Every Friday, 4-year-old Bethany Vanschaemelhout puts on her little pink walking shoes and heads out the door with her dad, John Vanschaemelhout, to roam hiking trails all over the North Bay. Since January, the enthusiastic young hiker has logged an impressive number of steps, reaching a milestone two weeks ago — 100 miles.
“Once she learned to walk, she wanted to be out of the stroller,” said Vanschaemelhout of his pint-size walking partner. “She didn’t like to be in the baby carrier. She’d walk for a few minutes and be tired and we’d have to pick her up and hold her.”
Bethany was born in 2011 while the Vanschaemelhouts were living in London. In 2012, they moved to Petaluma, where Bethany’s mother, Margaret, is a graphic designer. Vanschaemelhout is retired from the Air Force and is a stay-at-home dad.
“Petaluma was new to me and I couldn’t find a group or something to do, so I took Bethany to the playground and enrolled in a gym in town,” said Vanschaemelhout. “That was the routine between her and me for the first couple years. I admit, I didn’t like spending time at the playground and I felt like I really wanted to explore the North Bay more.”
It was a cloudy, yet comfortable day in January when Vanschaemelhout decided to deviate from the usual playground routine and take Bethany, who was 3 1/2 at the time, for a short walk to the pond at Helen Putnam Regional Park.
“She ran right up the hill and we played at the pond for a little bit,” said Vanschaemelhout. “I asked if she wanted to do the half-mile loop and she was up for it. I expected to carry her at least part of the way, but she insisted on walking the whole route on her own.”
Bethany’s enthusiasm got Vanschaemelhout thinking about making walking together their Friday activity and setting a lofty goal to reach by the end of the year.
“I figured with about 50 weeks left in 2015, we could strive for a goal of 100 miles by averaging two miles a week,” he said. “As we walked back to the car, I asked her if she wanted to do 100 miles and she said, ‘OK, daddy.’”
Next Friday, the pair set off to Muir Woods, and she did so well that Vanschaemelhout knew the pressure was on to try and find new and different hiking spots so neither of them would get bored. Armed with snacks and plenty of water, the father-daughter duo have trekked through Armstrong Redwoods, Calistoga, Table Rock Trail at Mount Saint Helena, Ring Mountain in Corte Madera and Mount Tamalpais.
“A short time later, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and back,” he said. “We took breaks once in a while, of course, but she did it.”
Their longest hike so far has been the five-mile loop at Angel Island.
“She’s the perfect hiking partner,” said Vanschaemelhout. “We’ll sing songs together on the trail. She’s lively and asks questions. She’ll pick up rocks and ask where they came from, so I have to look things up. I have a bird guide and a rock guide, too. When we went to Ring Mountain, I learned that the mountain is the only place on Earth where the Tiburon Mariposa Lily grows. We made that into an adventure of trying to find one while we were there.”