PERHAPS MY FAVORITE part of this story is the part long before we even set foot on a trail....Mila, my 8 yr old daughter, was casually asked if she'd like to go on a backpacking trip with me through a place known as The Enchantments in our home state of Washington. "Oh, it's about 20 miles total... but we'll do it over 5 days, so don't worry. And I hear it's supposed to be really, really beautiful. We're lucky to even get a chance to go in the first place. So.... do you wanna do it?? Putting myself all out on the line at once, I ask this question quickly, hoping she won't recoil at any one of the thoughts that could concern an 8 yr old, not withstanding things like 'How hard will it be? How long are we gone? Who are we going with? Will there be bears? Can I bring my blankie? But she didn't ask those questions right away.
She just said, "Yes." And it was not just a concession to something she knew I'd probably end up roping her into anyway. She agreed, no further pleading necessary. Willingly, my daughter was going with me. The trip was on! She wasn't deterred by the distance (she had logged just over 50 miles the previous spring, summer & fall), nor was she intimidated by the idea of hiking days on end or the aloneness of being in a more remote part of the wilderness, away from her daddy and brother & sister. She was going to be my willing companion, no other questions asked, and it was going to be OUR adventure.
I love her for trusting my decision to take her. Which is really just my trust in knowing she had the mental and physical strength to do it.
Not that people didn't question us... the Forest Service ranger I had inquired with before the trip, trying to gauge if she thought a kid could do it. "Look, I can't tell you whether to go or not to go. You're not going to have cell reception. There are risks, and no one can get to you quickly if you need help." (all this of which I was quite aware!). The young salesman at REI, helping us with our last-minute search for a backpack, said with a doubtful look, after glancing at my daughter, "You're taking her up Aasgard Pass, huh?"
And lastly, the friend of my daughter who we bumped into on the way out of town, squaring her up for the question that was on her mind after she heard what we were about to do, "Mila, do you even want to go?" I stood back quietly and watched her response, and heard her say a quiet, "Yeah..." But that one syllable was said with a little shrug and 'no-duh' inflection that suggested NOT uncertainty, but "of course, why wouldn't I?" What followed was one of the best memories of summer and probably will remain in my top memories with my daughter of all time.
IN TRUTH, this would be the longest backpacking trip anyone in our family had done! In her limited experience, nevertheless her young age, she did have an idea of what this would entail. She had made two shorter overnight trips with her dad, the first one at 5 years old. I even have a picture:
TO FIND OURSELVES with this fortunate opportunity to backpack the The Enchantments was a combination of pure luck and being in good graces with the right people. Our family has a bit of a reputation as outdoor-lovers and as such, many of our friends fall in that category, too. When one set of these like-minded friends lucked out and pulled a permit for prime dates in mid-August, we felt extremely fortunate to be among those asked to join their party. It's safe to say their invitation was probably intended for adults only, yet we knew couldn’t squeeze in another summer adventure by rounding up childcare for our three kiddos in order to sneak away for a week. With only 2 days left until departure, the thought of turning down this invitation ate away at us. And that's where the plan formed. Cut to the beginning of this story…. mom and daughter, two good friends, and a handful of other backpacking mates we’d never met until we converged at the trailhead.
NOT DETAILING EVERY STEP of the trip, thus stripping if of its mystique, this report will mainly be a photo album. However, it is important to note the stats on Day 1, which included a 5-mile hike beginning at the Lake Stuart Trailhead, gaining over 2,100' in elevation. Upon completion of this demanding hike, I would rest my judgement in deciding whether or not my daughter would be able to do the entire rest of the trip. In secret, I had a plan. If the ascent to Colchuck Lake would NOT be enjoyable for her, then I'd be concerned. We would camp at the lake with our party, and the next morning give try for an ascent up Aasgard Pass. If this proved too miserable for her, we could always make our way back down and hike the rest of the way back to the truck, leaving our group behind to continue on the trip. This outcome was not desirable! Lucky for this mama, it turned out she has more grit than I gave her credit for because she smoked us adults on the way up! (and I don't feel bad putting that in print because I think anyone in our party would agree. Granted, she also didn't just down a few rounds of beer back at the pub in Leavenworth, nor was she packing a 6-pack or a large bag of fresh plums on the way up as did some of our crew!). By the time we set up camp at Colchuck, I knew deep-down she would rise to the occasion and would be completing the ascent up Aasgard Pass.
THE FIRST MILESTONE went off without a hitch. Fueled by Starbursts, Clif Shot Blocs, Peanut M&M's, and water, we arrived at the lake in awe. Living up to its reputation, Colchuck Lake was pretty stunning so we stopped to gaze as the sun slowly faded away. I knew we had to hurry to find a camp spot because I was dying to jump in this beautiful lake before it got too dark!
THE SUMMIT WAS REACHED in about 2 hrs and 45 mins. I'd say that wasn't too bad. We met people coming down and often stopped for a quick chat (really an excuse to catch our breath!) Sometimes Mila didn't like how chatty I was with everyone and she pushed on. Her spirits were pretty even-keel as long as she pumped the sugar again in the form of Starbursts, Shot Blocs, peanut M&M's, and even a s'mores Quest Bar. We stopped for a length of time and removed our packs for the first and only time after a steady 1,500' of gain. We estimated we were about halfway up at this point, but it turns out we only had 500' left to go! It was motivating to look back down at where we had come from, to point out the rock where we camped the night before, and feel like we were making progress. Adults and kids alike, once you know you have only a small push left to hike (relatively speaking), your spirits instantly lift and you get a burst of energy. We also started seeing mountain goats which provided a good distraction. The ascent also got a bit more technical (squeezing through and climbing up little boulders) at this point and that added a new challenge that was admittedly fun for both of us.
We talked a lot about what we could do to not "break down" mentally. We decided to call it "Bonking" and to never utter the words 'quit', 'break down', or 'I can't do it'. Keeping a positive attitude was key, and I had to be careful not to push her too hard or not be too instructive about where to step or which path to follow. She got agitated with me at times, but I happily walked on those eggshells as long as it kept "bonking" at bay.
HERE WE ARE DONE with Aasgard, have eaten some fresh plums and rested, and we have about 3 additional miles to go before our destination for camp.This is the time when you're fortunate not to be a through-hiker doing the whole shebang in one LONG day, having to hurry by each feature and lake in order not to be using a headlamp on the way out. To some degree you could say we took our time picking our way through the core zone, but it was agreed that we wanted to secure to a good camp spot for the next few nights. The Enchantments is a very popular hike and the reality of doing it on a beautiful summer day is that you have plenty of human company the whole time. Finding a little solitude in camp would be pretty nice.
WE SCORED THAT nice camp spot we had hoped for and were pleasantly surprised to find it without another camper in site. This is part of the reason it's wonderful that this backcountry zone is permit required. I can't imagine how trashed & crowded it would get if anyone could do it, any time. Regulation is a good thing.
THE SOUND OF TRIP-TRAPPING around your tent at night was a sound we just had to get used to. The search for salt by these curious creatures was a 24/7 mission. That said, whole goat aspect was a major highlight of our trip. Nothing like an actual, wild creature coming real close to you, and trusting that it was docile. This took a little getting used to for my girl!
HAVING A CAMP DUTY was important for making camping efficient & more doable for the two of us. Mila had to pull her weight, and being in charge of filtering our drinking water, stuffing her sleeping bag and deflating the air-mattresses were her duties. I would also add, eating all your food as a another duty but she often failed to help me with that one. Since I had to plan the meals and carry all the food for both of us, I counted on her to eat her portion of the 2-serving dehydrated meals from brands like Mountain House & Backcountry Kitchen, knowing there was nowhere to dump the extra uneaten food! (Leave no trace and all...) Some nights I had to over-stuff myself while she asked if there were any more peanut M&M's.... this kid and her sweet tooth! I had to wonder if she she would’ve starved had I not packed that sweetened instant oatmeal. I suppose a backpacking trip is not a time to experiment with what your kid may or may not eat. The winning meal of the trip (meaning she ate it all) was the Chili Mac with Beef from Mountain House. Wish I had packed more of those!
Temperatures stayed pretty high during our trip, and usually I'd be really thankful to have a clear, relatively warm night to sleep out in, under the stars and even a full moon. But after the 2nd night, I think everyone in our party decided to put up on the rain fly on their tents (including us) in order to block out the super bright moon that seemed like a spotlight shining right into our sleeping space. Pretty cool on night 2, and of course we stayed up to watch it slowly come up over the horizon. We were all just so tired from the days spend exploring that getting a good rest eclipsed our desire to be moon-gazing at 3am if our eyes happened to open while flipping around on the ground on squeaky air-mattresses. Pro-tip: when shopping for an air-mattress find one that isn't squeaky! Nothing like waking everyone in earshot each time you turn over.
EVERYONE WOULD SEE us with our fishing gear and act surprised when claimed that we were having plenty of luck on the fly rod. It was sheer pleasure. Crystal clear lakes for both swimming and good fishing with little dry flies. Heaven on earth to me.
ONE MORNING we woke up and it was apparent Mila needed a little pick-me-up. The night before we had smelled a strong smoke smell and the skies turned a bit hazy after the sun went down. Apparently, forest fires were flaring up somewhere in the distance, and the smoke was brought in by the wind. This was a little spooky, I admit. So, I knew on this day we had to find some silly adventure somewhere, so we turned to a snow field for some fun.
MY NORMALLY SHY and quiet girl turned into the ultimate chatterbox and comedian once we started making our way out of the core zone and down the trail towards Snow Lakes. I think it was the excitement of knowing our journey was coming to a close, and that seeing her daddy and siblings was within a 24 hour window. She and I both like descending, with snowboarding as our favorite sport, so jumping from rock to rock to find a footing was pretty fun. Not to say it wasn't tiring, but she kept up a steady flow of goofiness that characterized her as more of a ham than she usually is, but it brought the biggest smile to my face knowing she was now comfortable enough with our group to be showing this side of herself.
Also worth noting is how challenging & sometimes exposed parts of the descent is from the Core Zone down to Upper Snow Lake. It drops 1,300'' in about 2 miles, but it's not much of a trail and you have to closely follow the correct cairns. It's also really hard to say goodbye to the openness and uniqueness of the magical core zone and know your trip is coming to a close.