able to hike all the way to Alpine Lake, supposedly 5.3 miles in, on our first day. We don’t realize everybody has omitted the boat ride’s mileage in trip reports. That’s mileage we walk, including the 1,000-foot Devil Hill we’ll go up and down in both directions. We also let our determined 1-year-old, Kestrel, walk much of it. The terrain proves difficult for her, though, and she eats a lot of trail dust before resigning herself to the chest pack.
We make an impromptu decision to camp at Bench Lakes the first night, where the kids set up camp, light the fire and pump water with gusto and little direction. This surprises us. At home we’re used to supervising everything and making multiple requests to get anything done. Parent stuff.
In the mountains, our kids are capably doing things we didn’t know they knew how to do.
The lake’s still surface reflects a mirror image of the craggy Mount Heyburn looming above. We cook dinner on the kids’ fire, laugh and enjoy our idyllic campsite until nightfall.
The next day we start out in great spirits, but the trail, again, stretches much farther than we expect. When our GPS says we’ve gone as far as we had planned, a passing hiker tells us we have at least a mile and an intense climb before camp. Turns out it’s two miles and 22 switchbacks, but who’s counting?
“Best-case, I’m expecting a fuming wife for: 1. Leaving three kids at the lake along and 2. Leaving her and three kids behind. I try not to think about worst-case.”
The older kids naturally outpace our younger ones, who my wife is feeding Skittles, aka “Power Hiking Pills,” at regular intervals to keep them walking. The speed differential splits us without a chance to communicate about the separation. I’m carrying Kestrel in the chest pack and stick with the oldest kids, aged 11 and 10. We ascend cliffs through a wild, glacier-carved bowl.
I don’t see AmberLynn and the three youngest kids anywhere on the many switchbacks below us.
Torn between staying with my charges and making sure everything’s OK with group two, I decide to press on to Alpine Lake with the older kids and the baby. When we finally arrive, I task Kael and Nya with setting up camp. And, gulp, watching Kestrel while I run back to check on the others. It’s agonizing backcountry decision-making.
A quick prayer and I’m running down the trail worrying about all of the possibilities. Best-case, I’m expecting a fuming wife for: 1. Leaving three kids at the lake alone and 2. Leaving her and three kids behind. I try not to think about worst-case.
Just over a mile down the trail, I find the rest of the family. AmberLynn’s happy to see me. Bullet dodged.
I alleviate the group’s load and carry extra packs to the lake with Ari, 8, Kian, 5, and Lincoln swapping rides on my shoulders much of the way.
We make it. Camp’s already set up. The older kids are keeping Kestrel happy bouncing off the tent walls. Wow. They can be responsible.
This trek into the Sawtooths turns out to be one of the most fulfilling, surprising adventures we’ve had as a family. The kids experience the difficulty, but they don’t complain. They step it up a notch. The euphoria of camping in the backcountry, riding a natural waterslide and bonding in the outdoors isn’t lost on them (well, maybe on Kestrel)—even on the last day when we have 11 miles to go with one devil of a hill near the end.
As we reach the car, dusty, sweaty and sore, we realize the growth, situational ownership and responsibility that showed up on the trail. Instead of filling our drive home with talk of pain, complaints or difficulty, we happily spend the time planning our next backpacking trip.
Mark Wilcox is a storyteller who grew up in Jackson, Wyoming. He is also the founder of skymarkcreative.com, a storytelling marketing company that helps outdoor and technology startups find their story, their voice and their customers.