Courtesy on the trail demands that we step aside to let the young couple pass. They are neatly attired, packs carefully organized. When they see us, they can't help but stare.
The five children line the side of the trail. Their packs are lumpy and worn, and their sneakers -- not to mention their knees and faces -- are black with mud. The faces of the backpackers we meet are sympathetic but slightly bemused. For the fabled solitude of the wilderness is filled near us with cries of "He ate my trail snack. Mom, it's too heavy. Is it time for lunch? How much further?" Who is crazy enough to backpack with young children, those faces mutely ask?
We are. And a recent trek into West Virginia's Dolly Sods Wilderness Area reminded me once again what a tremendous return on investment one gets from backpacking with children.
Of course, it's not easy to make sure everyone has a good time. The planning has to take the limitations of young hikers into account, and a few vital lessons can be learned along the way. The first rule, discovered some years ago when the youngest of this two-family expeditionary force was only 5, is: Believe what they do and not what they say.
Children complain a lot. They fuss about their packs, about the food, about insects, about walking. My daughter once remarked, "What is it that people like about backpacking? It can't be the walking." But earlier this year, when we proposed to our three children -- ages 9, 10 and 12 -- that we spend our July 4th holiday backpacking with another couple and their two boys, ages 8 and 11, no one uttered a word of protest. In fact, there was instant excitement in the air and a barrage of questions.
Our destination was the Dolly Sods, located in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia, about a 4 1/2-hour drive west from Washington. This wilderness area in Tucker and Randolph counties is 10,000 acres of wooded mountains and open meadows at heights ranging from 2,600 to 4,000 feet.
Early German farmers named Dahle supposedly grazed their cattle up on these mountain plateaus, or "sods," and the name was gradually anglicized to Dolly. The area is truly wild. No logging trails, fences or other signs of humanity interfere with the expanses of rough grass, the wind-blown trees and the stunted bushes. The scenery can change radically from mountain meadows to woods clinging to precipitous rocks within only a mile or two, making the Sods especially rewarding for slow-moving backpackers.
A two-day hike into the Sods represented our most ambitious wilderness outing to date. Starting small is a second cardinal rule for backpacking with children.
Our very first expedition -- some years back in Virginia's George Washington National Forest -- entailed about 45 minutes of snail-like backpacking with each child carrying some kind of pack. (It's important to get the burden-sharing principle established early in the game.) The rest of the time we spent setting up camp. The children ate, played in a nearby stream and spent the evening roasting marshmallows over the fire. One of our friends, an experienced backpacker, said then -- and has been proved right ever since -- that pushing too far too soon could well put the children off the whole idea.
This time we intended to spend two nights in the wilderness and to hike about five miles before making camp. With our young companions in mind, we decided to spend both nights at the same campsite and make day hikes from there. (This proved to be a good plan. I'm not sure any of us would have been up to making and breaking camp twice.)
Our two families met in Petersburg, W.Va., just east of the Dolly Sods. We adjourned to a motel to prepare our packs and take final advantage of the amenities of refrigeration and plumbing. As we stuffed in the last packet of trail snack and surveyed the nine packs leaning against the wall, we realized a turning point had been reached. The 5-year-old was now 8 and suddenly every child was old enough to carry his own sleeping bag and a share of the food, and the older ones could handle their own tents.
Finally the last pack was strapped up, loaded into the car, and we set off on the winding dirt road up the mountain. After a dusty climb with spectacular views we came to Red Creek Campground, the beginning of our trek. (For a fee, you can camp here in one of the 12 sites provided near running water and outhouses. We just left our cars in the pull-in.)
At the trail head, I took a ritual picture. We all looked so professional with our packs, bedrolls and assorted hats. Our hearts swelled with pride at the children shouldering their burdens, until 8-year-old Shawn surveyed the scene and remarked, "Why can't we camp right here? Then we won't have to walk."
We were off, unbalanced by the weight of our packs as we scrambled over rocks, climbing up the mountainside, squishing through boggy patches. We tried to stay together, but inevitably the group spread out. So we established a few rules: At any marker or fork in the trail, the children had to wait for everyone to catch up. And we tried to keep an adult in back and in front of the group, although this often failed as all the adults wearily brought up the rear. (Each child had a whistle around his neck to help locate him if lost.)
We made our way through dimly lit pine woods and up a moist hillside covered with scrub to our first significant stream. It was about 50 feet wide and raced along its rocky bed with enthusiastic gurgling noises. One by one we forded it, looking as if we were all slightly drunk. The packs pulled us in one direction, the water in another, and our good walking sticks quickly proved their worth. In fact, what with holding back brambles, testing water depth, propping up backpacks at rest stops and intimidating passing children -- a stick is essential.
After climbing steadily for an hour or so, we came out suddenly onto the actual "sods" -- flat meadow, with bushes and scrub stretching ahead. The rough grass lay against the ground in the direction of the prevailing wind and the low bushes grew in dense clusters. This sudden change of scene, one of the glories of the Dolly Sods, is as refreshing as a cool drink. The vegetation was endlessly beautiful, always moving with the wind. In shady areas, some of the azaleas -- at their height in May and June -- still bloomed with clusters of tiny pinkish flowers. And the ever-present blueberries made wonderful trail snacks.
The scene that greeted us was both pastoral and peaceful, but the appearance was deceiving: This area experiences some of the harshest weather in the East (up to 150 inches of snow a year compared with Washington's 17 or so inches), and some of the landscape resembles the Arctic tundra, with its stunted trees and dense bushes close to the soil, revealing the strength of the winter winds. Even in the summer months sudden rainstorms can swell the mountain streams and make life uncomfortable and even dangerous for imprudent hikers.
The search for the perfect campground resembles the search for the Holy Grail, endlessly luring one onward. But fatigue, hunger, children and the desire to set down one's pack help sharpen decision-making.
The fork of Red Creek was our destination, and we reached it late in the afternoon. Randy, our leader and backpacking expert, picked out a site off the trail, between the two creeks but above the flow of the water in case of heavy rain. With their intermittent waterfalls, overhanging trees and waters stained brown by ironstone, these streams were a delight to children and adults alike. The children shivered and shrieked in and out of the water the whole time we were in camp, trying to outdo each other in standing under the icy falling water.
We pitched our four tents among the pine trees, carefully removing from the sites stones that would have seemed like boulders in the middle of the night. My husband boiled water, opened packets and created a supper that was haute cuisine to hungry hikers. The dehydrated noodles alfredo benefited enormously from slices of a fresh pepper, while powdered milk, powdered pudding and purified stream water were shaken up in a plastic bottle to make a popular butterscotch dessert.
Before bedtime, Randy supervised the ritual of bear-bagging. No food whatsoever can be left in tents or around the campground in the wilderness unless you want to argue property rights with a black bear. We strung a rope between two trees and hauled up the nylon bags of food until they were suspended midway between the trees about 20 feet above the ground.
Safe and sound, we were all set for the night -- or were until we discovered that the two smallest children had secreted candy in their tent. "We were only going to have a midnight feast," they protested as their candy was confiscated, the bear-bag lowered and the whole knotty procedure repeated -- to the accompaniment of a strongly worded lecture by Randy on the fate of small boys who kept food in their tent.
We spent a luxurious day in camp with expeditions to choice and chilling swimming holes, and to a huge beaver dam and lodge on a high plateau (no sign of the busy builders). Then, early on the third day, we struck camp. Posses of children carefully inspected the ground for candy wrappers and other signs of human habitation. Adults drowned the fire and rolled damp tents.
The trek back to the trail head was smoothly accomplished. There was no loitering as rain was threatening and we didn't want to end up hiking along new stream beds. Despite the gray skies, one of the finer experiences of backpacking was still in store for us: the long hot shower. It takes care of assorted muscle aches, accumulated grime, itchy insect bites and, in fact, leaves one quite set up for another expedition.