A Dad’s First Backpacking Experience with His 9 Year Old Daughter

Written by Mark Bontempi

I thought to myself, oh my god there it is. We reached the top of the ski hill and the clearing was just enough to see down into the trailhead parking lot. I looked down the hill and through a few trees. I could just barely see the hood of my truck. I don’t know what I would have done if overnight parking was not allowed and Ellicottville police towed my truck to an impound. I knew for sure we were far too tired to deal with something like that. I probably would have called the department and begged, explained our exhaustion and have paid whatever amount they wanted to get in my truck, relax, sit down and drive home. Although I thought I had carefully planned everything out and made the necessary phone calls to the ranger station, I was still nervous about what we might find.  At last, what felt like a lifetime of one foot in front of another was nearing the end…for now at least. Now we just need to get down this muddy steep group of ski hills.

 I’ve wanted to try snowshoeing for a very long time. This year I felt that my kids (9yr & 13yr) have finally reached an age that snowshoeing would be doable. For Christmas we also surprised them with a trip we planned to the Adirondacks in the end of January. First to a brand new hotel that ended up having a fire and closing a month or so after being opened. We got lucky when we found this out. We discovered a vacancy at the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid on short notice. Once we had these plans it was time to start thinking about where we could snowshoe on our visit of course after a visit to Gear for Adventure. This was our introduction to a new passion for hiking and spending time together outdoors. We visited the ADK LOJ and hiked Mt. Joe. It was an awesome experience with only a few minor lessons learned such as getting on the trail to get an early start as possible. When we got home I started to search and discovered the WNY hiking community. I immediately learned about the WNY Winter Hiking Challenge and signed up.

This got me thinking about backpacking.

During these winter months and challenges I spent countless hours searching, listening to podcasts and learning about hiking and the necessary gear.  I’ve always loved to camp. But, as an RV camper it’s been a long time since I’ve spent the night in a tent and not glamped at resort type places. This got me thinking about backpacking.  I knew the only one in the family that may entertain this idea was my daughter. I had serious talks with her and my son. I was happy that my son was honest and let me know he didn’t want to try backpacking just yet. Maybe he would someday and right now he just wasn’t ready. I explained the costs of the gear, dedication and unknowns of what it might be like. Happy to  know that Nelly was in, we started research and price shopping all the backpacking gear we would need to get started. We have been fortunate enough (after hours and days of deep dives into the outdoor gear internet) to get some great deals to get started with fairly light equipment for just starting out. We can continue to enter the UL world as our budget allows with upgrades.

The night before the trip was packing time. I unboxed all of the equipment we have been acquiring for months. Everything worked and there weren’t any problems. Nelly had already been sleeping in her bag for months on top of her bed. I was excited, I guess. It was a little nerve racking. Did I pack enough? Did I pack too little? What’s the base weight? Should I use the 60L or the 40L? Is Nelly’s bag too heavy? Is her bag too light? Am I being too cautious with her pack weight? Is this enough food? I knew one thing, my goal was to keep everything as minimal as possible. Once we had everything packed her bag was 10 lbs without two liters of water and mine was 22.5 without three liters of water. Very happy with the weight  for a first timer knowing we both had heavier winter sleeping bags we were bringing along.

My anxiety and excitement increased each mile as we got closer.

Saturday morning we said goodbye to Mom and we headed towards Ellicottville. My anxiety and excitement increased each mile as we got closer. Nelly was a champ in the winter challenges especially during some of the hikes that had some pretty heavy weather and snow. This would be something very different for both of us. Long distance with everything we need to survive on our backs and a 24 hour ultra hike finish deadline for the WNY Summer challenge U3 hike.

Thanks to some fellow social media hikers we knew exactly where to park. We had to head down the road a few hundred feet and entered the trail at the bridge at the base of the ski hill with the FLT sign attached to the post. We knew we had to go up the ski hills. We were so excited the fact that we were walking up ski hills didn’t even bother us. This was just the start of the hike. We reached the top and had our nutella sandwiches at a picnic table near one of the ponds. I figured it was a good idea to add some calories after walking up those hills. We still had a long way to go. This was just the beginning.

The trail led us through a pine forest. It was awesome! The ground was extremely soft with pine needles.We got out of the pines and headed through some woods towards CCC Seneca campground. We had a pretty difficult creek crossing that was running heavy just before the campground. Nelly made it through like a boss. Once we hit the campground I looked around thinking it would be cool to stay here sometime in the future. I was disappointed with the lack of respect for LNT. People had left some bottles and there was some garbage here and there. This was a perfect opportunity to discuss LNT with Nelly like I always do when we are on the trail. We hiked to some higher elevation and traversed towards Little Rock City. I couldn’t believe this was my first time here. Even if you aren’t doing the Ultra I would recommend getting to the challenge here as one of your hikes. It’s an awesome place with a lot to see. The hike goes through some slim trails through cool rock formations. After we got through this trail we ended up at the Little Rock City campground. There are four sites and thank the lord that two of them were vacant.

We got to camp and set up around 7pm. We tried out our Jetboil and made a Mountain House macaroni and cheese accompanied with a buttered roll. It was just enough for both of us. We didn’t sit by the small fire I built for too long. It was starting to get cold. We headed to the tent for a quick game of war and we were ready to get some sleep. Overnight it started to sprinkle even though the forecast didn’t call for rain. As it continued my concerns increased. I thought about what I would do if it continued. Could Nelly finish the hike in the rain? It was important to me that she had a great time to ensure this was the first of many trips. Would I have to call my wife to come pick us up and drive us back to the trail head. Luckily it was brief and lasted just a few minutes. Our inflatable luxe pillows, sleeping pads, Eureka Sumo and new 30 degree rated sleeping bags worked out fine for the 35 degree night.

This was Nelly’s first night in a tent and the first time for me in several years. I’m not sure how much sleep we got. It was cold and a new experience. I kept waking up worried, making sure she was ok and warm enough. I stepped out of the tent to start packing up around 6:30 am. I was able to get everything ready and some breakfast cooked before waking Nelly up. She woke up cold. It was definitely a chilly, well… freezing morning in the woods. I wanted to get her moving as quick as possible so she could warm up. I had hot chocolate ready for her and traded winter hats because mine was heavier. After breakfast we headed out. This is when the trail became a little trickier. I couldn’t have been more appreciative with the experience I gained on the winter challenge hikes learning the Avenza app from Mike’s youtube videos shared on his website Outside Chronicles.

We trekked down the dirt road just a short way back to the FLT. I realized we still had quite a bit of distance to go and a long day ahead of us. I could tell that Nelly’s spirits were starting to adjust from excitement and ambition to just wanting to finish. She was being really tough but I started to feel bad. I knew she was tired. We traveled through the Rim and Pale Ale series of trails heading back towards the main Finger Lakes Trail. Honestly, it started to feel like a beautiful and peaceful eternity. I knew that no matter what I had to be incredibly patient. More patient and kind than I had ever been in my life and support Nelly. Half way through the trail many times I found myself down on my knees at Nelly’s level giving her motivation talks and hugs. The first day I’m pretty sure she talked to me for nine miles straight. Not so much on day two. I did my best to talk to her about her hobbies, items she liked, toys and whatever I could think of to keep her mind occupied from thinking about the distance and time we had remaining. By the way, there was a gentleman biking on one of those fat tire bikes on these trails. How in the world could they do this? Some of the rock terrain was hard enough just to walk on. We finally made it back to the pines and started to enter the ski park. We met a nice couple and they told Nelly not to worry because it’s all downhill from here. I was trying to explain the same. It was nice for others to tell her. I was hoping it boosted her spirits. It still felt like we had some distance to go. Our feet were exhausted. We approached the ski hills and could see down to the road. I thought this would be easy. Let me tell you going down the ski hills was far more difficult than climbing up. It was probably a combination of us being tired and for some reason it seemed even muddier then the way up. We finally made it down just in time to complete the entire trip in just under 24 hours.

 We got to the bottom and Nelly started to cry. A combination of exhaustion, completion, the challenge, the win and many emotions. I had my phone in hand and was able to snap a picture as we ended the trail with a long great hug. I whispered to her how proud I was and she is amazing to complete such an accomplishment. This will be my favorite picture at least until the next. The emotions that we experienced together at that moment are surely only something that the two of us understand and can’t really be put into words.

We got home and Mom was full of excitement and energy asking us about the trip. Both of us were zombies. We just wanted to shower and sit on the couch. I was interested to see if Nelly would want to do this again. I’m proud to say that by the next day she was ready for the next challenge. We will start planning this soon. I’m hoping to plan the next so that we can get closer to three quarters of the distance done on day one. I think we will both hold up much better to ensure completion within the 24 hour challenge window.

The social media and instagram aspect of hiking has really helped me to keep Nelly engaged. She loves to share our adventures through the outlets. We even started a small handmade soap business that’s hiking themed called The Klean Hiker and an instagram page. We plan to donate money from each sale back to a good cause involving the outdoors.

Even if you aren’t doing the Ultra I would recommend getting to the challenge here as one of your hikes.

I’ve seen what this challenge has done during these times for the WNY community and families on social media. I think it’s done more than get people outdoors. It goes much deeper than that. Possibly life changing for some. The demons of this pandemic have impacted everyone in one way or another. Many like us may have initially joined this challenge thinking it was just something to do. Well it turned out to be a lot more. A new connection with yourself, nature, stronger relationships with families and parents with their children. I envision backpacking trips with Nelly across some of the greatest National Parks and Trails in the country and have a lifetime to do it together. I can only hope that this becomes a lifelong venture and we experience a long distance thru hike someday. Mike, I think I can shake your hand and commend you for the entire community. Thank you for all of the hard work you have volunteered to do sharing your passion and impacting our community. I want you to know that the impact for some may be far more than a hike or finding a challenge landmark. Hike your own hike is something to each of us as an individual. Until the next trip..Cheers

P.S This photo is one of my favorites. There were tears of excitement, achievement, exhaustion and a mixed bag of emotions for both of us as we reached the end. I will never forget this moment and can’t wait to experience it again soon.

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