By Sherri Buri McDonald
The (Eugene) Register-Guard
EUGENE — As he nears his first birthday, Rowdy Briggs, a brown-eyed, chubby-cheeked towhead from Cottage Grove, is making good progress on all his milestones.
He’s babbling. He’s waving. And he’s standing with support, gearing up to take his first tentative steps.
By his birthday on July 28, Rowdy and his mom, Alivea Binder, will reach another important milestone — one that’s all their own.
They will have hiked to 50 Northwest waterfalls, from Cedar Creek Falls, near Dorena Lake, southeast of Cottage Grove, to Palouse Falls in Eastern Washington, which they plan to visit next month.
Rowdy and his mom have averaged at least a hike a week since he was 5 months old, logging more than 150 miles on the trail in wind, rain and even snow.
Binder set the goal of hiking with her son to 50 waterfalls in his first year when she was at a low point in her life.
Rowdy was 3 months old when his dad, Binder’s former partner, Kyle Briggs, left his young family, returning to Washington state, Binder said.
“The hardest thing about all of this was becoming a single mom,” she said. “I was at home so miserable, depressed and sad and lonely.
“I was going to counseling and that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I needed some motive to do something.”
Hiking to waterfalls provided the incentive Binder needed to get up and going.
“Waterfall hikes are so rewarding,” Binder said, as she carried 22-pound Rowdy in a baby backpack along the forested trail to shimmering South Falls at Silver Falls State Park, near Silverton.
“You have a destination, something to see, so all the sweat and hating it is worth it in the end,” said the trim, energetic 24-year-old.
For Binder, hiking is a way to get outdoors, stay fit, lift her mood and strengthen her bond with her son.
It’s also a positive way to cope with all that life throws your way, the single mom said.
“This has been incredible to get out,” she said “It’s like the second you’re hiking and outdoors, it clears your mind.
“I tell my family, hiking is my therapy. It’s the best therapy ever.”
The oldest of seven children, Binder grew up in the Olympia area of Washington.
She and Briggs, her former partner, moved to Oregon from Washington in September 2015 to be closer to her family. Binder’s dad, Steven Vann, lives in Dorena.
Two months later, she found out she was pregnant.
Nearly all new parents struggle to adjust to the routine of night feedings, sleep deprivation and being on call around the clock. But Binder had some additional challenges.
Rowdy was 9 pounds at birth, and “I’m a small person,” Binder said, adding that it was an all-natural birth.
Rowdy was born with jaundice. His coloring was so yellow and his hair so platinum blond, that she and Rowdy’s pediatrician, Dr. Todd Huffman, both immediately saw the resemblance to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. They jokingly called Rowdy “Baby Trump” until his jaundice cleared, Binder said.
Then just three months after giving birth, Binder suddenly found herself a single mom.
Now within one hike of her audacious 50 waterfalls goal, Binder advises other new moms who may be struggling with relationships or other troubles, to “get out and hike, and get your mind off things. Get out in nature.”
“Just focus on being a good mom and put all your effort into that.”
Huffman, the pediatrician, said he found Binder’s story “inspiring from the get-go.”
“It’s young parents like Alivea who give me hope for the future,” he said. “She is energetic and curious and articulate. She is a very involved, loving mom and is very eager to show her child the world and teach her child to live big and love nature and explore everywhere.”
“It’s wonderful that Alivea is teaching her child right from the start that there should be no rain or any other weather to slow you down,” Huffman said.
Setting and sticking to such an ambitious goal is “something kind of new for (Alivea),” said Vann, Binder’s dad.
“We’re really proud of her,” he said. “She packed a lot of miles with a baby in a pack, which isn’t easy, and she did it in the time of year when the weather isn’t all that nice, either.”
Vann said it’s amazing how comfortable and contented Rowdy is on the trail.
“We’ve gone on a few hikes with Alivea and offered to take Rowdy, so she could get a break,” Vann said.
“The little guy just sits in the pack with a big smile on his face.
“He’s just like, ‘No problem, let’s go for another hike,’ “ Vann said.
He said the hikes his daughter and grandson have taken together have brought mother and son closer together.
“I think any time you share an experience, regardless of the age, you’re going to build a closer bond with each other. I spent thousands of hours with my kids. When you share an experience you create a bond.”
Binder said many people, including those she has just met, have said, “(Rowdy) loves you so much.”
“We’re all each other has,” Binder said. “I’m sure all babies love their moms, but there’s a special bond between us.”
With that, the pair continued down the trail to South Falls. Rowdy’s diaper and jeans-clad bottom was suspended in the seat harness of the baby backpack his mom wore, and his dangling black baby Nikes bounced against her lower back.
Rowdy reached out, gently stroking a handful of his mom’s long blond hair.
Binder said she carried Rowdy in a front pack until he was 7 months old, and liked having him so close. She switched to the backpack when his weight in the front pack put too much strain on her back.
Binder said she usually changes Rowdy’s diaper in the car before they set off to hike and changes it again when they return to the car a couple of hours later.
Thankfully, he hasn’t had any major blowouts on the trail, she said.
Binder said before they set out, usually leaving Cottage Grove at about 6 a.m., she researches their destination and checks comments from recent hikers on her AllTrails app.
They’re not always accurate, she said, recalling a comment last month from a hiker who had been to Salt Creek Falls in the Willamette National Forest near Oakridge, the day before Binder planned to take Rowdy.
The hiker said there was only a bit of snow, but when Binder pulled her car toward the trailhead, the parking lot sign was nearly buried in snow.
Binder said she counts that among their worst hikes.
“It was snowing while we were there,” she said.
“(Rowdy) didn’t want to do it. He was miserable; I was miserable.”
But those experiences have been the exception, Binder said.
One of their most memorable hikes was last month to 113-feet Toketee Falls on the North Umpqua River in Douglas County.
“It was amazing,” she said. “Pictures don’t do it justice. The water was bright blue. It looks like you’re in some ‘Blue Lagoon’ sort of thing.”
Also before they set out, Binder said she researches online to see if it’s possible to hit more than one waterfall in the same trip. Although, she added, she hasn’t counted toward their total any falls with less than a 60-foot drop.
When they saw Tokatee Falls, they drove a few miles down the road and hiked to Watson Falls, too, Binder said.
She said for safety, she always hikes in the daylight, carries pepper spray, tries to stay on well-traveled routes and lets family or friends know where they’re heading and when they plan to return.
Binder said the hikers she comes across have been friendly and supportive.
“It’s amazing how many words of encouragement I get (on the trail),” she said. “You go, mom! That’s a heavy load, mom!”
When asked if he had any safety concerns about a mom and baby hiking in the woods, Huffman responded: “I’d rather (see) a young baby on a trail than a young baby in front of a screen.”
“We see far too many babies and toddlers who are being entertained by their parents’ cell phones and iPads.
“A recent study showed 40 percent of children by age of 2 are adept at using their parents’ cellphones. I’d much rather a baby explore the trails than explore the internet.”
On their hiking days, Rowdy naps a good part of the day, Binder said.
“It takes a lot of energy out of him, even though he’s not the one hiking,” she said. “All the stimulation of looking around and observing. Always after our days of hiking he’ll sleep solid through the night.”
Binder works full time and supports herself and her son. She cleaned houses until he was 7 months old so she could take him with her. Rowdy recently started going to day care because Binder got a job managing a resale store.
In her job interview, a manager asked Binder how she is at achieving goals.
“I brought up the waterfall goal, and she thought that was the neatest thing ever,” Binder said.
Now that they’re close to accomplishing the goal of 50 waterfalls in 52 weeks, what’s next for the mother-and-son duo?
“We’ll just keep going from there,” Binder said. “We might make it 100 because it blew my mind how fast it went. And after doing more research there are so many more we could do.”
Hiking to waterfalls is an apt metaphor for the first year of motherhood; indeed, a metaphor for life.
Just when the going seemed too rough, the weather too harsh, a spectacular waterfall appeared out of nowhere at the next bend.
Binder has discovered the power in setting a goal, sticking with it through adversity, and sharing it with another person. Her baby might not remember the hikes or the waterfalls, but in some deep place he knows the secure feeling of riding on his mom’s back, breathing in her fresh scent, gently grasping her long blond hair, like reins leading him safely into the unknown.