|G. T. Rees and his son Steven at Sawtooth Lake|
Now it’s getting to be that time of year again in northern Idaho—the outside time of year. I love all the opportunities we have here to experience nature, and with the warming weather, my thoughts have begun to migrate toward what I’ll do with my kids over the fast-approaching summer break. After all, you’ve got to do something with the little skeabers or you’ll soon be counting the seconds until school starts back up and thinking about checking yourself into a mental rehab unit. A backpacking trip into the high country with my now nine-year-old son is definitely on the list. I’ll take my daughter, too, when she’s a bit older and doesn’t complain about sore legs after hiking a hundred yards. Her time’s coming.
I treasure the memories from my childhood of hiking and camping in the mountains with my parents: catching bright rainbow trout from alpine lakes using grasshoppers for bait, because I knocked the salmon eggs into the water and we didn’t have anything else to use; poking the campfire with charred sticks and watching the sparks rise into the night to merge with the stars; breathing mountain air so pure and crisp it seems alive. It’s a fact that campfire smoke indelibly prints memories into the brain, don’t know why exactly, but it does because I can vividly recall those childhood experiences as if they happened yesterday. I’m anxious to pass onto my son his own smoke-tinged memories of childhood camping, and last summer I put a great deal of thought into how I could arrange our trip to get him hooked. It wasn’t an easy challenge.
In Coeur d’Alene, we loaded up the truck of a friend and fellow dad with the three eight-year-old boys and their three dads. With the gear, it was a bit snug in the vehicle but the boys in the back kept things lively and no one minded the tight quarters. I don’t think either one of the other dads had ever been as far up into the mountains as I took them, and as we kept driving up and up, there was a bit of apprehension. Once you turn off the paved road, it is a good hour’s drive before you get to the trailhead for Black Tail Lake, where we were going.
When we reached the trailhead, I’ll admit that my misgivings were growing. It was a three-mile hike to the lake, mostly uphill, and despite our efforts to keep the loads light, the packs the kids were carrying looked about as big as them. I really wanted the boys to get the backcountry into their blood but despite my careful planning, I now wasn’t so sure how things would go. Earlier, I had reasoned that the trek was relatively short and up a well-maintained trail I had personally hiked the previous fall, and we were only staying out one night. Easy, I thought. But things did not go quite as I had planned.
The smooth trail of the previous fall was now littered with deadfall that had come down over the winter, some of debris chest-high on me, and whereas the mountains had been mostly bug-free the previous year, packs of ravenous mosquitoes now descended upon us with vigor. I swear the bloodthirsty insects were trying to carry us off, well, at least the boys. A bit of bug spray mostly kept the vampires off, except for one unfortunate kid who, despite the deet, had a face that looked like a lump of cookie dough the next morning. There always seems to be one the mosquitoes pick on. A little guiltily, I was glad it wasn’t me.
Despite the hardships, the boys took the challenges well and we made good time to the lake. I’ve noticed that often the best way to motivate my son is to include a few of his friends in whatever venture I’m trying to get him involved in. If it had just been the two of us, I can guarantee you there would have been ample complaints, mostly from him, but with his buddies along for a bit of camaraderie and competition, it was an entirely more positive experience.
Blacktail Lake is a beautiful little gem fixed high up the Cabinet Mountains with a grassy meadow on one side and a towering mountain slope on the other. We set up at a nice little campsite next to the lake. We put the boys to work collecting firewood, of which they brought in some, while we dads set up tents and unpacked gear. I tied a fly onto a line for my son and the boys were soon busy trying to catch the numerous brook trout in the lake. The trout in these backcountry lakes are small, but easy to catch with a dry fly and are a lot of fun for kids. I don’t know why exactly, but they don’t seem to like bait. However, you can spot a fish in the clear mountain water and drop a fly in front of it and get a hit nearly every time. The boys weren’t particularly skilled with a fly rod, but with a bit of help they managed to land half-a-dozen little brown fish before it got dark, and despite my son falling off a log into the water, they all had a great time. The hike back the following day was mostly downhill and the kids joked and laughed like the annoying eight-year-old boys they were. Despite the deadfall and clouds of mosquitoes, the trip was a success.
So, get on out there and make some memories of your own with your kids. If you don’t have a kid, borrow someone else’s. The parents will thank you for it. I can’t guarantee it, but it’ll probably be okay.
Recently, when I asked my son if he wanted to go backpacking again this summer he scrunched up his face, bounced up and down, and emphatically responded, “Yes. With friends. Somewhere we can go fishing.” I can’t help but get all warm and fuzzy on the inside with a response like that, assured now that my son’s future will hold a wealth of smoke-scented memories of time spent in the wild with his dad.
AUTHOR BIO: G. T. Rees's work has won multiple awards from the Idaho Writer’s League and been published in Idaho Magazine and Predator Xtreme, and Fish Alaska Magazine.