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Commentary: A family hike up a volcano meant so much more

There were moments I felt helpless and even questioned whether I was acting like a villain for making my 6-year-old do this. She needs to know that in our family you don’t quit. Period.

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Jeff Benda's daughter, Lucia, fought through adversity along the trail and persevered to the end.
Contributed / Jeff Benda
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ASHFORD, Wash. — A mountain of limitless inspiration, Mount Rainier has an air of mystery and majesty. It’s found in the center of our country’s fifth national park, located about 75 miles southeast of Seattle. It’s a place of discovery, and for our 6-year-old daughter – personal triumph.

After a 23-hour drive that began in Fargo, we joined the ranks of the 2 million other people who visit the park annually. My wife and I quickly set up our tent in the sparsely populated Cougar Rock Campground, 11,000 feet below the tallest volcano in the Cascade Mountains. Our daughter splashed around and played in a shallow creek that ran alongside our campsite. Within minutes of our arrival, a black-tailed doe and fawn appeared out of the mist and began grazing on the green grass and leaves found among the moss-covered red cedars.

Black-tailed deer are considered a sub species of mule deer. Staring for as long as I did, I noticed their ears and face are shorter than the mule deer I hunt every year back in North Dakota. I also watched the faces of my wife and daughter as they stood quietly in awe, admiring these wild creatures in this wild place that is untrampled and almost completely free from development.

High above us, hidden in the clouds, loom massive rivers of ice that flow down the rocky slopes of Mount Rainier. The mountain is guarded by 26 different glaciers on all sides. They cover this active volcano which last erupted about 1,000 years ago. These large, thick masses of ice form when fallen snow gets compressed into ice over the many centuries.

The size of the mountain means it creates its own weather which can be impossible to predict.

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Like us, many visitors travel across the country, or even the world, for a great photo opportunity. It's the kind you see plastered on the rack of postcards in the local gift shop, wedged in between the souvenir shot glasses and local handcrafted jewelry.

Just before our trip, I started following the Twitter account @IsMtRainierOut which does nothing but tweet about whether or not the mountain is visible each day. The day before we left our home in Fargo, I was encouraged by the Tweet “Yes — The Mountain is Out."

Unfortunately, as we drove through Montana, the Magic 8 Ball we brought with gave us a non-committal answer of “Cannot predict now.” By the time we got to Idaho, it was already saying “Very doubtful.” And by Spokane, Washington, the answer was clear — “Don’t count on it.” In fact, the entire time we were in the area from June 8-14, the Twitter account @IsMtRainierOut only dished out bad news. But every time I open that particular app, I’m met with a seemingly endless amount of bad news about tragic events going on around the world.

Checking social media also defeated the reason for our getaway — to unplug and be together in nature. Alas, no matter how much I try to deny it, the desire to know what is going on at every moment can only be quenched when met with the firehose of information that is Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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Jeff and Melissa Benda, along with daughter Lucia, recently hiked Mount Ranier in Washington state.
Contributed / Jeff Benda

About 10,000 people attempt to reach Mount Rainier’s summit every year, but only about half of them are successful. With a proper permit, you can attempt it on your own. But reaching the summit requires a vertical elevation gain of more than 9,000 feet and traveling a distance of over 10 miles. Even if you are in excellent physical condition and well prepared, it’s recommended that you use one of the three licensed outfitters with expert guides to help prepare you and make it a successful journey. If you do make it to the top, you can enjoy the incredible reward that includes a jaw-dropping 360-degree view.

When it comes to wildlife at that altitude, only a handful of mammals live in the 35 square miles of permanent ice and snow on Mount Rainier. Mountain goats, and mountain-dwelling rodents like marmots and pikas are pretty much all that you’ll find in the subalpine between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. Above that, it’s just you and the birds. But down below where we would be hiking among the ancient trees and waterfalls, the wildlife flourish.

We grabbed our day hiking gear and headed to our first trailhead that would take us on a 5-mile loop with a 1,300 foot elevation gain within the first 1½ miles. We were confident our daughter could handle the challenge. Researchers recently concluded after years of study what most of us parents already know. Children can run around all day without getting tired. Their muscles resist fatigue and recover in the same way as elite endurance athletes.

But as we reached the 1-mile marker in the drizzling rain, the loud exaggerated sobbing of a young girl forced to wear a rainsuit for the first time permeated the wilderness.

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When I hike alone, I have always found myself to be in a good mood, lost in nature and ruminating about Emerson, Thoreau, Roosevelt and Muir. But even the sound of the spring melt roaring down the mountain to supply water for six major river systems was no match for our red-headed inferno that collapsed in the muddy trail, shaking and screaming, “Why are you making me do this?”

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Just a few years ago, I could have calmly approached her and whispered something encouraging. Hearing my voice, she would calm down and reach out her arms, allowing me to make everything better. But there was nothing I could do in that moment to tame this trembling youngster.

Mount Rainier is one of the most seismically active volcanoes in Washington. In an average month, three earthquakes occur within a few miles of the summit. And they occur nearly every day in the state of Washington. Most are too small to be felt or cause damage. But when faced with one you are supposed to “be prepared” and “stay calm” — two things I am well acquainted with being an avid outdoorsman and a parent of a young child. Yet in this moment I froze like a deer in headlights. I felt helpless and even questioned whether I was acting like a villain for making my 6-year-old do this.

Then my wife spoke up. “Hey Lucia! Is there anything you’d like to know about me?”

Our daughter stopped shaking, forgot about being miserable, stood up, and asked, “How many boyfriends have you had?”

My wife — a perfect combination of horse whisperer, lion tamer, snake charmer, and the Hermione Granger character who always comes to the rescue during dire situations in all the "Harry Potter" movies.

The mother-daughter duo continued the conversation about boys as they ambled up the steep grade through blooming skunk cabbage. A mash of skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum) has been known to have a soothing effect on headaches. If it weren’t for my wife saving the day, I was seriously considering snatching one of the foot-long leaves from the “skunky” odor plant and chewing on it.

By the time we reached a hard left switchback in the trail, the topic had changed, “If you had a pet unicorn, what color would it be?” That was my cue that everything was back to normal.

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Balance had been restored in the universe.

The wide and maintained trail continued to traverse through monstrous firs and cedars. Then suddenly the stiff climb offered a reprieve at 3,800 feet with what every North Dakotan on a summer vacation in the middle of June wants to see — snow.

It was then that I announced, “We’re at 2 miles. You did it Lucia! It’s time for chocolate!”

Research shows that chocolate can increase blood circulation, lower blood pressure and improve your mood. All important benefits when going on a long family hike.

After we satisfied our sweet tooth, an epic snowball fight ensued ending in smiles all around. The change in altitude definitely improved everyone’s attitude.

Just before we began our descent back down the mountain, we stopped for lunch. I found a nice peaceful spot on a rocky outcropping to boil some water using my backpack stove to make Lucia’s favorite macaroni and cheese. It was then that I finally had some quiet time to reflect on why my wife and I chose to start the trip with taking a young child on a challenging hike versus a short, easy one.

I came to the conclusion that I don’t want our daughter to ever aim for flawlessness. But she should embrace the unknown and trust she has the strength to bounce back, whatever happens.

Sometimes I pray she’ll end up a bad ass like Demi Moore in the movie G.I. Jane. To have the guts, determination, and will power so she can be a strong woman like her mother. She needs to know that in our family you don’t quit. Period.

I came to the conclusion that I don’t want our daughter to ever aim for flawlessness. But she should embrace the unknown and trust she has the strength to bounce back, whatever happens.
- writes Jeff Benda

Our daughter has moments where she doesn’t believe in herself. She’s overcome with an attitude of “I can’t do it” or “I’m a failure.” It’s our job as parents to teach her how to endure — that life is not some never-ending series of obstacles. It can be complicated at times, but you learn to face them and overcome.

By taking her on a three-hour hike up a volcano, she learned that after trudging 2 miles up a muddy trail you can take a break and enjoy the small pleasure of some chocolate. You can pause on the top to wonder a bit and smell the wildflowers. And you can have a lot of fun beating your parents back down the mountain with your young healthy knees acting as super shock absorbers.

One of the most fulfilling moments I have ever experienced in my life was not of my own doing.

It was watching my daughter reach a trailhead at the end of a hike yelling, “I did it! I did it! I can’t believe I did that whole thing!”

A self-help book or therapist isn’t going to convince us we can accomplish great things. Not even a parent’s encouraging words will always suffice. These are things only a mountain can teach us.

Whether you go for a week, a weekend, or only a day, there are fun things for the entire family at Mount Rainier National Park. Just make sure you make it memorable. And don’t forget to pack the chocolate.

Check out Jeff Benda's website: www.wildgameandfish.com and his Instagram: @wildgameandfish

Related Topics: OUTDOORS DESTINATIONSHIKING
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