Ten years ago, my wife and I often went on long backcountry hiking trips with just some quickie planning. These days with 3 1/2 year old and 16 month old boys, we do more quickie trips with long planning time. When I first started fly fishing in the backcountry areas of Yellowstone National Park and the Sawtooths of Idaho, I could basically just tell my wife the when’s, who’s, and how’s of a trip and be on my way to paradise. That freedom has turned into clearing everyone’s schedules of many different other who’s and when’s to make clearance for us (on a side-note, the second or third Saturday in September is always reserved for some action on the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park and nothing can remove that day).
So, here we are trying to figure out how to get back into fun and fishing in the backcountry, or as close as possible to it, now that one of the kids can walk a couple of miles each way. Our quickie-trips are generally a half-day scheduled around nap time, and the extended planning effort requires diapers, multiple snacks, safety considerations, and a couple of toys if we’re feeling energetic enough to carry them. The focus of effort is generally keeping the boys happy rather than hoping the fish take some fake food, but that’s how it is as parents of toddlers.
I’ve searched the Yellowstone maps for a place a couple miles off the road to provide some quiet from the road while also providing a safe place for the kids to play. The Lamar River about 200 yards upstream from its confluence with the Yellowstone River provides a two mile hike that the 3 ½ year-old can make on his own, a large gravel bar that provides some sand and many rocks for throwing, and a plethora of nice fishing holes in the immediate vicinity. Perfect!
I have a life-vest for the older boy, but I just can’t get myself to even make him put it on. I would rather watch over him like a hawk than squash his personal movement freedom with the life-vest. If we were rock-hopping and such along steep banks, it would certainly be different. As it is, the ground is flat, the water is barely-moving and shallow next to the gravel bar, and his Mom is there to watch like a hawk. All he wants to do is throw rocks and splash in knee-deep water, and at this location he can do that with the endless rocks and great little pool of water.
The 16-month old is easier in some ways but harder in others. We have to carry him into the location using a baby-backpack (we use the Deuter Kid Comfort III…absolutely awesome and worth the high-price; it has lots of storage). He’s about thirty pounds, so I get to carry him while his Mom carries the fishing gear and other stuff. Once at our location, he mostly sat in the sand and played with a little plastic rake. He can’t maneuver very well over the rocks yet, and that is mostly a good thing. When nap time rolled around, we put him on a little blanket we brought, and give a bottle of milk we kept cold in an insulated cooler made just for that type of thing (all you dads, take a look at baby gear to repurpose for your own needs, too!). We forgot the small shade-tent, but the canyon walls and some trees provided plenty of shade up on the banks of the river. He didn’t take a nap, though! So, we had reverted to Plan B and left for the trailhead before he got really cranky; he was asleep in the backpack before I took ten steps!
I almost forgot! I got a good two hours of fishing in, too! I went mostly up-river, but there were plenty of pockets in both directions. The catching wasn’t very good, but I got looks on nearly every fly…..my prep time was spent planning for the kids rather than researching what flies the fish would be looking for. Anyway, for me, half the fun is just getting the fish to say “yes” or “no” to the fly, and I was getting that answer as I watched them swim away. It was a bit frustrating, but it beat walking the boardwalks with the crowds at Old Faithful.
Here are a few of the things to think about when you are setting up your trip to the backcountry with toddlers.
- Look at the maps for possible locations.
- Visit the areas in person to look at safety factors and the trail to the site.
- Look at the area in Google Earth, realizing that water depths are probably different. Check river conditions on USGS water gauges (http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis )
- You MUST have a water-safety plan of some sort: life-vests, always-in reach, small water, etc. Don’t under-estimate the dangers of the stream. These are little kids who don’t know better.
- Consider the impacts of bear country. Follow the rules exactly, and all adults should have bear spray. Teach the kids not to run as a basic backcountry safety principle, but vitally important in a bear situation.
- Check the weather before you go for heat, thunderstorms, rain, wind, etc.
- Sunscreen your kids. If you forget it, go back and get it. That goes for bug spray, too.
- Take a shade-tent and a ground-cloth or blanket for protection from elements.
- Have plenty of water. Take a filter to make sure you don’t run out.
- Keep the distance short. Tired kids trip and hit their heads on rocks; beyond the health issue, if the kids get hurt, they probably won’t want to go back.
- Take a first-aid kit with a small ice-pack for any bumps and bruises.
- Continuously ask yourself “How could my kids get hurt, and how will WE deal with it?” There’s no 911 in the backcountry.
- If they are old enough, this might be the perfect time to teach your kids to fish!
- Boys love throwing rocks and playing in sand. Make that a priority.
- Take some familiar toys with you (yes, jam them in your pack, it’s worth it!).
- Snacks are almost as important as all the safety factors. Take a variety and enough for lunch.
- Have a nap plan.
- Dress your kids for the environment: shoes, shirt, pants vs shorts, hat, etc.(rain gear?!)
- Don’t forget diapers/wipes/ etal. Remember a bag for the messy diapers (pack it out!).
We had about four awesome peaceful hours in the near-backcountry on this trip, including the excitement of a coyote following us quite closely, the constant sound of the river with no road-noise, and the opportunities to see wildlife up close. Our oldest boy walked the entire way, which is really awesome (insert proud Dad grin here!), and the youngest definitely wore himself out for the day. And Dad got to fish while Mom stayed mostly happy; I say “mostly” because she got to fish for only about fifteen minutes. Absolutely most importantly, we are building the foundation of a love for the backcountry that I so deeply hope turns into future long backcountry trips with quickie planning.
Darin Letrzing lives in Pocatello, Idaho and is an avid backcountry hiker and fisherman. He has authored several books on the subjects including his latest, a children's book entitled Backcountry Kids and his invaluable primer to planning a backcountry fishing trip in Yellowstone, Yellowstone's Backcountry Cutthroats.