While still a young father, Herb Sontag dreamed of the day when his family would be old enough to backpack with him. Our dad saw it as the perfect family vacation: a chance to admire the great outdoors, carry everything you need to survive on your back, and bring the family closer together without the distractions of everyday life.
In anticipation of that future day, he took classes on backpacking, read books such as Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker (the Backpacking Bible), and went on some practice trips. When his three children reached an appropriate age, the preparations began, and we excitedly watched as our parents spent hours sewing our own down sleeping bags and jackets. We went on a family field trip to purchase child-sized backpacks from a factory, and we were outfitted with good boots for hiking.
After our first successful backpacking trip, we went at least once every summer, sometimes squeezing in a trip over Labor Day weekend that had us returning the evening before school started. We would often leave for the mountains after work, timing our trip with a full moon so that we could hike for a few miles before “bivouacking” by the side of the trail. Other times we would camp at the trailhead (which helped with getting acclimated) so that we could get an early start the next morning. On one particularly memorable trip, we hiked 50 miles through Yosemite National Park. Our favorite moments backpacking were going the whole day without encountering another person; finding the perfect campsite with good drainage, close water source and a nice view; anticipating an approaching storm and setting up camp before it hit; getting to the top of a pass, enjoying the spectacular view and then settling down for a much anticipated lunch and rest.
On one backpacking trip, lightning struck a nearby tree with a deafening BOOM, causing the ground to shake and tree bark to rain down upon us. (All these years later we still have a souvenir piece of that bark proudly on display!) Another time, we got caught in a snowstorm (in August!) and spent much of the night knocking the snow off our tents to keep them from collapsing.
We concluded every backpacking trip with dinner at a Mexican restaurant where we recounted our adventures over chips and salsa. While we ate, dad would document our favorite experiences on a paper placemat.
Herb’s enthusiasm for backpacking created many lifelong memories for his children. And now, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren are creating their own wonderful memories in the mountains. You can be sure that they are grateful for their “Opa” and think about him on every trip!
Written by Heidi B., loving daughter of Herb Sontag.
When you see Herb at Carlton’s Downtown Pleasant Hill community, be sure to ask him about his many backpacking adventures!