Through a Child's Eyes

hiking, backpacking, mountains

Backcountry travel with young'uns.

Older people often talk about their regrets in life, how they wish they would’ve spent their youth more adventurously. I doubt that I will ever be one of those people. Before we got married and had children, my wife and I had each traveled the world on our own, from Africa to Asia to Alaska. Backpacking, camping, hunting, fishing, and climbing were just some of the activities we indulged in.

When we tied the knot and started a family, all those who knew us swore our previous lives of adventure were over. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about how we should parent, never failing to point out how crippling this would be to our lifestyle.

My wife and I are pretty stubborn, and we took these comments as a challenge. Our lives might have changed with children, but it didn’t mean we had to surrender to the cookie-cutter suburban life predestined for our millennial peers.

We had already taken many trips into the mountains with our toddler son, but after moving to Bozeman, we were hungry for a bigger project. In mid-August, soon after our daughter’s two-month birthday, we decided to take our first family backpacking trip. It was a way of showing ourselves—and the naysayers—that parenthood would not kill our adventurous spirits. I could think of no better place to share the backcountry with my tiny children than the Taylor-Hilgards.

We set off Friday night after work, camping at the trailhead to Taylor Falls. In the morning we started hiking, my wife loaded down with a big pack and the baby strapped to her chest. I carried an even bigger pack, disproportionally loaded with the kids’ things, most of the food, and our shelter. When we crossed the wooden signpost signaling the boundary to the Wilderness, a daunting feeling overwhelmed us: What are we doing taking our infant and toddler here?

Missing content item.   Missing content item.

The six-mile effort took the entire day with our loaded human pack-train. Our son, Rudy, did a phenomenal job on the hike, although like any normal four-year-old on a steep trail, he needed constant encouragement. As for our daughter, Myla, she smiled constantly and stared wide-eyed at the world around, processing new sensory data with every step Mom took.

We crossed paths with a handful of hikers, usually older couples decked out in expedition gear, complete with handguns and bear spray. We never once received bad vibes from anyone, but inevitably I felt exposed to the judgement of others, like any young parent would. And why not? What in the hell were we doing taking small children into grizzly country? But I knew that if we didn’t try once, we would never know; and I didn’t want to spend my life at home safely on the couch.

After pushing through the shaded spruce and pine forests, crossing a number of pebbled streams, we began to see the open high country above. Despite our exhaustion and frustration, the green meadows of the alpine lifted our spirits. The sun was just above the tops of the peaks, shining down on Tumbledown Lake when we got to the top of the basin. Here, we set up the tent, put on warm clothes for the night, and made a fire. Rudy could hardly contain himself and begged to explore the lake below camp. On our walkabout, we found fresh black bear tracks and walked past a family of goldeneye ducks. Back at camp, we stayed next to the campfire long after dark, until the stars filled the sky and spun above our heads.

I rested like a king that night, feeling like I was seeing the backcountry again for the first time. The mountains I had explored so often before still held magic, and the crisp air felt cleaner than before. I found a renewed curiosity for the various random objects littering the ground around me: a colorful rock, an odd pinecone, a mysterious animal bone, an unidentified mountain bird—all things that catch a child’s eye. Even the scary noises on the edge of the campfire held my attention more acutely. And as I pondered those things, I began to realize that in a certain way I was seeing all this for the first time—the eyes of a parent, looking through the eyes of my children.