The Wonderful Burden of Backcountry Parenting

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, a new dad confronts his evolving relationship to the backcountry after taking his daughter on her first backpacking trip around Mt. Rainier.
Benja Catton Benja Catton
writer, teacher, and expert diaper changer
July 18, 2023
The Wonderful Burden of Backcountry Parenting
(From left to right) Wally Catton, Benja, Maya, Anne Guion, and Joey Kotnour hiking Emerald Ridge on day one of the Wonderland Trail. Photo by Jessie Kotnour.

Our group erupted in peals of laughter as I smashed the pee-soaked diaper into the boulder with my boot, hoping to squish out some of the water weight. I peeled back the diaper in astonishment. Not a drop of pee had transferred to the rock.

“This should be an ad for their absorbency,” I mused.

I hefted the diaper again — two pounds? — and joined the group laughter with lighthearted trepidation. We were resting in an alpine meadow about four miles into day one of the Wonderland Trail. I was struggling. We had eight miles to go. This was the first diaper change.

“At least she’s hydrated,” my wife Jessie said.

At the car four miles earlier, my brother-in-law required that we weigh our packs. All were heavy, but mine came in at a soul-flattening 64 pounds. That included our 20 pound one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Maya. Ten days of strenuous hiking lay in front of us to circumnavigate the 93-mile base of Mt. Rainier.

“We just have to play it by ear,” Jessie said. Or hope that an ear infection doesn’t take us out, I thought. Maya beamed through her ever-present pacifier.

“If nothing else, at least we’ve planned a great trip for everyone else,” I replied.

Our first day’s 12 miles from Longmire to South Puyallup was likely to be our hardest. If we were capable of day one’s challenges, we’d be up for the rest, but we were going to get whipped into shape. I shouldered my pack under sunny skies, exchanged high fives, got a “giddy up” out of Maya, and started trudging uphill.

Within five minutes I was soaked in sweat, immediately second guessing every item I’d packed. In less than two miles we smacked into another couple with a baby in tow. They were just as surprised to see us as we were to see them, and they were nearly done with their loop. We stopped to take notes. Jessie and I were aghast at the size of their bags, which looked so light compared to ours.

“Why does she have shoes on?” they asked. “She’s not hiking.” Their kid was barefoot. They looked like they were out for a day hike. “You brought her a sleeping bag? Oh, just stuff her in with you. Formula? Pouches? No way. He’s all breastmilk.”

The cars were just far enough that I’d rather have taken a flogging than return to repack. Jessie, sensing my hesitation, chimed “If your grandparents could do this with four kids in the sixties, we can handle it with one.”

For my dad’s side of the family, the Wonderland Trail is a pilgrimage. My dad first walked around Mt. Rainier in 1963 when he was three. His family repeated the journey several years later when his younger brother was three. My grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and brothers all made subsequent laps around the mountain, so I was well overdue. To make up for that, I was carting Maya. I loved thinking about the thousands of footsteps taken on the same trail by so many members of my family. I loved knowing that Maya’s tiny feet would leave some prints in the dirt, too.

Image1.jpgThe Catton family's first trip around the Wonderland Trail in 1963. (From left to right) William, Steve, Ted (3 years old), Philip, and Nancy. Photo by William Catton.

Field testing our new roles

The first night, we fell into camp desperate to drop our packs. We furiously dug for snacks and started cooking our freeze-dried backpacker meals. Maya put her tongue out for tentative licks. She nibbled the “lasagna,” but her pallet was more discerning than ours. She insisted on instant oatmeal.

After dinner, we braced ourselves for bedtime. Maya can make a ruckus protesting sleep. Weeks earlier, we’d taken her on an overnight trip in anticipation of this adventure. She was thrilled by the tent, treating it like a bounce house and performing countless body slams on the soft pads and sleeping bags. When we tried to sleep, she wailed for hours, so I resolved to do some training. I set up our tent in her bedroom and slept in it with her during naps and overnight. We normalized it, and now was the test. I had her stuffed sloth, Sleepy Joe, at the ready, as well as two slim books and a few backup pacifiers. These items contributed some “luxury” pounds that I’m sure the lightweight parents weren’t carrying, but they were worth the higher probability of a smooth bedtime.

Thanks to the training — or perhaps the long day in the sun — Maya only fussed a little. “Maybe our lives aren’t over,” I said. Jessie nodded with eyes closed.

PXL_20210820_183429420.jpgMaya, Benja, and Jessie descending toward White River
Campground. Photo by JD Kohchar.

Jessie and I had met climbing and forged our relationship in the mountains; having a child was challenging our ability to do big adventures together. This trip was a test of what our relationship could look like moving forward. Were big trips still possible? Would we get stuck with a tag team lifestyle, never sharing big outings as a couple? Would it be rewarding to trade the weight of a rope and cams for diapers and toddler food? Or were we forcing this trip and dragging our family, friends, and daughter through it with us?

Resupplying on parental influence and junk food

On our second day, Maya enjoyed her first skinny-dip in St. Andrews Lake’s shallow, crystalline water and discovered huckleberry picking. She wobbled around with a cooking pot in hand as she picked berries. Her face and fingers turned purple, but the pot stayed empty.

“How’s Maya’s berry diet going to impact your diaper rationing?” my brother joked. I hoped it wouldn’t.

Day three included our first sobering challenge, beyond the berry-laden diapers anyhow. As we came upon South Mowich River, our hearts sank. Heavy rains days earlier had pushed the glacial river to jump its banks and form new channels, washing out the bridges and rendering it impassable. A trail crew was working on the last section of a new bridge and preventing folks from crossing until the handrail was complete. Our options were to ford the river elsewhere, or wait indefinitely for the crew to finish. The churning, silty river was thigh-deep and moving fast. With Maya on my back, I couldn’t risk falling in. We chose to wait.

Eventually, the crew softened to the idea of us guinea-pigging the bridge — a single log — without the handrail since we had “special cargo.” As I took my first steps over the river, water leapt up at the center of the log. I stayed focused on the feel of my feet while keeping my gaze at the log’s end. If I slipped, I hoped to fall on the log in a bear hug, preventing Maya from getting soaked, or worse, hurt. With one foot in front of the other, I slowly made it across.

After surviving the river crossing and a drizzly night at South Mowich River, we made our way to Mowich Lake Trailhead to enjoy our first resupply and a reunion with my dad. In preparation for the hike, everyone had sent buckets of supplies to the ranger stations we’d encounter at the trailheads. We cracked open our resupply buckets — including beer, potato chips, candy, and pastries — and devoured the junk food smorgasbord. Another friend met us with pizza, cheesecake, and more beer. We indulged shamelessly.

Jessie and I took the opportunity to stash a number of things — like Sleepy Joe the sloth — in my dad’s car. Our packs were heavy again, but this time with more food than dirty diapers. Maya tramped around with her purple hands and empty cooking pot. My dad trailed as her shadow, grinning at our madness and her simple joy. Three generations of Wonderland pilgrims, I thought.

I was eager to have my dad with us, and to be both an imparter and a receiver in the bestowing of connection to this trail. I imagined him running around this campground as a toddler while my grandparents shuffled gear. I wondered if glimmers of his childhood were resurfacing as he followed her curious impulses.

Maya finds Wonderland

When it was time to head for the next campsite, we re-shouldered our packs feeling worse instead of better. The feast was overkill, but the food coma burned off with the clouds, and we made it through 4,400 feet of elevation gain to Ipsut Creek Campground without vomiting. The campsites sat under towering false cypress. Maya and I wandered around with our necks craned, staring into the steaming canopy. We reached our hands up as tall as we could and stared in quiet wonder

IMG_3362.jpgMaya picking berries near Mystic Lake on day five. Photo by Jessie Kotnour.

Fortunately, the sun was out the next day. Riding its plucky, uplifting thermals, we leap-frogged one another through see-sawing bouts of verve and fatigue. We took quick dips in Mystic Lake then basked in alpine sunshine. Tiny ants found Maya’s snack crumbs. She was fascinated.

That evening, Maya stole our friend’s trekking poles, asked for them to be shortened, then marched through camp asking each of us, “Will you hike with me?” She would only drop them to pick huckleberries.

The trail as a rite of passage

The following few days were unglamorous. We spilled over the edges of White River Campground’s group site and nauseated our neighbors discarding stomach-churning diapers. Mist and rain swallowed us at Indian Bar, and our tent felt considerably smaller with our wet gear inside. Maya was irritated that we weren’t outside playing.

We started the ninth morning drying our gear beneath a creek-side rock shelter. A keen awareness that we were closing the loop crept over our group. For a brief moment we shared the shelter with twin girls who were headed to college after their trip around the mountain. They’d spent their whole lives together, and intentionally chose different colleges to build independent identities. They were using this adventure as a rite of passage to mark the closing of their shared childhood.

Similarly, my grandparents knitted the Wonderland Trail into significant markers in their lives. They hiked it as a family of four, then five. They completed the loop with their grandkids. For their fortieth anniversary, they made the loop in three installments, and their sons’ families shared the experience by waiting at trailhead campgrounds with hot food and ice cream. Two of my uncles went around to celebrate one’s recovery from cancer. For them, and now I could say for us, it was a place of connection and reflection.

My family isn’t religious, but I couldn’t help myself from drawing verbal comparisons to pushing a giant prayer wheel or completing a hajj. I’d been a father for over a year and each day was a joy, but these were ten of the best days of my life. Maya and I were a two-headed parade of awe, extensions of each other’s sensory processing. We moved as one, looked as one, exclaimed as one. I picked huckleberries and passed them over my shoulder so that I could hear her say, “Yummm.” What rite of passage was I performing?

PXL_20210819_211930417.jpgA group rest at Skyscraper Pass on day seven. (From left to right) Arturo Commando, Noah Burgess, Wally Catton, Jessie Kotnour, Benja, Maya, Anne Guion, Joey Kotnour, and JD Kohchar. Photo by JD Kohchar.

Closing the loop

Our final day was a whopper: 17.8 miles and 4,000 feet of gain from Olallie Creek to Longmire. The magnetic forces of success, pizza, and beer awaiting us at the finish line were in our favor.

We started early. Blue skies returned and lightened our steps. We ate lunch on the shores of Reflection Lake. Snow-white clouds and glaciers dissolved into one another in the sky and on the lake’s surface. It was difficult to define the mountain. Physically, its edges can blur in white; its ridges can run to city, sound, and soul. Its importance to my family’s identity runs deeper than the ubiquitous Tahoma photos speckling our home decor. We passed Cougar Rock Campground, a fixture in my childhood memories of camping with my grandparents. A flash from one of my grandfather’s impromptu naturalist lectures played out in my mind’s eye — he was explaining “nurse logs,” or how older species of trees can provide a foundation for their kin to thrive. I smiled at the irony in this memory as I thought back to what my grandparents had nursed for me, and what we were nursing for Maya.

PXL_20210815_233025775.PORTRAIT.jpgBenja and Jessie helping Maya hike the trail. Photo by JD Kohchar.

As we neared the final stretch, Jessie, Maya, and I were at the back of the pack. We could see friends and family waiting on us at the end of the trail — or on Maya, really. Maya keyed into the significance of the moment and requested to hike.

I removed her from my back and she walked the final mile-and-a-half holding her uncle and aunt's hands. In the last 100 yards, we began cheering. Maya stopped hiking and started clapping, looking around at her parents, uncles, and aunts. We walked another ten yards. Maya stopped again and initiated another applause. We clapped and cheered and danced. We did this a half-dozen more times before reaching the cars, and did it again there. We had accomplished our trip, and enjoyed it tremendously. Jessie and I hugged in joy and relief. We could live adventurously without killing our one-and-a-half-year-old.

IMG_2773.jpgPost-Wonderland Trail first introductions between Maya and Nana. Photo by Benja Catton.

The sapling meets her nurse log

Our summer trip would conclude with a visit to my nonagenarian grandmother, Nana. My grandparents’ adventurous example was the genesis for our trip, and we couldn’t wait to share our photos and stories. Most importantly, we were excited to introduce her to Maya.

Before meeting Nana, we spent a few days in a hotel awaiting negative COVID test results. Our room was dressed in vintage wallpaper, and Maya kept wandering to the walls to touch them. I eventually came over to see what she was up to and realized she was pretending to pick the berries in the floral pattern. I grinned with satisfaction. Her fondness for the outdoors was lingering; we’d achieved something.

Nana and Maya clicked. At ninety-two years old, Nana was still up for a hike in the city’s forested Lithia Park, and Maya toddled around, holding her hand. We shared photos on our laptop and Nana picked out landmarks from the Wonderland Trail unprompted. Her deep connection to the mountain was also long-lasting. Then, we set up her projector and found a carousel of slides that included the 1963 trip, my dad’s first pilgrimage around Mt. Rainier. I watched Maya become absorbed in the beam of light and the whir of an ancient slide projector from Nana’s lap. Our steps around the mountain had connected these generations, and I found part of myself somewhere in between.

This article originally appeared in our summer 2023 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive