Washougal resident Randy Lavasseur believes that the physical and mental health of children are changing due to modern-day conveniences and the instant gratification that they bring — and not for the better.
“They are meant to be outside doing difficult things, things that take time to show results — not contaminating their minds with devices, poisoning their mental health by watching television all day or lounging on the beach and eating until they can’t (eat anymore), killing their hearts,” he said. “They are meant to learn how to be at peace with difficult things and build resilience, to be fit, physically and mentally, via nature’s playground.”
Lavasseur’s two children and three of their friends displayed their resilience and fitness during a recent hike through one of the Pacific Northwest’s most challenging “natural playgrounds.” The five Washougal children conquered the 42-mile Timberline Trail that loops around Oregon’s Mount Hood earlier this summer, and completed the hike in five days.
“(They persevered through) melting snow fields, dangerous snow bridges, raging water crossings and tree debris throughout this early season trek around Mount Hood in Oregon, an adventure that tests the most experienced of hikers,” Lavasseur, a deputy regional director for the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service, stated in his journal.
The Timberline Loop Trail “is one of Oregon’s most iconic and scenic trails,” according to cleverhiker.com.
“(It’s) a fantastic way to experience the immense size and beauty of Mount Hood,” the website states. “On the Timberline, you’ll encounter lush old-growth forests, pristine alpine waterfalls, wildflower-filled meadows, towering craggy glaciers, rough volcanic landscapes, and some of the finest Cascade views around. The hiking certainly won’t be easy, with plenty of ups and downs along the way. But in the end, the reward for your effort will be well worth it.”
The website categorizes the trail as “a difficult hike” that is “not a great fit for beginners or families, but … excellent hike for intermediate-to-experienced backpackers.”
Despite her age, Lavasseur’s 8-year-old daughter, Lilliana, could definitely be classified as an experienced backpacker. She tackled Section G of the Pacific Crest Trail (from the Timberline Lodge to the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks, Oregon), in 2022, with her 12-year-old brother Enzo, and completed the Laughing Water Creek Trail, a 4,000-foot elevation climb to the Pacific Crest Trail with 15 miles of switchbacks, near Mount Rainier in 2021.
“Even with her youthful experience, the early season journey of the Timberline Loop Trail would test her grit and fortitude,” Lavasseur stated. “Luckily on this trip, she would not only have her brother, but her friends as well.”
The Lavasseur siblings were joined by Katya Firstenburg, 11; and her 9-year-old twin brothers, Ryder and Sawyer.
“(They) have been practicing for this trek by doing day hikes for well over two months,” Lavasseur stated. “This would be their first time in the backcountry, so they wanted to be ready.”
The group started out from Timberline Lodge, “roaming the mountain clockwise.”
“The day was hot and water consumption was critical,” Lavasseur stated. “As the kids negotiated the trail, I could hear them singing songs and chatting about how excited they were to camp overnight together. Excitement filled the air as they went up a ravine and down into another. The water crossings at this point were fairly easy.”
As they got higher in elevation, they began to traverse snow fields riddled with melting snow caves, which created a falling hazard.
“The kids received training prior to this trip on how to put on improvised harnesses and clip into a safety line for this exact concern,” Lavasseur stated. “They were excited to put this training into use the right way. Snow field after snow field, the trek began to take its toll on their little legs. Nine miles in and the kids were noticeably tired and ready to set up camp.”
The hikers faced an unexpected challenge at the start of the second day when they discovered that the section of trail ahead of them had been washed out.
“Again, the kids had to use their training, this time to rappel off a 50-foot cliff to the water’s edge of another flowing creek that was rushing down the mountain with urgency,” Lavasseur stated.
For the rest of the day, they faced “extreme water passages that would deter most adults,” according to Lavasseur.
“As the kids clipped into the safety line, I could see the eagerness turn into nervousness,” he stated. “That trepidation soon turned into excitement each time they tackled a new water crossing. Lillianna, being the smallest of the group, would fall into the chilling water at nearly every significant crossing. When the water line was at most knee- or waist-high, she would have to walk through it at her waist or chest. She would not be deterred. This day brought the most spectacular views. High on the mountain they posed for pictures at an old shelter with smiles of accomplishments.”
On the third day, the children began to show signs of fatigue as they faced the “most technical and frightening” section of the hike up to that point.
“Surprisingly, this didn’t slow them down or diminish their excitement,” Lavasseur stated. “This day brought significant water crossings and downed trees. Over and under, they circumnavigated the puzzles the tree falls created. Through the snow and freezing unpredictable water, they continued their journey.”
As they began to normalize the process of clipping on snow crampons and improvised harnesses, they encountered a “volatile creek that looked more like a raging river,” according to Lavasseur.
“This time, it was clear that it was too dangerous to cross,” he stated. “As the sunset began to close in on them, a zipline was quickly built. First, each backpack was zipped to the other side. Then, each kid clipped into the line. With nervous smiles, each one of them quickly found themselves on the other side of the rapid. To make it even more thrilling, the three dogs that were also on this trip were zipped through the air and into the arms of safety.”
The kids had an easier time of it on the fourth day, however, following less-challenging terrain to the “magical” Ramona Falls waterfall.
“Now on the northern end of Mount Hood, the trail was more subdued, and had less elevation gain and descent,” Lavasseur stated. “The kids needed an easier day. They were filled with cuts, bruises and bug bites. They also needed to make up for lost mileage due to the number of technical crossings that ate away at the day and distance. On the way, an unexpected snow-rimmed pond appeared. Filled with refreshing water and frogs to chase, the kids rested and played, bringing much-needed relaxation and the musical sounds of kids playing in nature’s playground.”
On the fifth and final day, the children once again showed signs of fatigue, but didn’t back down from the 10-mile uphill climb that they faced.
“This by far, was the most difficult day,” Lavasseur stated. “Knees, feet, hips, and shoulders were all tender and aching. Right over left, each of the kids slowly stepped their way up the rock-filled mountainside. The heat seemed to be the worst on this day. A stagnant aroma and humidity seemed to follow them around. With less shade than most of the trip, it was compounded by the shortage of food left in each of their packs.”
Finally, after nine-and-a-half miles of elevation, the trail started to flatten out.
“At mile 10, each of them lined up, shoulder to shoulder, grin by grin, and walked down the path toward their finish line,” Lavasseur stated. “Forty-two miles of a daring voyage (was complete). Many will never feel the fears they faced, the fatigue they endured, the bone-chilling waters they walked through or the cliffs they ventured over. Nor will most ever feel the accomplishment that will be unforgettable.”