We were drenched.
We figured it would be a good first backcountry foray with the kids, who were in grade school and middle school at the time. By staying in the club's backcountry lodges where we'd be provided cots, breakfast and dinner, we wouldn't have to lug tents, food and the rest of the accoutrements for backpacking. There were even scheduled naturalist activities geared for families.
We just didn't figure on the unrelenting rain. I'm amazed no one fell on the slick rocks. Of course, we didn't have proper rain gear or hiking shoes. After one night when nothing dried (we were all wearing jeans and sweatshirts) and when more rain was forecast, we decamped for a kid-friendly bed and breakfast in a nearby town, glad for the adventure, but ready for a place to stay dry.
Years later, we all remember that aborted trip more than others that went off without a hitch. Did that rainy trip teach my kids that travel is what you make it, not what you plan? Did it encourage my two daughters to become the avid backpackers they are today, leading wilderness trips all through college? Certainly, travel missteps — or bad weather — make us all appreciate those times things go right. Certainly these days, a little rain wouldn't faze my gang. They'd be prepared with quick-dry hiking clothes, Gortex hiking boots, rain gear and rain covers for their backpacks.
Recently, I found an old photo of us snapped on that trip and it made me think about all the other families that have ventured to these huts before such modern gear was available. The Appalachian Mountain Club is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the mountain huts — the oldest hut-to-hut network in the country.
The AMC is even older. Founded in 1876, it's the oldest conservation and outdoor recreation organization in the country with more than 100,000 members and supporters. Today, a big part of its mission is to encourage families to get outdoors. "The benefits of getting outdoors together as a family are immeasurable, from introducing kids to the sense of accomplishment in climbing a mountain to encouraging a lifelong enjoyment of getting active outdoors," said John Judge, president and CEO of the AMC.
Certainly it is good for them. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids get an hour of outdoor exercise a day.
It can be good for the environment too. The AMC and other experts believe that fostering a kid's connection to nature is a key component in building the next generation of conservationists and there's no better time than the fall, wherever you live, to start building that connection. You'll find lots of suggestions in "Taking the Kids' Great Ideas for Fall."
— Check out the National Wildlife Federation's Hike and Seek (www.hikeandseek.org) programs scheduled in cities across the country. They're a cross between a scavenger hunt and short hike with interactive stations all along the trail.
— Visit a national wildlife refuge during National Wildlife Refuge Week (Oct. 13 to Oct. 19). See what refuges are doing to conserve your wildlife heritage. There is a national wildlife refuge within an hour's drive of most major cities; each state has at least one (www.fws.gov/refuges).
— Download the free Pocket Ranger app (http://www.pocketrangerexchange.com/ ) with advanced GPS technology for geo-challenges, tracking trails, marking waypoints, locating landmarks and more.
If the kids have been begging to go camping, the AMC makes it easy — and you don't even have to sleep on the ground. Their eight huts, designed like those in the Swiss Alps, are spaced a day's hike apart along a 56-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Most of the Appalachian mountain huts welcome families through mid-October with meals and activities. Kids will learn an environmental lesson along the way, as these huts use alternative energy and play a role in environmental research. You can volunteer to help as a citizen scientist. (Rates, including breakfast and dinner and naturalist programs, start at $118 for adults per night, $62 for kids 12 and under. There are also discounts for teens.)
The best part: You don't have to be an experienced backpacker to enjoy the backcountry. Lonesome Lake Hut, for example, is just an hour's hike from the road.
"We're very focused on making it easy for kids and their parents to get outdoors by offering all kinds of family-friendly activities at our lodges and huts," said John Judge. Interactive activities like searching for animal tracks always help keep the kids interested, he suggested.
All year long, you can also opt to stay at Highland Center Lodge or Joe Dodge Lodge and head off on guided day adventures with leaders attuned to kids (we went snowshoeing last winter), returning to a comfortable bed, evening programs and dinner you don't have to cook. I especially love that you can borrow any gear you might have forgotten or don't own, from hiking poles to snowshoes to fishing poles, rain gear or an extra layer. They even have backpacks for babies.
(Rates at Highland Center Lodge, including meals and activities, start at $98 for adults, $44 for kids; Joe Dodge Lodge is slightly less, with discounts at both for teens. Join the AMC for $75 a year and save 20 percent on lodging.)
Some of the families we met during our visit come every year — in the summer, for fall foliage, for the holidays. "It's a great spot for a family because of the community that exists," says Andy Cane, a professor from Florida, who comes with his family every year. In fall, there are special kids' games, hands-on natural history programs, even the chance to learn GPS orienteering.
That there aren't any televisions in the rooms pleases the parents and doesn't seem to bother the kids very much. "I always have my guitar and art supplies and there is always a lot of activities. ... It is very relaxing," said 13-year-old Sarah Stockdale, who has been coming with her family, including grandparents and cousins, since she was little.
The (mostly) shared bathrooms didn't seem to faze anyone either. It is part of the experience. "Like a college dorm for families," explained Suzanne Siner, here with her family from Boston.
"None of us would be comfortable in a regular hotel," explained Fran Hiller, here with an extended group, including a gaggle of grown kids who have traveled from around the country to join their parents. "Some are serious hikers," she said. "Some just want to enjoy the outdoors."
"There is always something to do," said Andy Cane, "And there is plenty of nothing to do too."
Just don't forget your rain jacket.