The leaders are distracted less than half a mile into a morning hike at Point Defiance.
First it was a puddle, next it was an interesting rock, then a pile of damp sand. Now, Noah and Zeke Mandell are poking a sign with sticks.
“Mud and rocks and dirt are right up their alley,” their mom, Meghan Mandell, says as the 4- and 2-year-old boys switch back to digging in the sand. “They love this.”
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Mandell loves it too. She’s carrying her third son, 6-month-old Micah, in a front pack and says Hike It Baby Tacoma has been a great opportunity for her and the boys to spend time outdoors with others.
They’ve been participating in the club since shortly after it launched in October. And so have many other families. The group’s Facebook page already has grown to more than 430 members and the group expects to keep growing as summer approaches.
“It’s sometimes hard to find other people to get out here with, so this has been great,” Mandell says, then stops abruptly to address her oldest boy, whose digging has grown more earnest.
“Noah, be careful, you almost threw something in somebody’s face,” she says in a stern but sweet voice. “Thank you. … It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.”
Nothing that dramatic ever happens on a Hike it Baby Tacoma trip. Worst-case scenarios are usually limited to tripping, diaper blowouts and the standard 2-year-old meltdown.
The hike through Point Defiance on March 17 covered a little more than a mile and lasted about 90 minutes. This is about the standard pace for one of Hike It Baby Tacoma’s toddler-led hikes.
The kids set the pace. No puddle goes unstomped. No bug goes unstudied.
Katy Davis and her 2-year-old son, Killean, hike with the group a couple of times each week.
“I think it encourages Killean to walk farther because he sees the other kids walking, so I’m not carrying him as much, which is nice,” says Davis, who is pregnant with her second child. “And a lot of us are stay-at-home moms, so it’s nice to have adult conversation.”
She says she’s made friends with other moms and they sometimes get together outside the group.
At the back of the group of about 30 adults and kids on March 17 is Wesley Molloy and her nearly 2-year-old daughter, Delaney.
First rule of hike club: Nobody gets left behind.
Molloy is the hike leader and is sweeping the trail for stragglers. She’s also the one who started the local branch of the national Hike it Baby club.
Molloy grew up in Montana where playing in the outdoors is a way of life.
“It became part of who I am,” says Molloy, who now lives in Tacoma. And it’s a part of her she wants to pass on to Delaney.
So when Molloy heard about Hike it Baby, she knew instantly it was something the South Sound needed.
She contacted the group’s founder, Shanti Hodges of Portland, to discuss starting a Tacoma chapter. They met for a hike last fall in Federal Way. Molloy loved the experienced and immediately committed to launching the Tacoma branch.
Thanks to social media, Hike it Baby has grown from a small group in Portland in July 2013 to more than 70 groups around the country.
The groups are open to moms and dads, grandparents, nannies and anybody with young kids looking to get outside and connect with nature and other people. Molloy says midweek hikes are typically packed with moms, but weekend trips attract a more diverse group.
Hike it Baby has multiple types of hikes. There are the ones where the toddlers lead the way. There are stroller-friendly walks.
And there are others where parents load small kids in packs along with diapers, wipes and the other tools of parenthood. These hikes tend to go a little faster and cover more ground.
The hikes typically last less than two hours, giving parents an outside chance at completing the outing without their kids having a blowout or meltdown.
But these things sometimes happen, and they aren’t a problem, Molloy says. The group waits and will help if needed, she says.
Traveling at the speed of a 2-year-old opens the eyes of some parents.
“Adults often see the trail and think you need to get from point A to point B, but following the toddlers there is time and space to look at bugs,” Mandell says. “My kids come home with pockets full of rocks. … And getting down at the kids’ level you see different things.”
Laura Powell and her 8-month-old daughter, Olivia, have been with the group since the beginning.
“We stop and talk about this little piece of moss or this little mushroom,” Powell says. “When she was teeny she would just stare up at the trees.”
The excitement of exploring and playing in the outdoors doesn’t seem to wane. “Delaney’s face lights up when she is on the trail,” Molloy says.
Hike it Baby sets a goal of one hike per week but many branches, including Tacoma’s, usually offer more. The club has incentives to lead hikes. Hike leaders are entered into drawings for gear like sunglasses, snowshoes and clothes.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of leading a hike is getting to choose the time and location that best fits your kid’s nap schedule.
Renee Prehm of Lake Tapps was a member of Hike it Baby Tacoma for four months before finally making it out to her first hike, the March 17 Point Defiance excursion. She strapped her 25-pound, 8-month-old daughter, Brecklyn, to her back and met her mom, Teresa Wood, for the hike.
Prehm says she wishes there were more hikes closer to where she lives. Now she can offer to help lead them. “I’m excited about that,” she says.
Brecklyn is Wood’s 11th grandchild, and Wood says the family does a good job of kindling a love for the outdoors. They take the kids hiking and camping, and they dig for razor clams.
“We’ll do it again for sure,” Wood says as the hike winds down.
“We do a lot of hiking, but we wanted to get out and meet some other moms and get her (Brecklyn) some social exposure with other kids,” Prehm says.
Rain and cold doesn’t cancel these hikes, and the kids don’t mind. “The parents tend to be more concerned than the kids,” Molloy says. “But you let them go jump in the puddles and have a good time.
“Everybody goes home refreshed and happy. You see the smiles on their faces. It’s great.”