My two sons and I set out on Wednesday for an overnight backpacking trip. It was to be the very first for Simon, my four year old. The plan was a flat hike in the White Mountains to the Spruce Brook Tentsite along the Wild River. As we packed up at the trailhead, some folks from the Androscoggin Ranger Station showed up to post this:
and strongly urged us to take the High Water trail across the river via the only bridge for miles. We amended our plans as suggested.
After a short hike, we came to a brook crossing. Swollen with flood rains, the water was rearing and charging. Assuming I had made a wrong turn, as this could not possibly be something we were meant to cross, we backtracked and walked a few hundred yards up another trail, until I knew that that had indeed been the crossing we were intended to make. Backtracking yet again, we came back to the bank and looked across to a cairn marking the resumption of our trail on the opposite side. Scanning the water, my heart sank as I saw a perfectly serviceable and much used log spanning the water, its bark worn off from countless hiking boots. We were meant to cross on that.
I pointed to it, and said to my sons, “We’re meant to cross on that,” and an instantaneous thrum of anxiety became physically palpable in Simon’s body. Malcolm would follow me anywhere, but even he could not quite look at me straight. I watched the water and thought how that log crossing would barely give me pause were I on my own, but with the two of them, it may as well have been a wire over a chasm. Hemmed in by high water on one side, and a mountainside too steep for Simon on the other, we gave up any thought of hiking farther in, as the boys explain in this video. The revised plan would be to set camp in the woods the requisite 200 feet from the trail and then go spend the afternoon by the river.
Once camped up on a ridgeline, we had more than four hours to kill before I could reasonably suggest we retire to the tent in a dank, sunless bit of forest. A little side stream of the Wild River, dubbed “The Calm Pools” by the boys, seemed the best place to stay. Relieved of their packs, both began rock hopping and chucking stones and building little rock pile forts. I began hyperventilating at the thought of all the hours ahead of me, requiring parenthood’s particular mix of boredom and vigilance, with no other adults for company.
But the hours did pass quickly enough; we found a berm of sand piled up by the floods that made for good digging and long jumping, and there were droves of White Admiral butterflies flying by or landing on our packs or drying socks, drawn to the urinous smell of small, filthy boys.
After our supper, we clambered up the ridge and back in to our tent site. I hung our bear bag of food, funny to the boys because the process inevitably involves my throwing a stick in the air and then getting struck on the head by it several times. We read until dark, late at this time of year, and they fell asleep to either side of me, one with a foot in my side and one with an elbow in my face.
Whenever people say, “Enjoy this time; they grow up so fast!” I try to be gracious and smile and be polite as my parents always taught me. But why people say such inane things is beyond my comprehension. I have gained immeasurable riches by the raising of my sons. But I have traded some of my most precious things away too: easy crossings of log bridges, hiking miles upon unbroken miles, and climbing mountains and lying on their tops in the quiet, and sleeping in a tent in a remote and difficult spot without a child’s limb in my ear or nostril. They will grow up, but it’s not really all that fast. Not when you’re watching every minute of it tick by from a rock on a riverbank, in a cloud of black flies and the urine seeking butterflies.