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On the trail with his new daughter, a father's perspective changes. By David Wicinas

I'm taking my daughter Lark on her first hike.
I like to walk in the Berkeley Hills every week, and since Lark was born three months ago, I've had this idea of bringing her along. But until recently that seemed impossible. Breast feedings spaced two hours apart held her in a close orbit to her mother, Pamela. Lark's neck muscles were so weak, her unsupported head flopped around like wilted celery. And most important, I viewed Lark as something akin to a live grenade:
a newborn baby can blow any second. When ours detonated, I'd realize that, compared to Pamela, I'm a guest parent. I show up on weekends and make cameo appearances at night. Not nearly enough time to hone childraising skills. Certainly not enough to join the bomb squad.
But things are different now. Lark's a big girl. She holds her head high; she waits three hours for her next meal. Driving toward the hills with her, I realize this is the first time we have ventured past the corner store unescorted by her mother.

A Sound Investment
At the foot of the trail, I park, extract Lark from her carseat, and load her into the baby backpack. Normally, when I hike I make do with Spartan equipment. But after Lark was born I decided any recreational technology that could help me take her hiking was worth acquiring. I could continue an activity that delights me, and I could give Pamela some respite from the demands of mothering. So after conducting a little consumer research, I settled on a fancy baby carrier I call the Strato-Papoose. It features pneumatic shock absorbers, a 19-point restraint system, and a built-in bulb aspirator.
Ever so gently I slide Lark into the Strato-Papoose's cockpit. She remains calm. Trying to work quickly without any telltale fumbling, I lash a bewildering spiderweb of protective straps around Lark. Still no complaints. Finally, I heave the baby in her padded nylon throne onto my back and march. She gurgles happily. It's a good sign when live grenades gurgle.
After only a few minutes, I decide the big bucks I dropped on the Strato-Papoose were a sound investment. It rides so comfortably that, even though I'm packing my sole descendent, the only difference from hiking alone is that I can't crash through low-hanging branches. I have to limbo beneath them. Plus, I hear soft little whimpers in my ear. They sound like a puppy.
I am reminded of the first few weeks of Lark's life, when she slept in our bedroom. Every little yelp would send Pamela and me diving for the bassinet. Unfortunately for our REM cycles, the sleeping Lark emitted an astonishing variety of pops, clicks, and whistles. Back then she didn't sound like a dog. She sounded like a dolphin.

Muscle strain
The hill where I walk slopes steeply. On any day it's a tough climb. Throw in 15 pounds of baby fat and the result is a good lactic acid burn in your butt. Hiking with a baby on board, I decide, delivers far better exercise than any stair climber. It's the BabyMaster! Works your gluts while it spits up on you!
Actually, I don't begrudge Lark a little muscle strain. Or the curdled milk. Far outweighing those annoyances is the pleasure of watching sunlight shimmer through eucalyptus trees, of hearing jays screeching in oaks, of ratcheting the pace of life down to the simple task of placing one boot before the other.
I brought a little mirror to watch Lark. Every few minutes I drag it from my pocket, hold it up, and look back. She sits behind my neck, peering over the edge of the pack like some
tiny forest creature. Occasionally Lark gums the edge of the Strato Papoose. Mostly she peers up at the trees with steady, watchful eyes. Her eyes look as blue as her denim cap.
Sometimes Lark amazes me with periods of what seem to be deep thought. I wonder what a child so young might be contemplating. Pamela and I speculate that infants can remember previous lives, but as they engage with the present world they forget those pasts.
As I chug up the hill, I keep checking Lark in the rearview mirror. Before the baby was born, I hiked looking forward, up, down, sideways, always trying to absorb as much of my surroundings as possible. Today I've mostly stared backward. Is this some kind of portent for the years ahead?
After a long sweaty climb, the trail tops a rise, and we are blessed with a spectacular view of San Francisco Bay. Across the glistening water, skyscrapers rise up like the Emerald City. Farther out, beyond the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, lurks an imposing mountain range of fog.
With the mirror, I glance back to see if Lark enjoys this stunning vista, a magnet drawing tourists from around the globe. Her head rests against the wall of the pack. She's sound asleep.

Hooting Owls
On the way down, we get a special treat. Deep in the tall, shadowy eucalyptus, the owls are hooting. As their calls echo through the thickening gloom, I study the upper branches of the towering trees but see nothing. All winter, when I hike late in the day, I hear owls in this grove talking to each other. I always stop but almost never spot one. Owls know when and where to show themselves.
With the rearview mirror, I look to see if Lark shares any of my fascination for these mysterious sentinels of the night.
Not right now. She's still snoozing.
That's okay. There are many days coming when Lark and I can walk this trail and hear the owls.

DAVID WICINAS, C'75, is the author of Sagebrush and Cappucino: Confessions of an LA Naturalist. He is currently writing an evironmental mystery -- while his daughter naps.

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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/19/97