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A Walk in the Park

We were right. Packs filled with clothes, water and trail mix were nothing for little backs already toughened by school bags that groan with math books and Harry Potter hardcovers. Hours of single-filing it between art and recess and gym made keeping to the trail a snap. What could be better training for a one-pot mystery stew than two years in a school cafeteria?

Forget reading and writing; what public schools do well these days is turn out a first-rate wild girl (the nature kind, not the Daytona Beach kind -- although I'm sure that's coming). I remember whining and crying for every step of my own first six-mile hike up a mountain. And I was in college.

On a father-daughter backpacking trip in Montana's Glacier National Park, the author communed with nature, his child (left) and her friend. (Jim Sebastian)

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Still, there's no question that the venerable guy sacraments of roughing it in the woods get reworked when you add daughters to a dads' backpacking trip. (Don't worry, the most fundamental birthrights of a male in the wilderness remain intact -- long live the pleasures of peeing anywhere, never shaving and wanton belches.) But when Generation Powerpuff hits the trail, the mood shifts a bit from Hemingway to Hello Kitty. Tying flies becomes less important than braiding hair. Swigging bourbon from the bottle gives way to picking out every single raisin from a bowl of oatmeal. The greatest test of your woodcraft is trimming the crust off a peanut butter sandwich. And you hike. Very. Slowly.

"Is this one bigger than this one?" Dillon paused to ask, pondering two identical blades of grass.

As Isabel gave this question all the slow, measured consideration it deserved, I tugged on my shoulder-crushing backpack straps and did a little mental math -- Let's see, six miles to go at one-tenth-of-a-mile per hour . . . If there were still a glacier in Glacier park, it would have blown past us like a Maserati.

"Dunno," was Isabel's conclusion.

Bless the boundless curiosity of children! It's just that for someone like me, for whom a certain rhythmic stride is central to the joy of hiking, stopping every five feet or so is actually a form of torture. It's like being woken up every 10 minutes, just before you begin to dream. After an hour at a pace more appropriate to an art gallery than a mountain range, you start going a little bit insane. It gets harder to muster the requisite awe for the pine needle that is shaped like the numeral four. At its worst, some depraved part of you wants to take that exquisite dragonfly wing and grind it into dust before those four wondering eyes.

It would be a teachable moment, The Madness whispers, to just stretch out and walk around the bend, not caring about the moment when those big little eyes finally lift from the bug-that-looks-like-a-bug and grow wide with the realization that they should have listened when Daddy was saying, "Let's go girls. Let's go. Okay? Let's go. Girls?"

That would show 'em, says The Madness, wringing its withered hands.

But of course you don't do that. You never get more than three feet from your ward because the Northern Rockies are grizzly country and you know from legend, rumor and the chilling safety video in the ranger station that if you so much as blink, a bear will eat your daughter and your wife will never let you hear the end of it. So per instruction, we clapped and whooped and sang and generally shattered the wilderness peace as we made our halting way along the trail, Jim and I trying not to envision an encounter between a 12-foot rearing grizzly and a 50-pound rising second-grader. Anything to avoid startling -- and thus provoking -- Mother Bear is fine with us. But after 43 rounds of "Found a Peanut," Mother Bear should worry about avoiding me.

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