LESSON NO. 1 in skipping rocks: the hunt.
Searching for the proper stone can be tedious, but it’s the most crucial step. The right rock must be flat; it must be smooth; and it must be just the right size — not too heavy but not too small. You’ll know you’ve found it when you pick it up.
Lesson No. 2 in skipping rocks: the throw.
As a Little League baseball coach, I try to teach kids safe throwing techniques: elbow up, a 90-degree arm angle, fingers on top of the ball. As a rock-skipping master (a title I bestowed on myself, thank you), I quickly abandon those rules and teach my three kids a sidearm fling that, while wildly reckless, is sure to set them on course to break the Rock Skipping World Record.* Hey, a dad can dream.
(*I looked it up, and this does exist: The world record is 88 skips. Yes, 88! My best on this day was 17 skips, although my kids have at times accused me of delusions of grandeur.)
Finding the perfect rock became our mission — our obsession, really — during a mid-March afternoon hike at Wallace Swamp Creek Park in Kenmore. There were six of us who set out on this mini-adventure: me, my three kids (ages 11, 9 and 4), my father-in-law and my mother-in-law. We had little ambition beyond soaking up as much sunshine as possible.
The hike itself at Swamp Creek isn’t much of a challenge. The park is well-maintained by Kenmore Parks & Trails and covers 25 acres, most of which is wetlands and forest. There are 2 miles of trails, and our “adventure” there was more of a nature walk. And that was part of the appeal for our small party. The most advanced hikers we are not, but that didn’t matter in the moment.
Our walk — and our impromptu rock-skipping competition — during the early days of social distancing was exactly what we needed. After more than a week cooped up inside, I wanted a simple — yet safe — way to get the kids out of the house for a couple hours. We needed to get outside, needed to breathe in nature and needed some quality time with Grandma and Grandpa.
The further removed we get from that afternoon at the creek, the more meaning it has taken on for me. It was the respite I needed from the uncertainty and anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic, and looking back, I can safely say that those two hours together were two of the best hours we had in March.
And that got me thinking about the near future and about ways — once our isolation ends, fingers firmly crossed — that we can enjoy the outdoors again. I know I want to get out to nature and explore like never before, and I know I won’t be the only one with that urge this summer.
I EXPERIENCED FIRSTHAND the emotional boost of being in nature, even when I was out for only a short time that afternoon, and researchers at the University of Washington and Stanford University have tried to quantify those exact effects associated with outdoor activity. The benefits, the researchers say, are vast.
Nature exposure, they say, can improve psychological well-being in many ways, including:
• reducing stress, depression, aggression and obesity, and
• increasing overall happiness, cognitive function (including memory and attention), sleep habits, social engagement and children’s school performance.
There are also practical applications to those studies locally, as King County remains one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, which has threatened some of our natural trails and green spaces with development. The aim of one recent study was to provide city leaders — here and everywhere — with a conceptual model to help inform decisions on urban planning and environmental management with regard to mental health.
The study, published in Science Advances last July and led by Greg Bratman, an assistant professor at the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, predicts that by 2050, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. So therein lies the catch: While more and more studies are proving the widespread mental-health benefits of being outdoors, more and more people are living in cities, indoors and in front of screens.
“We have entered the urban century. Cities are farther away from nature, with suburbs gobbling up the pockets of wilderness that used to border them,” Gretchen Daily, senior author of the study and faculty director of Stanford’s Natural Capital Project, said in a news release. “In all of human history, people have never been so disconnected from nature, and we’re becoming ever more so. Alongside this trend, there is a significant increase in some types of mental health disorders worldwide. Our work focuses on the connections between these trends and what we can do about them.”
THAT STUDY, MIND YOU, was done before social distancing became the driving force in our daily lives. And while that touched on vitally important issues, they feel less timely right now. What about the near future? What happens when our emergency stay-at-home order ends, when we are free to roam again and explore our many wonderful trails and green spaces?
“It’s hard to know what to expect. This is new territory for all of us,” says Kindra Ramos, a spokesperson for the Washington Trails Association.
As I write this in early April, I have just finished yet another walk around my neighborhood. As a family, we’ve been trying to hit the recommended goal of 10,000 steps a day, and most days we’re getting there. And, look, I like my neighborhood, and I enjoy the leisurely walks with my wife and kids (and our new Siberian husky puppy), but I am desperately ready for a different landscape — for some actual new territory to explore.
In researching this story, I scoured the Washington Trails Association website (wta.org) for recommendations on family-friendly hikes in the area. A few of the most intriguing: Franklin Falls at Snoqualmie Pass, Ebey’s Landing on Whidbey Island and Red Top Outlook in Teanaway.
During the first week of our isolation, I daydreamed of a family trip to Hawaii, or perhaps some other exotic destination; mostly, I think, I was just trying to escape the anxiety of the moment. That kind of trip isn’t a realistic option for us, for various reasons, and it’s not even necessary, as local hiking author Craig Romano told me during a long phone conversation one day.
Sure, family getaways can be wonderful, but Romano wisely reminded me that nothing is greater than the Puget Sound region during the summer. Why leave?
“The irony is, on a sunny summer weekend, I’ll go to the Redmond Watershed (for a hike), and I’m all alone,” Romano says. “On holiday weekends, there are so many people who leave town.”
SO I ASKED Romano for suggestions, for some hidden gems in the area. What are his favorite hikes? What’s one trail I have to take my family to?
“In King County, one of the best places — one of the most underrated places — is Vashon Island,” says Romano, who has written more than 20 books, including a new Urban Trails series on various Western Washington hikes. “It’s unbelievable there. The largest stretch of undeveloped coastline (in the county) is on a public park on Vashon, and it’s not a secret.”
Romano says he gets feedback sometimes from folks in the hiking community imploring him not to reveal lesser-known trails, and he understands the sentiment. But he also feels an obligation to help people discover new places — and to share his enthusiasm for them — while also perhaps pulling a few hikers away from our overused trails, such as Rattlesnake Ledge or Mount Si. To him, those hotbed attractions are like a trip to Disneyland.
Too often, Romano says, it seems as if new hikers see a pretty image of a popular destination on social media and fall in love with the idea of that place. For some, he says, the appeal of a hike is getting a big payoff at the end of a trail. For Romano, however, hiking has always been about enjoying nature, finding solitude, discovering wildlife and being reflective. Sometimes, he feels, that gets lost on other hikers.
“Too many people go for that superlative, incredible, in-your-face view,” he says, adding: “If crowds are OK with you, then it doesn’t matter. Go to Rattlesnake. But if you go, don’t complain about the crowds. That would be like driving in Seattle and expecting no traffic.”
Romano agreed with my hypothesis that we should expect large numbers of people heading out to enjoy the outdoors this summer, or whenever it is deemed safe to do so. In fact, he says, that’s already been happening.
“In the last five or six years, the explosion really became noticeable,” he says. “Now, that doesn’t give you a pass for boorish behavior (on the trails), and that’s the challenge for all of us.”
He encourages folks to find new trails. Before going, he recommends doing a little legwork: Have a plan, and map out your route in advance; once on the trail, be respectful of other hikers (and their space); and “leave no trace” — that is, stay on designated trails, and properly dispose of waste.
Echoing those scholarly studies, Romano says more time outdoors could do wonders for the overall mental health of our communities.
“As soon as we get out of this mess, people are going to have to get outside,” he says. “So get outside. Go watch the sunset. This will be one of the best ways we can fight mental health (issues).”
FOR THOSE OF us who are certified* Rock Skipping Masters, the exposed creek bed at Wallace Swamp Creek was a bit like Christmas in March. The hunt was on, and there were thousands of stones to sort through, and then dozens of chances for us to break the world record.
(*Not a real thing, but a guy can dream, can’t he?)
My two oldest kids, Piper and Grady, had some previous experience skipping rocks, and they had a number of impressive throws upstream. A proud dad, I have little doubt they’ll have 88 skips within their sights someday. After a little while, they put the rocks down and took turns crossing the shallow creek on a fallen-tree bridge.
My 4-year-old daughter, Josie, was new to rock-skipping. So we began with the hunt (Lesson No. 1), and she searched and searched for the right rock. “Is this a good one, Dad?” she asked several times.
After finding a suitable stone, we turned to Lesson No. 2. She got extra throwing lessons from her Grandpa Grady and Grandma Chris, and the demonstration from Grandpa was particularly useful: He, like Josie, is left-handed, and it was fun to see her try to mimic him throw after throw upstream. (Grandpa played baseball at UW — a long, long, long time ago! — and he’s still got it; I’m glad Josie got to experience that with him.)
Their left arms in need of a break, Josie and Grandpa continued their rock hunt for another purpose: a fire pit. They gathered 26 midsize rocks and set them on the sand in a circle. Josie added a pile of small sticks in the middle, then pretended to start a campfire. She cheerfully remarked how much it felt like our annual summer trip to the Oregon Coast, and that was the best thing I’d heard all day.
Which brings us to …
Lesson No. 3 in skipping rocks: Keep rockin’.
The best part of skipping rocks is, once you’ve found the right rock, and once you’ve made the throw, you get to do it all again … and again … and again. And that, I’ve realized, is true, too, of getting outdoors and exploring in general. Just keep going, keep searching, keeping throwing yourself into new adventures, big or small.
We’ll be back out again soon.