A week before Thanksgiving a friend mentioned that her daughter had a few days off from school before the holiday. Unfortunately, my friend had to work, and so would have to bring her daughter to the office. Thea, who is an extraordinarily mature and well-behaved 9-year-old, probably would have happily entertained herself for eight hours, but the thought of sitting still that long was enough to make me restless. Since I also had one of those days off, I volunteered to hang out with Thea for the day. My friend readily accepted and I immediately began planning a whole host of adventures we might have outside, especially since there was no snow on the ground yet.
“You guys could go see the new Peanuts movie,” my friend suggested, and my heart sank. Sure, Peanuts are great and everything, but it's not every day that somebody just hands over a super-cool kid to hang out with! I wanted to play outside!
“Uh, yeah, we could totally go to the movies... I mean, unless you think she might like to go up a mountain instead?” I asked, trying to play it cool.
“Oh, she would LOVE that,” my friend replied. Score!
A meal for a mountain
The day finally arrived and, feeling a little nervous, I picked up Thea at the office and we climbed into my car. I like to think that I'm good with kids because I used to work at a Girl Scout camp, where I constantly had kids hanging on me and calling for my attention. But I had never spent time one-on-one before, especially with a kid as calm and mature as Thea.
As I started the car, I thought back to a time in my childhood when a friend's father drove me home after we had just watched the Little Red Riding Hood movie. I spent a terrified 15 minutes silently battling the fear that he was a wolf in disguise and there was another child inside his belly. I wondered what Thea was thinking about. I had mentally prepared myself with a list of questions about her favorite things but it turned out I didn't need it. Thea happily led the conversation with tales about her friends and the plot of Frozen. Clearly she was not worried that I might be a wolf in disguise.
We stopped at my favorite sandwich place in Lake Placid, Simply Gourmet, which features 46 sandwiches named after the 46 High Peaks. It was a very fitting lunch to take on a mountain climb. We ordered our sandwiches (Skylight and McComb) and then had a lengthy discussion about cookies while we admired Simply Gourmet's selection of cookies that were as big as our faces.
Back in the car, I plugged our destination into my GPS: Snow Mountain. I had been there twice before but I knew it didn't have much in the way signage or a parking lot. Plus, I suffer from a total lack of directional-awareness. Wishing to appear like a very adult-y sort of adult, I neglected to share this fact with Thea or her mom before I volunteered to take her up a mountain. So I was slightly concerned when just outside of Keene Valley, the GPS got a little confused and told me we had arrived, although the trailhead was nowhere to be seen. We cruised slowly for another mile or so and spotted another car pulled to the side of the road, just past a bridge. Ah ha! We found it!
We parked and assembled our packs. Even though the sun was out and it was much warmer for the time of year than usual, the air still had enough of a bite to it that we needed to get moving to keep warm. As we ducked into the woods, we were suddenly transported to a magical frost-tinged wonderland. The first half of the trail twists back and forth across a river, and the spray of droplets had created some pretty amazing sights. Icicles hung from every fallen branch and rock face, and sheer sheets of ice coated the stones and leaves that lined the sides of the river.
“Woah,” Thea said, “Look at that!” I stopped to catch a picture of the little pool she pointed out. “Cool! Look at this!” I swung my camera around to capture a set of icicles. We had not advanced more than 30 feet up the path and already we were both astounded by the beauty of this hike. Every few steps one of us yelled, “Cool!” and the other would hop over to see or touch a naturally-occurring ice sculpture. Thea told me she had climbed mountains with her class at school before, but we both agreed that just the two of us was way better. It allowed us to take as much time as we wanted and most importantly, to respond to each other every single time one of us saw something we wanted to share.
The first time we hit a spot where the trail crossed the river, I became a little nervous. The two times when I did this hike it was warm and the river was a little lower, so it made it easy to cross over the stepping stones that poked out of the water. But this time, the stepping stones were coated in a sheet of ice. It became safer to step on rocks that were below the surface because they were not as slippery, but I knew eventually we were going to get wet. We made it across the first crossing and I wondered what the rest of the crossings would hold. Was Thea unhappy at having to walk in the water?
Of course not! No sooner had we regained the trail then she told me she wanted to cross again! Which we did, winding back and forth to follow the blue trail markers. At one point the trail curls up the bank and away from the river for a nice, easy stroll, but Thea and I decided to bushwhack our way up to keep the river in sight. Luckily for me, Thea was incredible at policing herself. I never had to tell her to be careful or not to get too close to the edge. She seemed to be pre-programmed to make the right decisions. If she was going to look over the edge of a rock, she approached it slowly, holding on to small trees to steady herself. I could not have been luckier for a hiking companion.
Maybe you can cross the same river twice
Halfway up the mountain, there is a division. You can either cross a bridge that takes you away from the water and up the rest of the mountain, or continue up the path to a small waterfall. We decided to visit the waterfall to have our lunch break. With a burst of energy, Thea and I ran up the trail and climbed down the bank to stand right at the bottom of the snowy falls. We played around for a few moments and then posted up on a little plateau to enjoy our mountain sandwiches. We talked about climbing up the rest of the mountain after lunch, but decided the best part was near the water, and we wanted to spend more time near the river.
Sitting still, we got cold pretty fast and decided to head back. Totally forsaking the trail, Thea wanted to walk in the river on the way down. Fortunately, she had packed an extra pair of boots, and mine seemed to be relatively water-proof. We stomped in the water and smashed the thin sheets as if it were glass, knocking off icicles on our way.
For a moment, I struggled with the fact that we were making a little bit of a mess. What if somebody else came up the trail? Surely they would rather see the ice looking pristine and untouched then the wake of destruction we were leaving. It is an element of my personality that I have to battle in my day-to-day life as I am constantly worrying about not inconveniencing other people. It can be a surprisingly stressful burden, and for today I decided to lay it aside. The real, tangible, happy child smashing up the ice in front of me was much more important than the people who might (or might not!) come up the trail behind us today, the day before Thanksgiving. Plus, it was only ice! Tomorrow it would melt and the day after that it would reform for somebody else to enjoy, in whatever way they wanted.
Mother nature wasn't ready for us to leave
A little later, Thea had what she would describe as a near-death experience. Fighting our way up a steep bit of bank to avoid a deeper pool of water, the branch under her boot broke and she dropped suddenly a few feet down the bank, her hands scrambling for purchase and finding none. A few steps behind her, I reached out and grabbed a handful of her clothes and stopped her slide. Envisioning a scenario in which she slid the rest of the way down the bank and into the pool, and then immediately developing a case of life-threatening hypothermia, she was more than a little shaken. I assured her I would have found a way to save her, and asked if she wanted to get back on the path for the rest of the walk.
“No!” she replied. No near-death experiences could take away from the beauty and magic of the frosty water. We navigated around the pool and then returned to our beloved river. Fifteen minutes after that, my foot slipped on an icy rock and I dove for the bank, only half making it, my leg sinking into the water. It seemed like Snow Mountain didn't want us to leave! Thea helped me up and we crossed the river again to a drier patch of trail. Feeling a little more confident, we picked up speed now that we were back on a solid path, until Thea stepped on a pile of leaves hiding a hole, where she was convinced there was a badger waiting to pull her into the earth. She dropped in up to her thigh.
It was not until we started making plans to revisit the mountain with Thea's parents that Snow Mountain seemed to decide to release us. We made it down the rest of the trail without incident, pausing only to snatch up a pebble each from the icy water as a token. Back in the car, Thea suggested that we deserved cookies after that, and I knew right where to get some the size of our faces. We headed back to Simply Gourmet Bakery and claimed our victory cookies.