Over the last several months, with some extra time to use and thoughts of summer trips, their minds coalesced around doing “something big, something epic,” said Maura. The result: a 170-mile adventure by bike, paddle and foot over three weeks in northern Minnesota. They are calling it the Arrowhead Traverse for its geographical inspiration and center.
“The kids are at the right age where a thru-hike is possible with them, and I am not sure it will be possible next year because of their size and ages. … We were like, ‘Hey, maybe we should turn this into a three-part journey,’ ” Maura said.
The Markos, who will get support along the way from family and friends, want to inspire other new parents to see the possibilities of continuing their outdoors passions in the face of the daily demands of raising young kids. “We’re hoping to show that, hey, get out there and try it. You can really do these things,” Bobby said.
The family will begin Sunday with the cycling leg on the Mesabi Trail, followed by paddling in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Moose to Saganaga lakes). The final leg is a 65-mile hike of the rugged Border Route Trail.
In a conversation Tuesday, the Markos, both 31, spoke about the mental and physical challenges ahead of the Traverse, which they’ve been planning for six months, and expanded on their motivation for their biggest outing to date. Here are edited excerpts:
What sparked the idea?
Maura Marko: I would say it just sort of grew. Bobby has these three weeks of paternity leave left to take up, and we knew we wanted to do something big, something epic. The kids are at a right age where a thru-hike is still possible with them, and I’m not sure it will be possible next year because of their size and their ages. So, I was like, “I’d like to do a thru-hike.’ And then, we started going to the Boundary Waters last year. We thought, it’d be fun to do the Boundary Waters, too. Jack also loves to go biking. We were like, 'hey, maybe we should turn this into a three-part journey?' We originally started off with this lofty goal of 100 miles per event, and quickly realized that that is not possible.
Bobby Marko: I was just looking at maps, and it was like, wait a minute, you could connect all these things together through these different forms of transportation. We’ve never biked long distances before, so there is excitement about trying a new activity. We’ve been really getting into biking lately.
Why go so big?
Maura: I think for us it’s just showing that it is possible. You know, this might not be everyone’s choice of a summer vacation. We’ve really enjoyed car camping and doing a weekend trip to the Boundary Waters as well, but just to show people that having a child is not the end. It does not mean adventuring is over, doing epic things is over. You can still definitely get out and explore.
Also, we love to challenge ourselves, and we love to push each other and make ourselves do more with one another. This is a really good opportunity for us to be pushed outside our comfort zones. I think it is really easy as parents to stagnate and do what is comfortable and normal. Go to the same state park every year and explore, but not really push yourselves. One thing we are trying to teach our kids is, push your boundaries, push your limits. This might be a totally, epic awesome failure, but we also might have a great three weeks and come out of it with a renewed sense of self-esteem and our self-efficacy. It could just be amazing.
Bobby: A big part of this is we want to see how much further we can go. I can’t think of another time where we are going to have three weeks off that I can just use, so let’s just try to make the most of that time together as a family, especially when the kids are so young and we have more and more activities. Our hope is that having that be the things they are raised with is just their normal. It’s not, like, ‘I don’t want to go hiking’; it’s ‘oh, hiking, that’s what we do as a family.’”
What have been unexpected challenges preparing?
Bobby: Some of the things we’ve worried about have been cars: How are we going to get our car to the endpoint since logistically we are not doing a loop. Luckily we have a lot of people from throughout our lives who are going to come and help us, people who are going to move our cars for us. It’s going to be a lifesaver, because we’re just going to be so tired. To be able to have a day to rest will be huge.
Maura: Bobby’s carrying about 60 pounds, and I am carrying about 50 pounds (in addition to using baby carriers, on the hiking leg), and that is a huge physical challenge. So whether or not our bodies are going to be able to withstand that weight for 65 miles over seven days, we don’t really know.
Bobby: We’re keeping our mileage low. We have 8 to 10 miles most days. We have one 13-mile day, but that is the last day. We’re going to drop our stuff off basically, and finish it. We know we can do the biking part. The canoeing part, once you get to a certain point you’d might as well finish. But the backpacking one scares us. Also, with the conditions of the trail ... it’s been very wet up there, so we hear there is lots of mud, and it’s a very overgrown trail.
Any recent examples of preparing physically?
Bobby: It’s really hard to train for this sort of thing because you are trying to take care of your kids. We don’t make time to go the gym, so all of the time has been with the kids. We went to backpacking at Myre-Big Island (State Park) down in Albert Lea. It was a shakedown backpacking trip to make sure we could fit all of our gear in our carriers. That was a big success. We did one shakedown trip to Clearwater Lake. We were doing some biking when we first got into it, but we’ve been somewhat lax of late.
Maura: We do morning walks. When you’ve two babies with nap schedules and feeding schedules, we try to walk around our neighborhood (in Chanhassen) and the trails around us. Doing like 3-mile walks in the morning and loading our packs up.
What are your recommendations to parents who might want to start smaller?
Maura: I always recommend that people Google the closest regional park. Regional parks in Minnesota are amazing, and there is usually one right around the corner. Maybe there is a nature program in a group setting that you could take your kids to if that is going to make you feel more comfortable. There are ways to get out and do things with your kids in nature that don’t take a lot of effort. Or money.
Bobby: Up North, the outfitters will do as much or as little as you want. The first time we didn’t know if we liked going to the Boundary Waters or not. We didn’t have to invest that much into it to see if we liked it or not. A long time ago, we just did a day trip up there.
Who inspires you? Who are role models?
Bobby: Early on, we had a hard time finding information. We’d ask in hiking groups and kind of get ridiculed a little bit about it. We were on a John Muir Trail group and saying, ‘Has anyone hiked this with a baby?’ Out of the naysayers, someone would go, this woman did it and they’d link to her blog, and you’d start reading about it and that would be really inspiring.
So, we created a Facebook group for people who want to backpack with their kids, and that is how we met (Matt and Kimberly Kinney). We’ve talked with them a lot. Dave and Amy Freeman inspired us with the Boundary Waters portion. Hey, they could go out there and live out there for a year.
Maura: Bringing it way back, I think one of big inspires is John Muir. He’s somebody who would go out with the least amount of stuff you could have, so when I am packing I keep him in the back of my head: Do we really need to bring this? John Muir wouldn’t have this around. Jack is named for John Muir, so he’s definitely an inspiration for us.
Bob Timmons, 612-673-7899