One of the goals of A Taste For The Woods is to provide practical information to help people with challenges get out and participate. The outdoors is for them as well as for us. “Them” too often includes children. In the following guest post Zeb Acuff describes how he worked around the challenges his kids face to get them participating in nature. This is one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve ever posted, and I hope you find it as helpful as I do.
Zeb sent along the following bio:“In addition to being the father of three lovely children, Zeb Acuff is an adventurous outdoorsman trapped in the overweight body of a government desk jockey. He loves his new lightweight hammock and looks forward to one day having enough time, money, and stamina for a week-long backpacking trip.”
In the summer of 2010, my four-year-old son collapsed at an outdoor party. The paramedics that arrived assessed his flushed skin, high temperature, and confused state as heatstroke; the doctors ruled that Isaac suffered from heat intolerance and instructed us to take deliberate steps to keep him cool and out of the sun for long periods.
We have always been a relatively active family. Our favorite outings include going to the zoo, playing at local parks, and taking walks around our neighborhood. With a diagnosis of heat intolerance, we now had to vigilantly rein Isaac in whenever he began to overheat. Gatorade became our outdoor beverage of choice, and he wore a visor instead of a hat to let heat escape more easily.
My strongest fear from this period was that Isaac would never be able to participate in Boy Scouts. I grew up in a multi-generational Scouting family, and my adolescence was molded by very active participation in a local troop. The highlight of the Scouting year was summer camp, a week of hiking, swimming, and sailing, all of it out in the heat. If my son was heat intolerant, I couldn’t see how he could ever fully participate in Scouting, and I was crushed.
The autumn following Isaac’s heatstroke, we noticed that our 18-month old daughter tended to roll her ankles while she was learning to walk. This seemed to be more than the typical first-steps wobbliness, but when we asked her doctors, they dismissed it as something she would grow out of.
A year and a half later, a new team of doctors agreed that Esther’s frequent tumbles while walking were atypical for a healthy three-year-old. They prescribed braces to prevent her ankles from overpronating, and she continues to wear them to this day.
On her fifth birthday earlier this year, Esther received the diagnosis that we had suspected for months: she lives with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting the connective tissues. In layman’s terms, her muscles (especially her legs) have to do additional work to compensate for the work her tendons and ligaments should be doing to keep her upright and active. The most noticeable symptom of this is rapid fatigue; by about the time I’m just getting warmed up, Esther is done and begging to be carried for the rest of the hike. We have even gone so far as to obtain a specialized stroller for her so that she can continue on our family walks after her legs peter out.
I don’t want to give the false impression that I was (or am) a lean, athletic outdoorsman. Growing up, I was always the fat nerd in my peer group. My best sport was math league and I lettered in band. I don’t recall what I weighed back then, but I distinctly remember wearing a 38 inch waist in eighth grade, and my figure expanded from there. At my largest in January of 2010, I squeezed 315 pounds of myself into 48 inch pants that should have been larger, if only I had been able to admit it.
I have since taken charge of my health and dropped 50 pounds, but I still have a long way to go. My favorite exercise is to hike outside, preferably in a natural setting – the more trees and rivers, the better. Most of my more vigorous exercise happens alone, however, as having kids that can’t keep up tends to sour my mood quickly.
To the Gorge
For Independence Day, I wanted to take Isaac and Esther on a day-long Daddy Date. My first thought was to go for a day hike at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, just two-and-a-half hours south of us. But having two medically-complex kids gave me significant pause. Maybe we should just go for a short walk in a local park, or maybe we should find a movie to watch and then get ice cream. The weather forecast was perfect, though, and I had been itching to take the kids to the Gorge for months. Despite the expected challenges, my wife encouraged us to go, and so we headed out early for our adventure.
Our first stop was the Whittleton Branch Trail, an old logging railroad right-of-way along a small creek. I fully expected to have to carry Esther at some point on our trip. The hike in was only a mile, and over relatively easy terrain, but past experience with Esther has demonstrated that a mile is about her limit. If it had been just me alone, I probably would have hiked the whole two mile trail end to end and back again in addition to the half-mile round trip spur to Whittleton Arch. The objective of the day, though, was fun with the kids, not a “workout” or even another completed trail to check off.
The three of us set off in high spirits, with Isaac running ahead, eager for adventure. Esther was similarly excited to see what we could find and the trail did not disappoint (except for the mud, but we resolved just to push through that). There were lots of rocks to scramble over, small drainages to explore, and just enough height off the side of the single-track trail to keep us alert.
After turning onto the quarter-mile spur up to the arch, the terrain got steeper as we climbed up the side of the valley. Nothing too major, but I kept a close eye on where the kids were putting their feet. Just around a bend, the arch opened up in front of us and the kids surged ahead to check out this new area. We were alone when we arrived, which added to the sense of discovering new territory.
All told, we spent about an hour at Whittleton Arch, climbing around on boulders and fallen trees and even scrambling up a steep root-strewn hillside to get on top of the arch. Esther seemed to be unflagging in her enthusiasm and did not report any fatigue or pain. We did take a short rest break to drink some water and have snack, then it was back to the car, with the promise of a pizza lunch at the end. The return was a bit slower than our “ascent”, mostly due to increased investigations off the side of the trail (although we did take one rest break about halfway back). Surprisingly, Esther never once complained about being tired or asked to be carried, and we had just hiked two miles!
At lunch, I asked both Isaac and Esther how they felt. “Good!” was the unanimous and immediate reply, although Isaac was concerned about his muddy shoes (just like I would have been at his age!). I told them that, if they were up for it, I had another trail to take them to after we ate. They agreed, and so we loaded back into the van and headed up to the Auxier Ridge trailhead.
My plan was to hike out along the ridge to a bare spot with commanding views of the surrounding gorge. I thought I recalled the hike being about a mile out from the parking area along a relatively level ridgeline, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. We had refilled our water, and the kids were raring to go.
The first challenge came at a point where the trail doubles back and descends around the head of a valley. I didn’t recall this turn from when I’d been here before, but a quick map check assured me that we were on the right track. A short walk through the trees later and we were back out on the ridge.
After a mile, we passed a side-trail junction, and my overlook was nowhere in sight. Upon my asking, Esther commented that her legs hurt “just a little bit” but that after a rest in the shade, she wanted to keep going. To this point, I had honestly not thought much about Isaac’s heat intolerance. I did notice that he was starting to suck down his water more quickly and he was beginning to get a bit red in the face. I really wanted to get out to the overlook, though, and so I encouraged them to keep going.
We had a great time up on the ridge. There were a couple of side trails to check out and one open shelf of rock which gave them the opportunity to see across and down the gorge. Both kids loved eating the wild blueberries that were ripe and abundant in the dry, sandy soil of the ridgeline. We still hadn’t come across my overlook, though, and the trail ahead didn’t appear to open out anytime soon.
Coming around one bend, I caught a glimpse of our intended destination, about another half-mile ahead. By this point Esther was taking more frequent breaks to sit down and Isaac had pulled his shirt up to cool off. That’s when I realized that, in my enthusiasm to go on a fun hiking trip, I may have just gotten myself into a situation where I would need to carry two kids back a mile and a half to the car. I found a small ledge with a nice view, took the kids’ photo, and declared that it was time to head back.
We took the return trip slowly, with a couple of long rests in the shade, and Isaac passed off his small backpack to Esther for a while. The short descent into the cooler shade of the woods at the switchback was welcome relief, and after that the walk back to the car took almost no time at all. I snapped a photo of both kids at the end of the trail—five miles completed on the day!— and both were still smiling. Isaac had likely started into heat exhaustion, but we were able to keep it at bay and he never tipped over the edge. Esther still wasn’t complaining about her legs, but she was noticeably slowing down by the end. Despite their challenges, I would take both kids back to the Gorge in a heartbeat, but I think I’ll save the long hikes for cooler days.
My biggest lesson when hiking with kids (or anyone with physical limitations) is to remain flexible and have realistic expectations. Don’t be rushed and don’t worry about reaching a certain point on the map. If you’re overly driven to achieve a pre-determined objective, nobody is going to have a good time. Enjoy the company, the conversation, the scenery, the fresh air, and the little things (like blueberries) that you tend to miss if you’re just plowing through to hit a goal.