Otter Creek Wilderness. Photo: © Kent Mason

Growing Up Wild: Wilderness Backpacking with My Daughter

Photo: Randy Edwards/TNC
Photo: Randy Edwards/TNC

Show me all the mobile, GPS-based, interactive gadgets you like, but to inspire wanderlust, nothing beats a large paper map pinned to a wall, especially when that map details the terrain and trails of a mountainous Tir Na Nog like Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

We found the map while on a family car trip when we’d stopped into the Wilderness Information Center at Olympic National Park, a trailer hikers used to pick up their backcountry permits.  

It was a lark – we needed no permit for our motel in Forks – but I’ve always harbored travel fantasies much more adventurous.  

And there it was, the size of at least a dozen tablet computer screens, a map of the nearly million-acre park, including the 95 percent that is designated wilderness. 

When my daughter Meg asked about the stack of bear canisters on the floor next to us, I considered telling her that bears prefer the taste of food from canisters, but even at age 9 she had a practiced and effective eye roll.  

So I explained that backpackers use these canisters to keep their food safe while hiking in the backcountry. This led to a discussion of backcountry, and wilderness, and then to her request: “I want to go backpacking in the wilderness.” 

It is so hard to deny requests from your children, especially when their desires so clearly align with your own.  

So despite my own minimal experience in backcountry camping, we borrowed a couple of backpacks and some other gear and, a few months later, found a wild place closer to home.  

The Otter Creek Wilderness area is part of the nearly million-acre Monongahela National Forest, which blankets some of the highest peaks in West Virginia.  

Otter Creek Wilderness. Photo: © Kent Mason
Otter Creek Wilderness. Photo: © Kent Mason

The Conservancy’s West Virginia program has helped protect tens of thousands of acres of land in and around “The Mon” and is engaged in an effort to restore red spruce habitat there for the benefit of the northern flying squirrel and other special flora and fauna.  

I had written about this forest as part of my job with the Conservancy, but I had never visited Otter Creek, one of 8 designated wilderness areas in the forest that, combined, encompass more than 115,000 acres managed under the terms of the National Wilderness Preservation System 

Our journey began in a parking lot near a trailhead around mid-morning, Meg with her souvenir walking stick from Olympic, a favored stuffed animal named Aurora and few realistic expectations of what a wilderness trek entailed.  

Only two things worried me as I set off with my youngest daughter: The first, quite practically, was how she would react to going to the bathroom when there wasn’t one, an experience she hadn’t had since she was a toddler. 

The second involved bears. I wasn’t worried about actual encounters. West Virginia’s forests are home to the relatively shy black bear.  

But I’d been told that the Otter Creek Wilderness area has one of the highest concentrations of black bear in West Virginia, and if I didn’t want a late-night visitor to my tent, I’d best hang my food.  

I had a bag and ropes in my pack, but what Meg would say when it came time to hang the bag? Would the thought of bears keep her up all night?  

But the day was clear and warm after a night of rain and our spirits were high, so I pushed those worries aside and we strapped on our borrowed packs.  

Here began the challenges: I had tried to keep her pack as light as possible, but as soon as I had the hip belt adjusted and her hat was in place, Meg began to whimper.   

The old Boy Scout pack we’d borrowed from her cousin had an external frame that bit into her shoulder blades.  

“It’s so heavy,” she wailed. This, I hadn’t anticipated, at least not while we were still in the parking lot.  

We moved some food from her pack to mine, tucked a camp pillow between the frame and Meg’s body, and set off.  

We hiked a short distance through hardwood forest and rhododendron thickets before she decided she was hungry. More stuff moved from her pack to mine. Our first stream crossing led to an impromptu swim. And another snack. And more stuff migrating to my pack.  

After about four hours and two miles, it was clear Meg wasn’t interested in any more.  We made a camp not far from the river and settled in for the night.  

Photo: Randy Edwards/TNC
Photo: Randy Edwards/TNC

Her lack of hiking aplomb was more than compensated for by a marked enthusiasm for camp life. The cat-hole toilet elicited no protest. Hanging the bear bag gave her no pause; Aurora fit nicely into the bag and took sailing rides along the rope that stretched between two trees.  

We used a filter to pump and treat tea-colored water from the stream. We re-hydrated dinner with water boiled on a backpack stove.  

We set up a tent. We gathered firewood and built a small fire. 

Much has been written about the benefits of the outdoor experience for children, especially since Richard Louv ‘s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods coined the term “nature deficit disorder” and launched the “No Child Left Inside” movement.  

And, sure, a growing body of research documents the value of a walk in the woods as a tonic against obesity, ADHD, and other ills laid at the doorstep of high-fructose corn syrup and video games. 

But what about the benefits to parents? What about me?  There are selfish reasons, too, for experiencing the wild with one’s child. 

Parents value those times in a child’s life when parent feels truly present with child (to borrow a term from another popular movement) – when the bond is so palpable it produces a pang that almost hurts.  

When you’re nursing them through a fever late at night. When a spontaneous and natural laugh tells you that you share a sense of humor. When they finally succeed at a new task that has stymied them.  

And with all of my daughters, that rarified feeling has most commonly been found outdoors, when cell-phone reception is poor and there is no television or computer.  

When there are no opportunities to finish work, no unrepaired home projects that need attention. When the entire world is bounded by the reach of the campfire’s light and there is nothing but the sound of a river, the touch of cool, moist air settling over your shoulders, and the knowledge that you aren’t going anywhere the next day without each other.  

These times are golden, and even more so because they have always been so rare. With all my kids, I wish I’d spent more of those days. Hundreds more. 

Meg and I have our own gear now and a few other trips under our hip belts over the past few years.  Another summer approaches.  I find myself thinking about large paper maps.

Opinions expressed on Conservancy Talk and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conservancy

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  1. I grew up with a wilderness camping dad. I have some of the most wonderful memories and childhood experiences that a girl can have. I am filled with gratitude for the times we spent together in the mountains. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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