View of Red Mountain (L center) and Mt. Thompson (high point right) looking north from Mt. Catherine. Hiking with family provides life lessons I can't get by myself.
View of Red Mountain (L center) and Mt. Thompson (high point right) looking north from Mt. Catherine. Hiking with family members provides life lessons I can’t get by myself.

I told my daughter about my most recent hike to Blanca Lake. When I mentioned all the ripe bushes bursting with blueberries and huckleberries, she wanted to see for herself. As an experienced mountaineering coach, I knew taking someone on an eight-mile hike with 3300 feet of elevation gain as a first outing would not be good for anyone. It’s one of those important life lessons we get with experience. Instead, I suggested we try somewhere closer to home, with less mileage, less elevation gain, and a high chance of finding berries.

Enter Mt. Catherine.

Life Lessons: Picking Beautiful Berries on Mt. Catherine
Mt. Catherine gains 1300 feet of elevation in 1.5 miles. It feels like it’s longer than three miles, especially if you stop to pick berries!

Do Your Research

This short, popular hike is accessible from Exit 54 off I-90. How I’ve lived in Seattle for three decades and never tried this steep trail escapes me. But I’m glad I know about it now. Normally, I would avoid visiting the mountains on Labor Day weekend (especially starting at 9:30 a.m.) I’m not a fan of crowds in the wilderness, but when I’m planning a family outing, I modify my expectations and adjust my criteria for success.

My husband and I researched a few trip reports to see if there could be any berries remaining. One person said the berries had all been picked, but another from the same day said the woods had plenty. With a Nalgene bottle, plastic pitcher, and cup container with a lid as our collecting tools, we headed up the trail. Luck was on our side.

Life Lessons: Picking Beautiful Berries on Mt. Catherine

Hiking with Family: How to Make It Work

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve hiked with my family during the past eighteen months. It hasn’t always been that way. I wrote about Family Activities on our website and chaired the Family Activities committee for the Seattle Mountaineers for four years, starting when my daughter was four. We wanted to discover other like-minded families with kids her age who enjoyed hiking. That worked when she was young. But as a teen, she developed other school interests; our family hiking outings dwindled to none.

Adjusting Expectations

Instead of hitting my stride and drinking as I walked, I paid much more attention to how my daughter was doing and called a rest break when she showed signs of tiring.

She still likes to hike in what she calls “kid sandwich” formation: parent in front, parent behind, a kid in the middle with Ajax. Why? She admitted: if she’s in front, she feels pressured to go faster than she normally would and runs out of energy. If she’s behind, she has to race to keep up or feel like she’s going to be left behind. The sweet spot? Traveling bookended with parents on each end and the dog running back and forth.

What, exactly, were my expectations for this particular trip? My short mental list included:

  • Spend quality time outside together as a family (no screens!)
  • Explore a trail and area none of us has ever seen before
  • Do something memorable to celebrate the weekend of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary
  • Get some exercise
  • And, above all else, pick berries

Know Your Parental Roles

On the ascent, my role became “the encourager.” My sense of distance tends to get a bit distorted when I’m traveling at not-my-pace. At minute forty-five, I made the mistake of saying, “I think it’s just ten more minutes,” only to have my husband say the identical thing … exactly ten minutes later. Who was our daughter to believe? Fortunately, we really were only five minutes from the summit. After a steep scramble, we topped out to wonderful views and a happy daughter.

The author's daughter is pleased to have reached the summit block. One of the important life lessons is to celebrate small wins.
The author’s daughter is pleased to have reached the summit block. One of the important life lessons is to celebrate small wins.
Life Lessons: Picking Beautiful Berries on Mt. Catherine
The author’s husband enjoys the view from Mt. Catherine.

Learn From One Another

When we’re outside as a family, it’s more about the quality of the experience together, rather than the difficulty or effort required on the route. And while I typically don’t spend much time at any summits when I’m out by myself, we ended up spending nearly 45 minutes taking in the view, having a snack, watching for birds, and enjoying our little piece of the summit block.

I brought a pair of binoculars, which turned out to be useful. We might have missed out on identifying the female western tanagers and Williamson’s sapsucker sometimes found at higher altitudes in the state. My husband identified the birds while I pointed out as many landmarks as I could, from Red Mountain, Guye Peak, The Tooth, and Mt. Thompson to the north, and Kecheelus Lake to the east, to where I thought Mt. Rainier would be south of us, covered in clouds. I even got to test out my new lounge chair. I carried it, may as well use it.

Life Lessons: Picking Beautiful Berries on Mt. Catherine
The author kicking back at the summit block of Mt. Catherine, looking at a Williamson’s sapsucker drilling into a high-altitude tree.

Reward: Fresh Wild Berries

The best part of the whole outing was hunting for lush berry patches along the trail. This time of year the huckleberry leaves have hints of red, and darker huckleberries are mixed in with lighter blueberries. We carefully stepped on the soil, not roots or branches, to protect the vegetation, and spent nearly two hours collecting a quart of fresh berries. The resulting crisp was dessert for our anniversary dinner.

Life Lessons: Picking Beautiful Berries on Mt. Catherine
Huckleberry bush with fruit
Life Lessons: Picking Beautiful Berries on Mt. Catherine
Our reward!

My daughter’s contribution to our bank of family knowledge came during our berry hunt. She pointed out that by squatting low and viewing the bushes from another perspective, we can discover more fruit that can be hidden from above. And by coming back through the same patch we’d just picked, we can find all those we’ve missed.

Hiking Take-Away

The metaphor for life was not lost on me. How often do we go about our day mired in our habits, hardly noticing the beauty and novelty right in front of us? By taking a different route to work or school, visiting a new cafe or store, or walking in a favorite neighborhood in the opposite direction, we “see” things in a new way. So, too, the berry bushes. When we hike with different people, we experience our world from a fresh perspective. So, too, by changing the age of who we talk to. And by adjusting our expectations to match the people we’re with, we can enjoy ourselves, no matter what we’re doing.

The next time you feel stuck, what is one thing you could try differently? Do you have realistic expectations for the tasks in your day? Instead of creating a list of ten to-do’s (guilty!), what is your number one priority for the day? Can you find a way to do that single thing with all your focus, while having fun at the same time? I’d love to hear how these tips are impacting your exploration of change in the comments box below.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

2 replies on “Life Lessons: Picking Beautiful Berries on Mt. Catherine”

  1. Love this article. The discovery of a trail that is closed to your home. New expression for me “kid sandwich formation”, this is a good one ☝️. Also, bringing binoculars on a hike can be useful to look for wildlife and birds more closely. I love your chair. Something I want to add in my pack.

    I notice I tend to hike trails the same direction, so hiking a trail reverse make you feel you are somewhere else. Or hiking in a different seasons, Spring vs Fall.

    Great blog. Love your writing and the photos. 💖

    1. Thanks so much, Silvie-Marie! Yes, I also like “kid sandwich” and thought her insights were great to share in this post. And I love your idea of hiking in different seasons. One thing I want to play with is returning to favorite hikes in each season (especially those with waterfalls, I documented the difference at Wallace Falls, spring vs. summer in an earlier blog post) to see how they differ. I know birdsong differs significantly between May and any other month of the year. Appreciate the comment!

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