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Welcoming Winter with Kids at Upper Crystal Lake
posted by John : November 16, 2014


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Up we go


Adventuring with kids is an adventure whether you go 20 miles or 20 feet. Doing it in Winter, or even Winter-like conditions is especially adventurous.

Nonetheless, we fearless (or crazy) adventure parents set out time and time again to show our progeny the wonders of Winter. It means facing changing temperatures, endless gear adjustments, and carrying loads that would make a yak... uh... yak.

Our latest attempt to welcome winter to the Northwest was supposed to be a trip to the very foot of Mount Rainier and the Inter Glacier. Although I called the ranger station the night before and checked the web site to confirm the road to the White River Campground would be open it was, in fact, closed when we arrived.

No problem. If there's one thing an adventurous parent better be good at it's changing plans. Just a quarter mile back on the road, still in the National Park, was the trailhead to Crystal Lakes. There were plenty of cars there and the distance was about the same so it would do. Of course, the gain was about a thousand feet more so it would be a harder trip, but that also meant we'd have a higher likelihood of getting into some good snow.

Boots, gloves, hats, coats. Surprisingly, nobody had to disrobe to use the bathroom before we hit the trail. As the kids have gotten older they have definitely gotten more self-sufficient and responsible in that regard. I can definitely say I don't miss those days. I hefted my oversized pack and we headed up the trail.

Immediately, the kids were enthralled by the ice-encrusted creek tumbling under the bridge by the road. Even though we live by a river it rarely freezes so this was special. After more than just a few pokes at the ice we headed up the moderate hill into the woods.

The trail is only three miles long to Upper Crystal Lake so it's a pretty consistent climb with tons of switchbacks. Some lower sections are lush with lots of moss and light while others are dark and dead just like Mailbox. All along, the kids found reasons to stop. Ice heaves looked like little Fortresses of Solitude. Springs covered the trail in sheets of ice that claimed a few of the less cautious among us. Anywhere it was drippy it was frozen and that was worth a pause.

As a result, we didn't make great time. This didn't really bother me, though I was trying to get us back home by dinner time. Too often our trips to the Park have ended with ice cream at Wapati Woolies and dinner at that place that shall not be named, but is easy to find because it is marked by a set of Golden Arches.

The snow began about half way up the trail. Patchy at first where the trees were thinner. Then continuous. Fresh snow is rarely too gnarly so I gave the kids free reign to indulge. Sometimes I wonder why I bring water during winter. Parenting Pro Tip: It keeps them cool enough that you don't have to carry their coats.

We found a few partial views of The Mountain and it was as glorious as expected. Sometimes I'm a fan of a little selective pruning and this would have been one of those times. Just a snip here and a snip there. I contemplated not taking the picture.

"Should I take a picture?" I asked Clara.

"It's what you do," she replied with an authentic tween eye roll.

That's a new twist to adventuring with the kids. Attitude. It used to be I just had to deal with fussing. There was a fair amount of that early on in this trip, too, but the attitude is worse. You should be able to reason your way through it, but that just seems to make it worse.

Once we got into the snow we picked up speed. It was so cold and dry there were no snowball fights, just wonder and appreciation for where we were.

"I forgot how beautiful it is in winter," said Lilly.

As they get older they start to see the world more like I do. Yet it's with a set of eyes that are uniquely tinted and with their own perspective. I love to listen when they don't think they can hear me. Even Henry will sometimes admit it's worth it.

We arrived at Upper Crystal Lake about 15 minutes before the sun dropped behind the ridge. Lakes in the Northwest are usually just flat spots in the snow. However, it's been cold with little snow so it was still just exposed ice and beautiful. But when the sun "set" on our lunch spot it got cold in a hurry and it was time to go.

Lilly was worried we wouldn't get out before it got dark. It had taken us three hours to climb up. Henry wanted to glissade all the way down, though it wasn't really that steep and the snow wasn't right for it. Clara just wanted to lead the way.

Lilly needn't have worried. We made amazing time on the way down and never needed the headlamps stowed in my bag. Nor did we need the extra coats or the hand warmers or the emergency shelter or any of the other gear. Yes, I really was carrying all that because welcoming winter with the kids is a serious undertaking.

At the car the kids jumped in and changed into their travel clothes. (Parenting Pro Tip: Always have the kids bring their "comfy cozies" for the ride home. Bonus Pro Tip: Bring yours, too.) Meanwhile, their gear and the backpack exploded all over the ground outside the back of the truck.

An NPS truck slowly pulled up as the ranger rolled down his window. "Oh. I saw all your stuff and I thought you were going backpacking, but then I saw you just have kids. Have a good day!"

Between the eye rolls, the appreciation of nature, the desire to unnecessarily glissade, and carrying enough stuff to go winter backpacking we were able to say hello to Winter.

Soon she won't just be in the high country and we won't have to go looking for her. That's when our fun will really begin. Until then, we'll keep seeking her out to remind her we love her and she's welcome to stay for a while.

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