Life and Backpacking Point Reyes, California With the Kids

Alamere Falls contributing its small part to the Pacific Ocean.

My fourth-grade daughter recently told me that she checks my blog from on her school computer. This was great to hear, as I don’t often get to meet my fans in person.

I did wonder if she had encountered any adult content here. Aside from the innuendo-ridden banana guard gear review, which I think we’ve all tried to forget, and now we’re regretting that I brought it up, this site should be pretty family friendly, so I think we’re good.

Now I’m just embarrassed that I haven’t written here in over three months. Twenty-seventeen probably saw more Avengers movies than updates from Dad vs Wild. And while we can never have enough Hulk vs Thor, what the world really needs in this time of political turmoil and changing climates is a mid-thirties father of five speaking for the trees and the kids.

This blog has become a point of conflict in my life. My love for family and the outdoors, and writing about them, wrestles like a god of thunder against my hulking aversions to technology and to having myself plastered on the internet. In the end, it comes down to talking about the things I love doing vs actually doing them, and I’ve yet to find a good balance.

Some deer at dawn.

Today, I will write, mostly to appease my avid readership, whose requests for updates have become unbearable. But also because writing encourages reflection. From my post on Time Travel and How I Got to Be Thirty:

Life is like a book. If we never stop to think, it is gradually compressed into a few brief pages, an executive summary, and, looking back, that’s all we have to represent it. But as we ponder on our days, weeks, and years, simple experiences gain substance and value, life grows, and pages are filled. Reflecting on life is one of the secrets to making life full of memories and meaning.

Wow, I had some deep thoughts when I turned thirty. Now, five years later, I feel more compressed than ever. I need to listen to my own advice. I need to slow down, decompress, stop seizing the day so much. Again, borrowing from my more thoughtful thirty-year-old self:

It’s not enough just to seize the day; any other life form can do that. When a dog escapes from the backyard, it holds nothing back, running, jumping, slobbering, wagging, living life to the fullest. Even dogs can seize the day. It’s not enough to squeeze our day for all it’s worth, if we don’t savor it, internalize it, understand it, remember it. Making time count involves using that thing which sets us apart from any other animal: reason, or critical thought.

In an effort to make time count, today I’m reflecting on a long forgotten backpacking trip with my oldest two kids, ages six and four at the time, to Point Reyes National Seashore. Our first backpacking trip together, in the summer of 2012.

Point Reyes protects 70,000 acres of Pacific shoreline, mountains, and forest north of San Francisco, California. Campsites are only accessible by foot or boat. We started by foot at the south end of this nature sanctuary, parking at the Palomarin trailhead and then embarking on the Coast Trail, which, for a mile or so, skirts the eroding edges of a 200 foot cliff with waves crashing quietly below.

I remember the ocean, spreading forever into the horizon, like another sky, infinite and inaccessible. We could only observe and wonder from the edges, with our tiny footsteps traversing its endless perimeter. The kids were too young to say much about it, besides that it’s really, really big. So I was left to imagine what they were feeling as they stare wide-eyed into the dark, wavy expanse.

Sunrise over Japan, from behind.

To a kid, I imagine that much of life feels like an ocean, infinite and inaccessible. Sharing with them such a vast and wild place helps me understand how the kids must feel, always relatively small, but also more easily impressed than us grown ups, who increasingly funnel the big world through a four-inch screen.

If I remember correctly, the hike in to Wildcat campground is around six miles. This distance pushed the limits of my four-year-old’s tiny legs. Two miles was enough, let alone six. It might as well be six hundred.

As the trail curved into the hills, gaining some altitude, the magic of the ocean wore off. Questions devolved quickly into complaining, and then crying. I opted to take her backpack, but that only bought us a few minutes. She wanted me to carry her too. She wanted to go back to the car. She wanted to see her mom.

Looking south over Wildcat Lake at Point Reyes.

The breaks were getting excessive, so pulled out my parenting playbook and tried some classic distraction strategies. First, the moving target strategy, effective for getting kids from point A to point B, when point B is inconceivably far away: let’s keep going a little longer, and take a break once we get to… the top of the hill, the next turn, the next shady spot, a babbling brook, a waterfall, a rainbow, a tree that looks like a dragon. That tree looks more like a lizard, I’m sure we can do better. I feel like we’re getting closer… can you feel that?

Second, the diversion strategy, effective for redirecting attention away from the idea that is causing kids immeasurable suffering toward something relatively pleasant or just neutral: remember that time we went camping in Minnesota, and everyone was covered in ticks? Did you know that ticks can survive on your clothes after going through the washing machine? Did you know that Wildcat campground is named after a mysterious bobcat that has been spotted prowling camp before sunrise? A bobcat is like a cat, but bigger. Remember when mom…?

Warning: when using the diversion strategy while hiking, avoid recalling memories involving mom, home, or ice cream. Stick to happy, innocuous, or initially annoying but actually OK memories of things that happened outside.

A cool slug, doing its thing, slugging around.

These strategies probably got us through mile three, at which point, on the brink of total meltdown, mother nature came through with the most effective coping strategy of all, connecting with the wonders of the earth.

First, we found a banana slug, which was neat, but not too out of the ordinary. Next was a fox, which was surprising at first sight, and then surreal and, I admit, a little concerning, as it accompanied us down the trail, sometimes leading the way.

Mr Sox Fox, doing her thing.
stray fox
Mr Fox keeping us company.

Our pet fox eventually got bored with us, I assume because we didn’t reward her behavior with trail mix or bits of granola bar. She slipped quietly into the tall grass bordering the trail, and we were left alone to wonder what that was all about.

Remember that time a fox joined us on our hike? That question, and the fantastic answers we invented helped us endure the middle section of the hike, until the trail curved back toward the ocean. Within a mile, we were at camp, and then playing shoeless in the cold sand, on the brink of the Pacific.

Wildcat is a favorite campground at Point Reyes because it is perched on a small bluff just above the beach. Some sites have ocean views. Ours did not, but it did put me in close proximity to the campsite’s elusive namesake early the next morning.

bobcat at wildcat
The legendary wildcat of wildcat campground.
Lynx rufus giving a backward glance.

I followed him from a distance, taking shaky pictures on my point-and-shoot and creeping along as stealthily as I could. Like a cat, he made no appearance of caring whatsoever. He knew I was there, of course, which he acknowledged with a quick backward glance, but I hardly registered in his utterly aloof feline mind.

beached whale
A beached whale near the Palomarin Trailhead.

After all these magical encounters with wildlife, Point Reyes left us with a sad image on our hike out, of a whale beached not far from the trailhead. How did this happen? Could someone save it? Probably not, I told the kids. We speculated that it got sick and died, and then the ocean washed it to shore. More likely, I think, it just came to close too the perimeter of its other sky, the infinite and inaccessible dry land.

Bears are Kind of Like Squirrels

Black bear and cub in YosemiteOur apartment complex is infested with squirrels. But we’ve learned to coexist. We all fill the dumpster with leftover food, like most Americans, and, in exchange, they don’t ambush our kids on the playground, or drop sharpened acorns on our heads from their nests.

One of our lord of the flies neighbor kids made a bow and arrow for squirrel hunting, but this hasn’t threatened our peaceful relationship.

Similar rules of engagement seem to apply when interacting with bears in the Yosemite valley and other high traffic national parks. On my last trip to half dome, I found this black bear mother and cub, minding their own business, not wreaking havoc or killing anyone. Like squirrels, these park bears thrive on our leftover trash, and they rarely bite the hand that feeds them.

But what about the wild, undomesticated bears? I know I sound pretty macho sometimes, but when camping with the kids, and not in KOAs, parks, or campgrounds, I tend to get a little nervous and super protective of my kin. Camping with the kids in the forest, I’m awake half the night listening for crunching leaves and snapping twigs, any signs of predators. So I’ve been doing some research, starting with bears, to ease my mind a bit.

Although bears can peel open a car like a can of sardines (warning from the NPS), dangerous encounters with humans are uncommon. There has never been a fatal bear attack in Yosemite (NPS – Yosemite), and fewer than ten have ever been reported in Yellowstone (NPS – Yellowstone), though two occurred in 2011 alone.

Wikipedia keeps a list of fatal bear attacks in North America

Some people misconstrue the numbers and suggest that we’re more likely to be struck by lightening, twice, than to be part of what the Discovery Channel calls a bear feeding frenzy. Statistically, it depends.

Like professor Harold Hill, you’ve got to know the territory. In most of the US it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever meet a bear who feels threatened enough destroy you. Parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska are exceptions, especially if you’re baiting the bears with steak and salmon.

Like Ranger Smith of Jellystone Park, or Christopher Robbins of the hundred acre wood, you’ve also got to know the bear. Both black and brown (i.e., Grizzly) bears will take a picnic basket over acorns. But, unlike squirrels, they’ll sneak into camp, even into your tent, to get it.

So, outside the Rocky Mountain wilderness, do you need a shotgun, bear horn, ferocious dog, and can of pepper spray when you take the kids tent camping? Probably not, as long as you don’t use a jar of honey for a pillow. But, whatever helps you sleep at night.

Ticks and Kids

minnesota dog tickSpring has finally arrived in Minnesota, and so have the ticks. Last week was our first experience with ticks and kids, an unfortunate combination.

As long as bugs keep to themselves I don’t usually mind having them around. I can tolerate the pesky ones that sting and bite in self defense, and I’ve even made peace with mosquitoes. But any creature that takes up semi-permanent residence on my person is an enemy. And anything that goes after my kids will face my wrath. Sitting in church on Sunday I nearly swore out loud when I found a tick clamped to my daughter’s neck.

We had gone hiking, to get some bald eagle photos, on Friday morning. So this tick had been stalking us for over 48 hours! It gets worse. Sunday afternoon I took the baby (18 mos old) for a walk. When we got home, while twisting her hair into a mohawk, I found a tick on her neck!

We finally concluded that the pair had been waiting on my older daughter’s jacket, which she had worn on our hike, and which my youngest had worn on our walk. Lesson learned – ticks are patient, persistent, and they’re gross.

Here are a few more facts I recently learned:

  • They typically hatch in the summer/fall, live three years, and are dormant through the winter. It’s not until the second and third years, or phases, that they’re most annoying and most dangerous.
  • Deer ticks (aka, blacklegged ticks) carry lyme disease and they’re not all deer ticks. The ones we found, in the photo above, were dog ticks.
  • They don’t jump or fly. Instead, they sit and wait, usually in thicker grass and brush, and grab on when someone comes by.
  • Depending on the humidity (the higher the better, for them) they can survive indoors. The rugged ones can also survive a wash cycle, but none will make it through an hour in the dryer.
  • Good methods of prevention are keeping the kids on the trail, putting them in long pants, and doing a thorough check after being out. Tweezers are the best method of removal.

There’s a variety of information on the web, but you’ll find everything you ever didn’t want to know in this document: www.ct.gov/…/tickhandbook.pdf

Minnesota’s Largest Aquatic Carnivore

minnesota river otter

What I thought was a sea lion, escaped from the Minnesota zoo, was actually a close relative, a river otter, cruising down the Mississippi River in Red Wing, MN. Apparently, river otter are common in northern MN, but have only recently ventured south beyond the frothy Minneapolis waters of the Mississippi.

More from the MN DNR

Some great photos, taken in northern MN, by Mark Udstrand