Sunday, October 10, 2010

Jensen Family Rocky Mountain National Park Backcountry Trip

Looking grubby after hiking back down Forest Canyon

In early September, our family took a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, which included two days of car camping and two days of backpacking. The backpacking part required almost two miles of a rugged canyon hike to get to our camping spot. Our backcountry stay included fishing the upper Big Thompson River. The trip was successful on pretty much every measure.

In the lead-up to the trip, my wife Paula and I wanted to make sure our twin daughters, Theresa and Natalie, didn't have bad experience, that it wouldn't be too much. We started with non-car camping two years earlier, at age three years and twenty months, but that was much more tame: a half-mile walk on an old logging road to a yurt in the Porcupine Mountains wilderness in the Michigan's upper peninsula. We could carry them for short stretches. For this trip, they would have to carry their own packs 1.7 miles.

I called the backcountry office of Rocky Mountain National Park many months in advance, asking where to take two almost six-year olds in area that included some fishing. They gave me a few options, the Big Thompson sounded the best, so we reserved that early.

Wilderness writers have said this about kids on backcountry adventures: even fairly young children act more mature, not less, once they are out on the trip. That is due to the fact that they have a role, or a job, as well as some freedom to explore. Our experience bore that out.

The main challenge for the girls was that even the smallest packs on the market that I could find, Deuter Fox 30, were a little too big for them when loaded. The packs weren't totally snug to their back the way they should be, but at least they'll be able to grow into these packs. We did lighten their load some on the way down, carrying some heavy rain jackets and other items for them. The way back they carried only their sleeping bag, their plate, utensils, and stuffed animal. Still, even on the way up, in between complaining about the weight of their packs, they said things like "I feel big", "I feel like I'm ten [they're sixth birthday was October 9th]". Of course we stopped in the canyon and they played in massive boulder formations where the girls saw favorable fairy habitat.

Our family overall worked better on the trip. My wife Paula noted that we had only had one argument the entire vacation, and that was on the drive home. We experienced no child meltdowns that we sometimes experience at home.

When we first arrived at our Moraine Park car-camping site, the girls talked about the views, the steepness, which they had never seen before. The second night, as we were getting to bed, I heard what I thought was a bull elk bugle, over the ridge. Then another, I was sure, and it was closer. He came over the ridge, with a cow, finally stopping fifty yards from the campground to tear up the ground with his antlers.

Theresa and Natalie had seen this many times on elk hunting videos, but now saw it actually happen, which they can describe in detail.

They asked to go fishing at a river near our campsite. The second time out, they were successful, and each bagged native cuttthroat trout, fish you have to release in Rocky Mountain National Park. Their only disappointment was not being able to catch a trout that they could eat, such as a brook trout. The water is so clear, Theresa was able to observe this beautiful fish rising from the bottom to snatch food and resume resting in slower current.

Natalie handling her first cutthroat

It is true that kids get homesick after awhile, so it's a good idea to not make the trip too long. However, when we returned home, one of their teachers called at the end of their first day back, to say that they talked about their trip all day, and that it was all positive. My wife Paula prepared a small booklet of pictures for each of them, which they enthusiastically showed to their classes.

Theresa fishing the Big Thompson with her dad

A really important foundation has been built - the seed for future outdoor adventures, the idea of enjoying oneself without the luxuries that even car camping has to offer, the skills and knowledge for hunting and fishing in more difficult places to get to, places that hold bigger fish and more game, the knowledge of topography and climate and how it changes with the landscape. Confidence and self-reliance. An appreciation of quiet places and their value whether one is pursuing a huge elk or trout, cross-country skiing, or just walking through and enjoying beautiful country.


  1. Good to have run into you Erik, and great looking girls! (that sounds sorta odd. Nice looking kids?)

    Anyway, I've been more or less seriously deerhunting on Dad's farm in Winona and this year I may be giving it a skip, but we should talk more about that later. I need me some shooting practice.

  2. You really are laying a beautiful foundation of wilderness connection for these girls - so great!