Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: Should the Entire Crawford Family Have Been Allowed to Summit Katahdin?

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How do you feel about the Crawford family hiking the Appalachian Trail and not being able to summit Katahdin at the end of their thru-hike?Scott

The Crawfords have generated a strong reaction from the long-distance community, garnering strong supporters and vocal detractors. I did not closely follow the Crawford’s journey, but I heard about their adventure from other hikers. What I have come to understand is that a mom and dad with six kids, whose ages ranged from two to 17, traversed the entire Appalachian Trail only to be denied the path’s final summit at Katahdin. The rules at Baxter State Park do not permit children age six and under from climbing above treeline on the park’s highest mountain. And the park was unwilling to make an exception for the Crawford’s two-year-old son.  

I don’t know enough about the Crawford family and their hike to have an opinion about whether it was responsible parenting, exemplary parenting, or a mom and dad who pushed their kids too hard and too far. If I had to guess, I’d say it was probably a swirl of all three. However, it’s misplaced for naysayers to suggest DSS should be alerted to an attentive mother and father who decided to take their children on a family adventure in the woods.

Throughout history, the majority of youth have spent hours of active outdoor time farming, apprenticing, and toiling alongside their families. Modern culture does a disservice to children by underestimating both their physical ability and emotional capacity. Most parents, myself included, could be just as easily accused of neglect for turning on the television or handing our children a tablet and directing our attention elsewhere.

I can’t imagine parenting without help from PBS Kids, or thru-hiking with my five-year-old daughter and one-year-old son. My daughter has more interest in dressing up like a princess and singing to squirrels, sitting by a creek and coloring, or strip-mining all the M&Ms out of our trail mix than she does in hiking down the trail. Even as a five year-old, her trail name remains: “Hold Me.”

Healthy, able-bodied children are less of a risk on the mountain than individuals with health concerns or lack of fitness and backcountry experience.

So no, I wouldn’t want to deal with my daughter’s bellyaching or my son’s diapers on a six-month thru-hike. But that doesn’t mean that my children are not capable of hiking the Appalachian Trail… or Katahdin.

There have been several young children who have completed the Appalachian Trail with their families. At five years old in 2012, Buddy Backpacker completed the AT, and now he’s a Triple Crowner. Lisa Murray, a single mom from Florida finished the AT in two summers hiking alongside her young twins. The twins started hiking when they were three years old and finished the trail when they were five years old. Last year, Bekah and Derrick Quirin carried their one year-old daughter the entire length of the trail. Thru-hiking with young children is not a new phenomenon. There is record of a six-year-old thru-hiking in 1980.

My understanding is that Buddy Backpacker and Lisa Murray’s family were both able to summit the mountain with “underage” hikers. The Crawfords, however, were not granted permission to climb above treeline. I’m not sure if the discrepancy has to do with a difference in the age of the children or Park administration. But if a child is able to traverse the entire Appalachian Trail—unassisted or in a carrier—they should be allowed to summit Katahdin.

Yes, Katahdin is a difficult and strenuous climb, but no more challenging or technical than Mahoosuc Notch, The Bigelows, or Mt. Moosilauke, to name a few. Healthy and able-bodied children are less of a risk on the mountain than individuals with health concerns or lack of fitness and backcountry experience. I would feel a lot more confident getting a four year old up and down that mountain than a fit 80 year old, a heart attack survivor, or a hiker with moderate to severe asthma. Yet, Katahdin’s summit and history are filled with these finishers and many far more extreme examples.

I’m not sure why Baxter State Park was unwilling to make an exception for the Crawford family. They might have a very good reason. I’m sure that the rule’s origin and essence is rooted in wanting to keep young children safe. The difference between a middle-aged obese smoker climbing the mountain and a mom carrying a toddler is that the middle-aged adventurer is able to assume their own risk while the child’s experience has been decided by his or her parent. Still, an important element of the wilderness experience—and a child’s development—is learning responsible risks through adventure.

I think it would be fair for Baxter State Park to require families with young children to sign a waiver, provide a doctor’s note of consent, or even pass a fitness standard or provide documentation of previous backcountry experience to gain access to Katahdin. But, ultimately, the decision about whether a child can summit a mountain should rest with the parents, not Baxter State Park.

In August 2016, I reached Baxter Peak on the top of Katahdin for the fourth time. The next month I gave birth to my second child.

I never considered it to be an extreme risk to hike the mountain pregnant. During my first pregnancy, I backpacked 500 miles through the Spanish Pyrenees that was capped off by a 50-mile Icelandic trek in my third trimester. I didn’t log quite as many miles with my second child, but I did summit Mount Saint Helens with an ice axe in June and I worked as a professional hiking guide on the Appalachian Trail and the Camino Santiago in July. On August 2nd, at 32 weeks pregnant, I climbed Katahdin as the culmination of several days spent canoeing, hiking, and picking blueberries in the backcountry of Maine with a group of teenagers.

The next day, on our drive south, my husband and I stopped for a break in Freeport, Maine. I was excited to scope out the LL Bean Store and my husband was looking forward to visiting Maine Beer Company. When we arrived at the tasting room my husband ordered his drink and then turned to me and asked if I wanted anything. I looked at the bartender and ordered the lowest ABV beer on the menu. The bartender returned with one pint.

The woman behind the counter served my husband, but refused to serve me because I “looked pregnant.” So I turned to her with all the rage of a woman hopped up on hormones who had just spent the past week with a group of teenagers in the backcountry, and I said, “I am pregnant. And my decision to enjoy one or two drinks a week during my third trimester will be determined by my husband, our doctor, and me. It’s not up to you!”

My husband turned to me and asked, “We don’t get to stay, do we?”

Tackling a long-distance hike as a family, climbing Katahdin, or having a low-ABV beer in your third trimester is a personal decision that needs to be weighed deeply and discussed in depth by the family and with a family doctor. It shouldn’t be dictated by societal norms or discriminatory rules. And when and where family adventure is restricted, it deserves better answers than “that’s how it’s always been.”

I commend the Crawfords for turning around as a family at treeline on Katahdin. In doing so, they demonstrated their care as parents. They were unwilling to exploit their youngest child and turn him into an unwilling and unknowing activist. Katahdin is an incredible place. Its name is translated as “the greatest mountain,” but it’s summit—or lack thereof—does not define an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Especially when you travel 2,188 miles to reach her crest and are told that you don’t belong there.

Looking for more? Find our entire collection of Jennifer’s sage wisdom here.

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Comments 29

  • Warren Doyle : Aug 30th

    Well thought out and well written (as always).

    The mistake that the Crawfords made was to call Baxter State Park to ask permission.
    Once you are their radar, it’s you vs. Percival Baxter and the governor, even after being under 6′ of ground for decades, always wins.
    Unforunately, legal authority usually wins out over moral authority (even though the latter is more valuable than the former).

    Reply
    • Gary Sizer : Sep 6th

      Let me see if I’m reading this correctly.

      You’re suggesting that their efforts to comply with the rules (calling to ask permission) was their mistake? That hikers should exercise moral authority by disregarding actual authority, particularly in the one place that’s been under the “hiker entitlement microscope” in recent years? Why, that’s almost as ridiculous as suggesting hikers ford the Kennebeck, or walk through wildfires.

      (checks username…)

      Ah. Of course.

      Warren, I want to agree with you, at least philosophically that moral authority is worth more, because in some cases it certainly is. However, in this time where the entire hiker community is teetering on the balance between having Katahdin and losing it for good, thumbing our noses at Baxter (and the rest of the trail too) is the wrong approach. Unless you’d like to see Abol Bridge be the new northern terminus.

      We as a community cannot cherry pick which rules to follow. We are entitled to nothing, and the trail is a gift.

      Reply
  • rob : Aug 30th

    I don’t disagree with Warren above – the philosophy of “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission” applies in this case.

    That said, and personally thinking it’s a silly CYA rule, I think the family blew it. They should have left someone with the two year old at tree line, had the rest summit and then have the person who waited with the baby summit themselves. The two year old would neither know or care, and the rest could have summited.

    Let’s not even get me going on people who, in this already overcrowded world, are irresponsible enough to have SIX kids….

    Reply
    • Bob : Aug 30th

      I think if more families were invested in their kids like the Crawford’s are the world would be a better place. In this world of the x-box basement dwelling generation the value of work and perseverance need to be instilled. The Clinton village should back off and respect a parents liberty to know and raise their own family. I give them credit for not summitting and doing it as a family.

      Reply
      • rob : Aug 30th

        Unsure of what you mean by “the Clinton village”, or if that’s even relevant. As Warren observed, you never ask permission as bureaucracy is in the business of saying “no”. As for doing it as a family or not at all, that’s stupid if the one member of the family is incapable of remembering that it was even there.

        Reply
    • beeveedee : Aug 30th

      Clearly you missed the whole point of two things: One, the Crawfords made their decision BECAUSE they are a family—they hiked as a family and they were going to finish as a family, a decision they all mutually agreed on. Their YouTube channel is called Fight for Together for a reason… We live in a modern society that is quickly unraveling and united, working Families are unfortunately a minority in our Me First world.

      Second, it’s none of your business if they choose to have SIX kids. Maybe you’d prefer living in a country like China that limits children in a family, but even China has found that doesn’t work out too well.

      Reply
      • beeveedee : Aug 30th

        …AND I commend also Jennifer for a well-reasoned answer. I couldn’t help but think, when the issue came up of whether the Crawfords would be allowed to summit, that 150 years ago our West was settled by families who rode wagons, rode horses and WALKED to reach their destination. We have grown too soft, too protective, and too much of a nanny state that makes people think they can tell you can’t have that beer by your own choice.

        Reply
      • rob : Aug 30th

        I had no idea these people had a youtube channel, although that would be normal in our “selfie” society.

        I find it so bizarre that people keep claiming we are living an a society that is unraveling. We are living in a time that is safer and wealthier than anytime in the history of mankind. The fact that a lot of our society’s members are not breeding excessively or marrying or following the “norm” from the rosy 20/20 hindsight view of 1950s doesn’t mean that things are unraveling – but rather that they are changing. For the better in my view. As for whether it’s my business if this family chooses to overbreed – of course it is. I’m a member of the human race and we as a species are overrunning the planet, and thinking people worry about that. I, and a lot of other people I know, have chose to have zero, one or two children, max, for exactly this reason. This isn’t 100 years ago where a significant infant mortality rate and poverty-stricken life on the farm made large families necessary. Small families focused on making life better for their few kids is the new norm, and these people didn’t get the memo.. 🙂

        Anyway .. the irresponsibility of them having too many kids was just a side observation.

        I happen to think that Baxter State Park’s rule is silly (if there even is such a rule), but I doubt there is any “nanny state” involved. From what I can tell the park, while a “state” park, is not run by the state. It’s run by a separate entity, in keeping with the donor’s wishes.

        The rule is, I’m sure, to reduce risk. To young children, to rescuers, and to the park itself should someone with a small kid get into a situation where the kid dies and the parents sue the park for not controlling the weather or bears or whatever. The rule doesn’t care that the family hiked from Georgia – the park is only concerned with what happens within its boundaries and its potential responsibilities.

        My main observation was that they should never have even *asked* about taking the baby to the top. Having asked, they should have taken a compromise and summited in two groups, leaving the baby at tree line.

        By choosing to not have any of the family summit, they made the choice that then entire group failed to complete their AT hike. They hiked most of the distance and then abandoned the hike before completion. Out of pettiness or stubbornness. Theirs and possibly the park’s. They *nearly* through hiked the AT, but failed.

        Reply
        • JamesBarr : Aug 31st

          Rob, I disagree with nearly every sentence you have written in your three lengthy posts.

          However, the part that you have totally wrong is: “they made the choice that the entire group failed to complete their AT hike”.

          My opinion is that if you find yourself judging the legitimacy of someone else’s hike, you really need to stop what you’re doing and get a life.

          Reply
          • BILL KITTRELL : Aug 31st

            The Crawfords hiked every mile that was legally available to them in 2018. They are legitimate 2018 AT thru-hikers!
            They chose as a family not to break BSP rules and set a admirable example for all of us.

            Reply
            • John Gordon : Aug 31st

              “hiked every mile that was legally available to them in 2018”
              There’s no law or rule saying everyone else could finished their thru-hike.

              Reply
              • John Gordon : Aug 31st

                There’s no law or rule saying everyone else *couldn’t finished their thru-hike.

          • Acemurphy2 : Sep 1st

            You’ve been served.

            Reply
  • Sara aka Rosey '98 : Aug 31st

    Wow–We were known as “The Family” back in 1998! My mother and us 5 children-ages 10-21 thru-hiked the trail together and I am thankful to say that the restrictions were not as strict back then. How disappointing to have traversed the entire length of the Appalachian Trail and have even survived the rigorous White Mountains to be to that they were not allowed to complete their journey and climb Mt. Katahdin! To The Crawford Family -I am proud of your teamwork and standing together!

    Reply
  • Kit Cosper : Aug 31st

    Poor Brew! His visit stymied by an opinionated server. 🙁

    As far as the central topic, I think JPD states things reasonably and succinctly.

    Reply
  • Gary : Aug 31st

    I think Baxter State Park made a technical mistake. The rule is no one under 6 is allowed to hike. I believe the 2 year old was not technical a hiker but a passenger of an Adult hiker.

    I like the Crawfords decision but after this and the Scott Jurek fine I think the Baxter State Park needs to look at their rules and adjust with the times.

    Reply
    • John Gordon : Aug 31st

      “The rule is no one under 6 is allowed to hike.”

      The rule is no one under allowed above timberline.
      If you watched their Katahdin vid, and know that mountain, you know they went above timberline.
      Then above treeline and onto the Hunt Spur.

      An yet no evil Rangers were hiding behind rocks waiting to pounce and arrest them.

      Their 15 minuted are up. In two years no one remember them.
      But Katahdin, in all its glory, shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.

      Reply
  • John Gordon : Aug 31st

    You’re perpetuating a falsehood.
    Baxter’s rule only applies to the baby, it was the dad who denied the rest of the family the opportunity to finish their thru-hikes.
    The parents knew about the rule long before they hit Maine, and the drama they created was to increase sympathy donations to their ’cause’.
    “They were unwilling to exploit their youngest child”? That’s BS. Their exploitation was the core of their own self-authored drama.

    Reply
    • Jeff Holifield : Aug 31st

      The Clinton village? get over it. Yall need to read the RULES and understand when they were written and when BEFORE you comment.

      Reply
      • Jeff Holifield : Aug 31st

        Same for the writer of the article. Do your research.

        Reply
      • John Gordon : Aug 31st

        Your response isn’t connected to my comment.

        Reply
  • Bob : Aug 31st

    Rules may not have compassion for weary hikers, but if they did ask permission I think they did an honorable thing in doing so even if it seems unfair. Maybe they would not have been caught in not asking, but to forward the idea of rule breaking is like allowing me to build an ATV route through wetlands and park myself right next to a forest service pond and build a dock so I can power my canoe on a non motorized pond. Everyone of those things are not permitted, but why should I bother asking if I think no one is going to report it or even get caught.

    Reply
  • John Gordon : Sep 1st

    “Last year, Bekah and Derrick Quirin carried their one year-old daughter the entire length of the trail. ”

    Nope.

    The parents climbed Katahdin. The child stayed in Millinocket with a babysitter.

    Reply
  • Acemurphy2 : Sep 1st

    The parents made the right choice. What was the alternative ? Thumbing there nose at the rules of the park ? What a GREAT example that would have been.

    Reply
  • Vince : Sep 1st

    Don’t know bout’ any one else, but as for me, do believe it should have been up to the parents as long as they were willing to sign a waiver.
    Vince aka The Dude, SOBO, ’17/’18

    Reply
  • Ed Farthing : Sep 7th

    Loved the article but found this line “My husband turned to me and asked, “We don’t get to stay, do we?” totally awesome!!!

    Reply
  • tbone jones : Sep 14th

    “they made the choice that the entire group failed to complete their AT hike”. I have to agree the older kids should of gone to the summit, and I am guessing this will be a thorn in their side for a while

    Reply
  • Bob Norton, Jr. : Sep 14th

    They completed the trail as a family, all parts that were open to them barring rules, sections closed for fires etc., so they have had a completely successful hike. They should be extremely proud of their accomplishment, and the incredible education and experiences they were able to provide for each and every one of them. There is nothing negative about this hike, to each his or her own with regards to their opinions, but nothing can take away the tremendous success and the family unity that has been demonstrated to many around the world. Bravo.

    Reply
  • GK Lott : Sep 14th

    “…it’s summit—or lack thereof—does not define an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Especially when you travel 2,188 miles to reach her crest and are told that you don’t belong there.” Well said, and overall an excellent article. Thanks. BSP leadership again confirms that it takes “Dirigo” obstinately.

    Reply

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