Words and photos by Ben Popper
Three miles from the end of the road, the rain cloud that we’d been skirting for the last 15 miles finally caught up with us. It opened up as we wove along Carbon River past the ranger station, blasting the sheet of water off the windshield with the wipers set to Mach 1. For the first time in the last 90 minutes, my son was silent in the back seat. At 5-and-a-half, I wondered if he had yet gained the emotional ability to be pensive. Truth be told, the confident front I was putting up to hide the butterflies in my stomach probably wasn’t fooling even him.
Mom is away and the boys are going to play. He and I were headed straight from school on a Friday afternoon to the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park for a quick overnight in the backcountry. Though Carbon River Road has been closed to vehicle traffic since it washed out in spots back in 2006, it’s still passable by four-wheel drive, or bike—its five-mile stretch leading to the marvelously appointed, and now remote, Ipsut Creek campground.
It seemed like an easy-enough introduction for him to the wonderful world of bikepacking, and we were both eagerly awaiting sleeping outside for the first time this season. The rain let up a little, and I turn back to him. “We should be there in a minute or two, are you ready?” To which I got an enthusiastic response: “Yeah Dad, I am ready to go bikepacking!”
When we first brought home an Adams Trail-A-Bike, I noticed almost immediately that the hand-me-down had enough random holes in the rear dropouts that I could probably get a rack onto it. A family bike-camping trip was being hatched right there and then. I found a rear rack for a 24-inch bike at our local bike co-op, and have been ready for the adventure ever since. All winter I had been eyeing the waiting rig in the corner of our basement, and when the day finally arrived, I attached my Rock Lobster gravel bike and loaded it down with two full panniers, a bear-proof barrel and a 45-pound kid.
The rain started letting up. Struggling around the gate like an 18-wheeler in a Walmart parking lot, we were on our way into the backcountry with, save for our car, an empty parking lot behind us. We were going to have it all to ourselves.
If there were any moments along the way when I began to get discouraged because I couldn’t ride a soft, rocky, uphill section, my spirit would instantly be lifted by the giggles of my boy. He thought it was hilarious that I was off the bike, grunting and pushing while he got to pedal. He would even clamber off and help push, because, apparently, pushing your bike is a necessary part of bikepacking, and I was giving him the full experience.
It only took about 100 feet for me to start sweating through my rain gear, and another mile to get a little tired. But as soon as I’d start wishing for the campground to be just around the next bend, I’d hear a yell from behind, letting me know that he was shifting into a better gear to help more as if he could tell I was feigning. A flurry of pedaling would ensue from behind, and—like a black-and-gold ’73 T-Top Firebird—my underweighted front tire would lift off the ground. We happily swerved, wheelied and bounced up the river valley, keeping a keen eye out for bears.
I had been watching the weather forecast for the weekend degrade for days, but we had been granted a window and made it to the campground without it raining. Even better, we were able to set up the tent and get most of dinner in before the next set of showers rolled through. We climbed into the tent, and I settled in for trying to contain a little boy after a long car ride and not a whole lot of rumpus time. Expecting this, I came prepared. I got him into dry, warm clothes, and surprised him with a little Lego set he didn’t see coming. It brightened his mood and gave us a light, compact and fun in-tent activity.
As the last blocks clicked together, the rhythmic patter of rain slowly fell silent, and we left the tent to make a short pajama-clad exploration of Carbon River. The sun slowly sank below the ceiling of clouds on some far, unseen horizon, bathing a perpendicular valley in a blaze-orange sunset. A bear could have appeared in the river bottom riding atop a moose juggling live salmon, and we would still have been more surprised by the sunset on this rainy evening deep in the mountains.
The rain really started in earnest at about 1 in the morning. After that, I didn’t sleep much, trying to plan our exit strategy the best I could. I knew the hardest part was going to be getting out of the tent to retrieve the bear barrel, but after that I could cook from the relative shelter of our vestibule.
I awoke the sleeping boy after his oatmeal and hot cocoa were already cooked and cooling. Keep him warm was my mantra. The hot chocolate, a two-prong approach, warmed the belly and put a little extra oomph in his step. After hours of restless worrying, the transition from bag to bike went swimmingly, and we were cruising downhill in no time. It would have been rad to stay and explore the river and trails some more, but it seemed foolish to tempt the rain any further, and we had a violin recital to get to.
Three miles into the five rainy miles back to the car, I was a little apprehensive on what his outlook would be. This could turn him off forever. I try not to push things on him, lest he never want to do them again. The proof was to be in the pudding.
I had taken my hood down so I could hear all the chatter from him as we rode. He had gotten silent again for a bit, and I called back to make sure I wasn’t spraying him. He replied, “No Dad, I just think we made the right decision by camping and not staying home.” An hour later in the car, when asked by his Mom on the phone what his favorite part of the trip was, he enthusiastically responded, “Riding through the rain this morning on the way back to the car!”
This had been an amazing time with my son in the backcountry, our first father-and-son-only camping trip. I will remember it fondly, forever.