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Outdoors/Adventure

When coaxing a 3-year-old Alaska girl to the mountaintop, M&M's don't hurt

  • Author: Joseph Robertia
  • Updated: November 18, 2016
  • Published November 18, 2016

Colleen Robertia and daughter Lynx take the final few steps to the summit of a 2,857-foot tall peak at the top of Skyline Trail in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. This is no easy feat for a 3-year-old. (Photo by Joseph Robertia)

Termination dust crunched under our hiking boots as we took the final steps to summit a 2,857-foot peak on Skyline Trail. From the top, we could soak in a 360-degree view: the Kenai lowlands stretched west to the shimmering waters of Cook Inlet and the snow-cloaked Mount Redoubt beyond. To the north and east, we could see more of the mountains making up the Mystery Hills of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. And if we looked down, we could spot a tiny speck we knew was our car parked at start of the Skyline Trail.

A light-but-bitter breeze stung our faces and turned my 3-year-old daughter Lynx's cheeks red, yet it was far from the talons of wind that have torn at my exposed flesh a few times while on the top, far from the shelter of timberline hundreds of yards downhill.

"Are you warm enough?" I asked her.

"I think I need some more M&M's," she replied, her favorite part of the trail mix I had packed and generously doled out along the way. Lynx had earned the right to the reward of her choosing, since she had hiked the whole way on her own, something I consider an astounding feat for someone so young.

The route, while only a mile and a half to the peak, is described in most guidebooks as "very strenuous." Unlike some mountain hikes with numerous switchbacks to decrease the rate of incline, Skyline is straight up for the most part and nearly vertical for brief periods in one or two sections, requiring scrambling on all fours up rock. A reroute to prevent too much degradation to the footpath was made roughly a year ago, but the trail still ranks among the most arduous on the Kenai Peninsula.

Lynx had been to the summit before. As a 1-year-old, I carried her on my back, and while most of her tiny body was swaddled in layers of clothing to keep her warm, I took pleasure in seeing her little eyes grow wide to take in this alpine environment. As a 2-year-old, she hiked portions of the trail herself, but lacked the balance to ascend the steepest portions.

However, with age comes strength and coordination — motor skills necessary for her to make the ascent. Now 3, and with miles of summer hiking safely achieved, we believed her ready for the challenge, but wanted to forge ahead cautiously.

Remembering my own childhood, there are a lot of activities my parents loved that I loathed then — and to this day — largely due to the way they introduced them.

We maintain an active social media presence, sharing our family's activities with sled dogs and the outdoors in general. So we frequently field comments such as: "How do you get a 3- year-old to do these things? My kid is 13 and won't get off the couch."

Outdoors writing, not parenting advice columns, is my forte. But I believe knowing when and how much to ask of your child is a personal issue best decided individually. When people ask, my typical reply is, "We started her young and made every endeavor fun," and perhaps this latter point is the more important of the two. Knowing how to teach a child to climb a mountain is as important as knowing when to ask such a monumental task of them.

Nature can fill us with wonder, no doubt. Sniffing and learning to identify the individual fragrance of wild flowers, hearing the persistent pecking of a woodpecker doggedly boring into dead wood in search of its next meal, feeling the texture and tingle of a fresh snowflake caught in freefall as it melts on the tongue — these activities are more than aesthetically pleasing. They inspire an appreciation of the outdoors, and if these first seeds of curiosity are cultivated, they can lead to a greater scientific understanding of the principles of biology, ecology, and the natural world.

Making sense of local flora and fauna can be taught almost from birth and almost anywhere — in the backyard, strolling through a city park, or by meandering down any flat easy trail, but mountain climbing, because it's more challenging, requires and teaches a more-advanced skill set.

Portions of any climb, but Skyline in particular, are uncomfortable. As breath grows short, sweat starts to pour, and thigh muscles get that rubbery feel of exhaustion. Such symptoms make the undertaking emotionally taxing. Fatigue, especially in children, can insidiously gnaw at their morale and will to go on, but death-marching a kid is never an acceptable option.

Instead, we made our way to the summit at a toddler's pace. Hiking at the speed dictated by my daughter allowed her to enjoy all of the trek. She picked plump red currants and tasted their tartness, frequently felt the coolness and coarseness of exposed rock, and heard words of encouragement from the other ascending and descending hikers moving at brisker speeds.

My wife and I also showered her with positive praise, which in itself can keep some kids going. But when Lynx needed to stop, we acquiesced, taking many, many breaks — sometimes to catch our breath and mentally reset, sometimes to take in the view, and sometimes just to let her mine through our bag of peanuts, granola, raisins and chocolate to pick out her favorite bits.

Because this has been our way, Lynx has always wanted more time outdoors. When weekend rolls around and we ask what she wants to do, her answer is always, "Let's do a hike!" Summiting Skyline, despite the adversity, didn't change that. Back down at the car, her eyelids at half-mast, and her body posture looking like someone poured her into the car seat, it was clear she'd be asleep long before we entered Soldotna's city limits. Still, she mustered the strength to utter one weary sentence prior to nodding off: "Daddy, let's do that again sometime."

Hearing that, I beamed with parental pride, both for her achievement of scaling Skyline and also because seeing a difficult task through to the end is an important life lesson. It's not just about refusing to quit. It's about teaching a child to pause when they need to reassess the best path forward, resume moving ahead at their own pace, and ultimately finding their own way to succeed.

Persevering in the face of adversity hardens our constitution, fortifies our resolve, and prepares us to endure future uphill obstacles — literal and figurative. Hikes like Skyline are more than just an outdoor adventure, hopefully they are also subconsciously ingraining in my daughter the idea to always make an effort and persevere when things get tough, because kids who learn this lesson grow up with the skills they need to always reach the top.

Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof, where he and his wife operate Rogues Gallery Kennel. Joseph's first book, "Life with Forty Dogs," published by Alaska Northwest Publishing, is due out in April. 

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