Whenever people are new to hiking and wonder how to get started or which trails to go on with young children, I recommend the book Best Hikes With Kids: Western Washington and the Cascades by Joan Burton, with photos by Ira Spring. I recently had the fortune to sit down with Joan Burton and hear her story. I’m delighted now to share with you what I learned from our visit.
Joan Burton began hiking as a child in western Washington. Her father took her and her sister Carol hiking on true wilderness trails, before there were any guidebooks written. Joan says, “My father took us up two very difficult trails, way too hard for children, and I don’t recommend either one, but I would say he made us feel that we could do anything.” That confidence and sense of adventure drove Joan and her sister to join the Mountaineers club as young teenagers. “My sister was my constant companion, and we both took the climbing course, and we both went off and climbed all the major peaks, which means Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Olympus. We did that before we were 18, and so you can see how fanatic we were!”
Because of her acquaintances in the Mountaineers, Joan was introduced to Ira Spring in 1954. Ira had gotten a story assignment for a brand new magazine called Sports Illustrated. He asked Harvey Manning, chair of the Mountaineers Climbing Committee, who recommended Joan, her sister, and two teenage boys for an article about youth climbing Mt. Rainier. “It was an amazing thing to be able to camp on the summit of Mt. Rainier,” remembers Joan. “It’s still kind of a rare occasion, and a real privilege for us. And not one night, but two. And we had plenty of time in the week before just kind of rambling around and taking pictures. He set up [photos of] jumping cravasses, and chopping steps… getting up on the summit and watching the sunset from the crater rim was so wonderful. Absolutely the most beautiful thing you could imagine.” Joan talks about cooking prunes overnight on the steaming fumaroles in the crater, about the leather men’s work boots the ladies had to have altered, and about the heavy canvas Trapper Nelson packs they carried.
Joan continued hiking as an adult and mother, taking her children on multi-day backpacking trips and hiking all around the state. I asked Joan if she had any disasters while hiking with her children, and she told me two stories. “One [time] is when they absolutely didn’t want freeze-dried food, and that’s all I had brought. I thought I had splurged on something they would love! It was when freeze-dried food was new. And they said it smelled bad. They didn’t even want to try it. I’ve forgotten what it was, teriyaki or something. I was just at my wit’s end, I thought, “What spoiled kids!” But what I didn’t realize was they wanted what they had at home. They didn’t want something new. And luckily, we were on a backpack near the Enchantments called Windy Pass, and somebody we knew came along and said he had way too much leftover food, and he didn’t want to carry it back down, wouldn’t we help him out by taking it? So that saved us! And I realized from that time on that if we were backpacking, I had better get the kinds of food they were used to eating from home.”
The second disaster involved a sit-down strike toward the end of a multi-day hike on the Snow Lake Trail (Snoqualmie Pass). Joan’s children refused to go any farther that day, and they made camp in the middle of the trail. They continued on successfully the next day, but Joan learned about her childrens’ limits for carrying heavy loads.
As Joan’s children were growing up, Ira Spring began the 100 Hikes book series, and he often asked Joan to accompany him, help him type up notes, and mail out photos on speculation. Joan continues, “And then finally he had this idea about writing a book for kids, but he didn’t tell me about it until he had presented it to the Mountaineers first…But I was so excited when he told me the idea. He said, “I have something for you, you’re going to like it!” And then he told me that they had approved of an idea for a family hikes book. And I just immediately knew that that was what I wanted to do and that I could do it. Because of all that climbing experience I didn’t think it would be too much… I didn’t know how many hikes we’d end up with, but it was a wonderful gift, the greatest possible gift, to be able to go off with my notebook and every weekend plan, not one or two hikes, but maybe 8 or 9. I went nuts! And I never looked back. And I never had car trouble.” Joan would hike a trail, take notes, hike back down and drive to the next trail. She said she had plenty of energy, and the weather was generally beautiful.
I asked Joan for her top picks for trails with the most bang for the buck. She answered, “I would always say to someone with a child who can’t go very far: start high. Start in the alpine meadows at Mt. Baker. Start in the alpine meadows at Paradise or Sunrise [on Mt. Rainier]. Because no matter how short of a distance they can hike, they’ll see so much! I mean Hurricane Ridge, you’re right up in the high country when you get out of the car! How lucky is that!… It’s nice to give children berries, as an added bonus…if they can pick blueberries or huckleberries as they go along, what a bonus that is.”
Joan continued on: “I have to just comment on one thing. There seems to be so many more people who go to the I-90 corridor but don’t try the other road accesses. And the result is you have trails like Lake Annette, or the Ira Spring trail that are just so crowded, they’re getting worn down, there isn’t room for the cars to park, and it’s all because they don’t look at other possibilities. We had no one with us on this Beaver Lake trail the other day. We never saw another hiker. Isn’t that what you want? The solitude and the beauty? And you don’t get that on the I-90 corridor anywhere any more.”
Joan has plenty of tips for parents who are just getting started hiking with young children. The introduction to her book has great advice, but she also adds:
“I guess if there’s one single thing I would say first it’s don’t be afraid. I think so many times people are fearful, and they don’t have any real reason to be. They may think they don’t know what they’re doing, or that there might be hidden dangers, bears and snakes, and so on, lurking out there. The truth of it is, there really aren’t. We don’t have poisonous snakes in western Washington. We don’t have poisonous insects. Bears, if you see one, you’re lucky! They’re going to go the other way. Of all the things to be afraid of, there just isn’t much. If you’re unprepared, and you get out into bad weather, you could get hurt. But I think by the time it gets that bad, people, if they have any sense, turn back. And that’s the answer, too. It’s to find a place and say, we’ve gotten to our destination, even if it isn’t the one you originally set out. Pick a place if the weather’s getting bad or somebody’s feeling sick, or there’s a toothache or something, pick a place and say, “Let’s eat our lunch at this nice old log and see about that stream over there.” And call that the destination. Make something out of it, and then come back another day when the weather’s good and people feel well. I guess the most important thing is just to be in the moment with the kids and see what they see and enjoy what they see.”
Joan is still hiking and cross-country skiing at least once a week with her friends. She co-authored another hiking book, Urban Walks: 23 Walks Through Seattle’s Parks and Neighborhoods. She stays active volunteering at her grandchildren’s school, where she reads stories she’s written. She recently published a book about her cat, Ella — My Story. The Washington Trails Association featured Joan on the cover of a recent issue of their magazine, as part of an article about hikers who have left a legacy (scroll down to Page 18). You can find the 1954 Sports Illustrated article in their online vault. Joan wrote about another photo excursion with Ira, the Ladies Cascade Expedition, on the Washington State Historical Society’s website. And of course, she maintains her own website and blog, http://www.joanburton.org/.
I had a wonderful time chatting with Joan and looking at her treasure trove of photos from those early hiking days. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to sit with her, hear her stories, and ask her advice. She is a classy lady, warm and smiling, and left a wonderful legacy for many generations of children to follow.