Crash and Splash on the General Crook Trail
Backpacking with Kids
"We hadn't gone step one down the trail, and the plan fizzled in my face."
"My son saw some lightning in the far distance and announced that we would all be soon electrocuted. My daughter only sighed, but even she was tired of the Peanut Song."
The Preceding Disaster: It took some big talk to convince my wife to let me take her precious babies backpacking. "It's going to be the easiest trip in the world," I remember telling her. "The weather's great, the trail is like a sidewalk, the distance is short and we can't possibly get lost . . . " At the time, I thought all of those statements to be true.
The General George Crook National Recreation Trail on the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona follows roughly the historic 225-mile route that the famous cavalry commander laid out to patrol and transport supplies from Fort Verde to Fort Apache. We planned to follow a 16-mile section, going west from the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest visitor center near State Route 260 to the turn-off for the Knoll Lake Campground in the middle of the Rim.
We would drive up Saturday, car camp to test out all the gear, and then start early Sunday morning from the visitor's center, making camp around Carr Lake about nine miles distant. The next day we'd begin an ambitious 10-mile hike to the Knoll Lake Campground, where some friends planned to camp out. We'd spend the next day with them, and then someone would drive me back to my car.
We hadn't gone step one down the trail, and the plan fizzled in my face.
Saturday nights are popular on the Rim, even during the monsoon season. We bounced several miles down the old rim road before we found an empty campsite. Whatever we used in the next 12 hours we would take. The rest would be left in the car, as we made our early morning start down the General Crook trail.
The last of the grey daylight gave way to the sort of thunderstorm for which the Rim is infamous. As the rain kept falling, and the lightning closed in around us, the tents went from leaky to flooded, and my kids fled to the car and stayed there. In the dark and downpour, I shoveled the soaked piles of nylon back into the trunk, and picked my way out of the mud-bog forest road in defeat.
We had to drive all the way back to Phoenix, where my wife, to her credit, received us with sympathy instead of gloating.
DADDY THE DICTATOR
I thought I did everything right. I involved the children in the planning process, laying out the topographic maps, explaining the routes, drilling them on what to do in this emergency or that emergency. We went to the camping store and together picked out some freeze-dried meals. I even indulged my son in debating each and every thing that went into his pack, and each and every thing that did not.
Rule #1: Dad is the absolute dictator on this hike, in all areas, for the duration, and if you don't like it, stay home with Mom. (What I didn't tell them is that they were a package deal. Mom had a metric ton of homework do that weekend. If I couldn't take both children, I had to stay in town and keep them out of her office.)
Rule #1A: This goes especially for the gear in your pack.
They don't really make worthwhile backpacks for human beings under 5 feet tall. The best I could do was a couple of day packs, with waist belts (which will take you a bit to find), cinched nearly as tight as they would go. This worked decently for my son, who is all torso anyway. My daughter, though, who is short even for her age, fought a constant battle with a pack that wouldn't quite go tight enough around her waist. While it wasn't tight enough to stay still, it did grip enough to drive her pants down a little farther with every step. Every break included unstrapping her pack, and re-adjusting her pants.
Even a 20-pound pack represented more than a third of my 10-year-old son's total body weight, so going light became a premium - at least for them.
My children each carried a fleece sleeping bag, a foam sleeping pad cut to their size (Julie's fit inside a bread-bag), a sweatshirt, socks and underwear, a flashlight, one of those silver emergency blankets, a rain-poncho, a few plastic bags full of sugar-glops, a liter of water, and a whistle. My son added a compass. My daughter added a pencil and a tiny pink notebook with rainbow stickers.
For Dad, well, heavy is the pack of the absolute dictator. I carried the (brand new that morning) tent, the stove, and any other gear that could be shared amongst us, meaning basically everything else. When I left the car, my pack weighed more than my son.
TWENTY NINE VERSES
Since we started that morning in Phoenix, instead of on the Rim, we cheated, and parked the car near the point in the trail that I had hoped to be at by lunchtime.
The undaunted enthusiasm of youth lasted about 300 yards, then their packs were uncomfortable, the bugs were bothersome, and the ground itself turned against us. My daughter tripped and scraped her leg, and wailed so that I feared the expedition might be over right there. Happily, some threats, promises and a generous distribution of candy got her going again.
The Crook trail is often a footpath, sometimes a wagon track, and sometimes follows a Forest Road (typically FR 300). In every case it is marked by chevrons which boy scouts nailed to trees, about every 100 feet or so, back in the '70s. Follow the chevrons and you shouldn't get lost.
That first mile I worked on slowing my pace and adjusting my mindset to be comfortable with that pace. Little legs would be lucky to make a third of my normal distance. So I enjoyed the scenery: ponderosa pine forest broken by thickly grassed meadows, and an occasional view over the Rim where, on a clear day, you could see 400 miles of what was once undisputed Apache land rolling out before you.
I never feared for one instant that my children lacked the physical energy for this journey. I have seen them run for 13 straight hours - but that was in a familiar environment, such as the house when Daddy's trying to write his article. Out of their comfort zone, and under load, their own expectations of what they could do degraded considerably. We had intermittent whining within half a mile, and by the first full mile it had become steady, and threatening to develop into tears.
We stopped on some flat rocks by our first crossing of FR 300, took a break, and my daughter promptly fell asleep on top of the boulder. Even Ben, who is normally a more militant hiker than even I, sat still as if I had turned on the TV.
I pulled out my maps, and began to noodle a fallback plan. When my daughter awoke, I passed out more candy, and explained that we would try another couple of miles, and if they were both still miserable at that point, we would still have time to get back to the car by dark. Between mouthfuls of sugar, they agreed.
In Julie's mind, there are 29 verses of "Found a Peanut." I know this because we sang all 29 of them at least four times, but it stopped the whining. My son, after the first round, made a point to stay a hundred feet ahead of us. We were going up and down hills through the trees. For older lungs, this makes tough going at 6,000-plus feet. My daughter marched on untroubled, so long as there was yet another verse to sing.
When we emerged in a dry lakebed, we could see that sky above was blue, but the horizon in three directions loomed puffy and grey. My son saw some lightning in the far distance and announced that we would all be soon electrocuted. My daughter only sighed, but even she was tired of the Peanut Song.
THE CARR WILDERNESS
We had gone south of the road now, and into the Carr Lake Area, closed to motor vehicles. Due to a recent fire, half of this area was closed to everything, but the rangers told us that so long as we didn't go south of the Crook Trail, we walked inbounds.
Several different trails wind in and out of the Carr, some following old dirt roads, some just overland marches from blazon to blazon. If I were certain where we missed our chevron and went the wrong way, we wouldn't have become lost in the first place. As I realized that we were headed due south, on the wrong trail, the light started to dim. I parked the kids on some rocks and went off with map and compass to find our bearings.
Naturally, it started to rain.
I put together where we might be on the topographic map, but discovered that I had lost my bearing to the rocks. While I was in no danger personally (walk north until you hit the road), I'd rather perish than explain to my wife how I lost the children in the woods. Happily, my children, who had been strictly warned to only blow their whistles in emergencies, were experimenting with how to play "Jingle Bells" on them.
A little jog north, and then due west by compass, we saw the most beautiful gold chevron. Sunlight poured down through the trees. We had passed the point of no return, but I didn't mention this, and my children didn't ask.
The Crook trail through here remains the same two-track wagon road that his soldiers hacked out 130 years ago. We passed a large gravel pit, and my son started lobbying to find a campsite. A mile later, we passed through a wide meadow lined with pines and birch. We had an hour of good daylight left, but I figured that we would not see a better spot.
The next morning, I inventoried the water, and announced a dry breakfast (which for the kids meant breakfast bars) and they agreed, being already bored with sitting in the field watching Dad pack up camp by himself.
I make them help when we're car camping, but that situation provides far more margin for error. If I wanted it to all go in my pack the first time, and the sun was already plenty high behind a wall of clouds, I had to roll/fold/stuff it all with adult hands.
The trail climbed north from our prairie for a mile or so until we emerged once more at FR 300. For the rest of our journey, the trail would wander on and around the graded dirt road. We ate some lunch at the See Trailhead. I decided, fatefully, not to dash down the See Trail, which plunges over the edge of the Rim to a couple of springs that feed Christopher Creek. The morning had gone slow enough, and clouds gathered above us now in force. Looking at the sky, lack of water seemed the least of my problems. By the time we passed the road to Bear Canyon Lake, we were feeling some drops. By the time we marched past Promontory Butte, we had already pulled out the rain gear.
FOOTWEAR AND NICKNAMES
My son prefers the nickname Crash, which he earned because of his enthusiasm for his beloved Wheelies exceeds his skill with them. Crash conceded, though, that a wheel in the heel was just extra weight in the dirt.
I instructed my children to wear the most comfortable shoes they had. While the Aging Dictator requires waterproof, ankle-high hiking boots, both of my children made the journey comfortably in tennis shoes.
Children do not need the sort of ankle support adults do in these situations. They are simply not that heavy. Likewise, their soles do not need as much padding. Smaller shoes dry faster, and I have long since learned that no measures will prevent my children from becoming soaked to their knees when it rains.
My daughter wanted a nick-name too, and had picked it out for me: "I want to be called Splash," she informed me.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it's a good mermaid name," she answered as she jumped, pack and all, squarely into a puddle.
Splash it would be.
Forest Road 300 had, by this point, a puddle every 3 feet. You would think that after a while my daughter would tire of stomping in them, and you would be wrong.
MY CHILDREN'S CHILDREN ON THE TRAIL
The road wound uphill toward the center of the rim, and twice we had to take shelter from the downpour under the rainfly from the tent. Splash and Crash were losing heart and energy. Happily, I knew a secret: my children have children.
All I had to do was ask how Jane, Michael and Elizabeth were holding up on our hike. Both of my children responded with a flurry of fantastic details about the imaginary children, and how they fared on the hike. Michael, the oldest boy, happily walked ahead with Crash. The twin girls, Jane and Lizzie (as Elizabeth, I am told, prefers to be called) lagged behind with Splash and myself. Jane had some sort of ankle injury, and I had to carry her over a stretch where numerous logs had fallen across the trail, until Ben invented an all-terrain wheel chair for her.
The six of us now entered the fire-damaged region around Horseshoe Lake. The Crook trail proper is pretty much wiped out here; you might as well stay on FR 300. At one point, the road comes a couple dozen feet from a precipitous drop-off over the Rim, where we took a long break. Crash and I hiked across the road a hundred yards to discover that Horseshoe Lake, even after a heavy rain, is still little more than a mud puddle.
Splash, as is her habit, read aloud, for all of our benefit, the sign announcing that we had crossed from the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest into the Coconino Forest. Now, even though the trail seemed a tantalizing shortcut, I knew we had to stay on the road, and keep an eye out for our semi-scheduled rescue.
That part of The Plan worked out well. One friend rescued Splash, (and her children) about a mile past the forest boundary. Crash and I still had some hike left in us, so we kept marching, down the trail, thinking, in our foolish faith in the published topographic map, that it would cut north to the Knoll Lake turn off and save us a mile or so.
It cut south, and dumped us back on FR 300. With my water gone, and Crash's legs finally wearing out, we had squatted by the side of the road, bemoaning our fate, when a second friend drove by and stopped. The back of the pick-up, on top of the firewood, was cold and uncomfortable, but we were still glad to be off our feet.
My son remains determined that he can hike anywhere Dad can, and to his credit, he's mostly right. My daughter, though, has satisfied her curiosity about what the boys do in the middle of the woods, and will likely remain in camp with Mom (and Jane, Michael and Lizzie).
My eight-year-old daughter, however, held up better than a couple of grown men who once made the mistake of backpacking for the first time with me.
I'll take either of them anytime they want to go.
Tony Padegimas, a freelance journalist among many other things, splits his time between his home in Phoenix, and his hammock, rigged up in random locations throughout the national forests.