Grateful Dads hiking group blazes parenting trail
BY JACKIE BURRELL
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Fog drifts across the surface of the Lafayette Reservoir and drips from the trees on this wintry weekend morning, but the Grateful Dads are well-bundled and eager to hit the trail.
They strap on baby backpacks and adjust fleece hats on the rosy-cheeked occupants-to-be: the toddler members of this eclectic hiking group.
The way things are going, the Grateful Dads may go worldwide.
The concept is irresistible - dads and tots hiking together, aerobic workouts, beautiful surroundings, fathers bonding while moms sleep in. And the name? That's a nod to the legendary band, of course.
Before the birth of daughter Maddie in 1998, founder Jonathan Marks had worked for the Grateful Dead, trekked the Himalayas and hiked the Alps. So it's no surprise that impending life changes were on his mind the morning he went for a hike with his then-pregnant wife, Paula.
"Everyone says, 'Your life changes, your life changes,' but I enjoyed my life too much," says Marks. "This idea came to me that would incorporate my love for the outdoors and hiking with a new child. The Grateful Dads was born."
What began with eight dads and seven babies - one nervous new mother didn't want to let her infant go hiking the first time out - now has 300. But the premise is still the same. There are no fees, no RSVPs and no one takes roll. You just show up.
On any given weekend, six to 20 dads show up with babes in tow at California's East Bay chapter. They tote them in slings or backpacks, slather on the sunscreen and tramp the trails with water bottles and tied-on baby toys flapping against the pack frames.
The group mixes the pace, opting for the paved path around the Lafayette Reservoir one month and the steeper trails of Joaquin Miller Regional Park the next.
As they hike, they talk - not just about life, work and sports, says Marks, but about "the more critical aspects of life from 'How do I still remain a cool husband, a cool guy?' to 'How do I deal with lack of sleep?' It's a casual, easygoing forum."
And it's a lovely, free morning for the mothers.
"There are many in the group who say it should be called the Grateful Moms," Marks says with a laugh.
The benefits go beyond a weekend walk. Dads bond with their kids on the trails, he says, and they learn paternal self-sufficiency.
"Dad's on a hike in the middle of Mount Tam, and your kid starts to cry for no discernible reason?" says Marks. "You have to figure it out."
Marks' daughter, Maddie, was just a few months old when the Grateful Dads were founded. Now, he totes his youngest, Gabriel, in the backpack while his daughters hike alongside.
There are fathers with infants and toddlers, single dads and men with a 10-year-old by the first wife and a 1-year-old by the second. There are poets, engineers and Realtors and then there are friends.
And the Grateful Dads are spreading, Marks says with delight. Chapter-launching inquiries have come in from fathers across the country. One of the original Dads moved to Spain and started a chapter there. The possibilities are limitless, Marks muses: global Grateful Dads, a worldwide network of dads and kids in the great outdoors.
The Bay area got its second chapter three years ago when Allen Mueller got tired of schlepping across the Richmond bridge for outdoor adventure and remembered that the East Bay has amazing trails of its own.
"There are so many neat places in the Bay Area that you just don't see if you're just going to work every day," Mueller says, "and I was looking for something to get back in shape and do something with my daughter."
Mueller's daughter Cassidy was just 2 when she started hiking with her dad. She'd ride in a backpack or traipse the trails with her stick pony, Blackie No. 1. Now 5, Cassidy gallops along the Lafayette Reservoir path on Pinky, the newest member of the Mueller's stick pony stable.
Little brother Evan, age 2 and pink-cheeked with excitement, trades rides on Blackie No. 2 with his buddy, Sean Pletcher.
"We've always been hikers," says his father, Castro Valley attorney Brett Pletcher.
"But it was harder after we had Sean. They're heavy to carry, but the dad's group goes slow enough. It makes it easy."
Mueller dragged Pletcher along on the Grateful Dads' first East Bay hike, a trek at Del Valle Regional Park.
A month later, the new chapter had 30 members, and the numbers just grew from there.
They added a "friends and family hike" at Tilden Park, then an annual family camp out at Chabot. Now they're thinking bikes. An Iron Horse trail ride is scheduled for April.