A Higher Love


Back In 1969, when I was 13 years old, I took the trip of a lifetime, flying by bush plane to the North Slope of the Brooks Range in what was then the Arctic National Wildlife Range (not yet a “Refuge”). There I would climb Mt. Chamberlin, at 9,020 feet the highest peak in the Alaskan Arctic. In 2009 I returned to climb it again, this time with my 13-year-old daughter, Siena. The story appeared in Backpacker magazine’s March 2010 issue. I’m sorry that I haven’t captioned the photos yet, but that will come. The story’s text should fill in most of the blanks.


On a remote Arctic peak, a father and his teenager encounter the hardest of all human challenges.

One of my favorite childhood pictures shows me holding a Frisbee at age 13. There’s a rope tied to my waist. Behind me, the ice-encrusted summit of Mt. Chamberlin—at 9,020 feet the highest peak in the Brooks Range on Alaska’s North Slope—rises through the clouds. A huge grin splits my face. I would appear to be the happiest kid on earth.

But, to be honest, I remember the peak as a grinding climb and—at the spot where the picture was taken—having the impression that the summit was still a long ways away. I’m sure the smile in the photo was genuine, but it is far from my happiest memory of this trip. No, that came when we found my leather ski glove a few days later. Not because I particularly missed the glove, but because now it had two fresh holes in it, spaced just right to be the fang marks of a wolf pup. The glove still hangs on my wall as one of my most cherished possessions. Mountains I could and did climb back home in Washington. What I really wanted up here was to see wolves, and these fang marks meant they were near.

So why, 40 years later, am I so focused on taking my 13-year-old daughter, Siena, to the summit of Mt. Chamberlin? She’s always been afraid of heights, and yet here we are on an exposed ridge, moving together without a rope. I look back and notice a pinched expression on her face. I toss out casually, “Anytime you’d like the rope, just let me know.”

“Didn’t you hear me earlier?” she responds, her eyes moist daggers. “I asked twice about the rope. This is freaking me out.”

I hadn’t heard a word. A chemical wash of shame flows over me. As a former guide, I’m supposed to be attuned to my charges. I know that in the end most people remember and cherish the moments when they felt pushed—just enough but not too much. A little fear sharpens the climbing experience. But as a dad, I know that Siena doesn’t need more anxiety than she’s already feeling. This is her first mountain. Her first long backpacking trip. Her first big adventure away from Mama. She didn’t ask to be pushed so hard. She’s here living out my dream, not hers. And now I’ve brought her to tears. Again.

* * *

Three days ago our bush plane bounced down onto the tundra. When the propeller sputtered to a halt, the adults unloaded the plane while Siena loped across the tundra in her sky-blue outfit, like a colorful caribou unleashed. Watching her sweep across the land, Kirk Sweetsir, our pilot, exclaimed that in all his years of Arctic flying he’d never seen anything like it. My heart swelled with joy at Siena’s apparent happiness. And then Kirk taxied uphill as far he could, spun around to face the lake, and gunned his engine hard. In minutes even the sound had vanished, leaving us—Siena, me, and friend and photographer Arlene Burns—utterly alone.

Not long afterward the clouds parted, revealing a white-crusted summit 6,000 feet above us that looked very pointy behind a long rocky ridge.

“There it is!” I yelled in delight, “Mt. Chamberlin! Look, look!”

Siena didn’t gasp outwardly, but whatever smile had been on her face vanished instantly.

“Are you serious?” she finally said, visibly stressed. “That thing is HUGE!”

Watching her smile disappear sent a jolt of fear through me. Not fear of the mountain, but fear of the adventure we’d just launched—fear that my idea of a father-daughter bonding trip would overwhelm her instead, fear that my dream of passing on my love for the Arctic—even for wilderness adventure itself—would fall on deaf ears, might even be turned against me. The plane had gone and here we were with two weeks of food, a mountain towering over us, 40 cross-country miles to our only pickup option, and no contact with the outside world. We were stuck with the plans I’d concocted in the safety of home.

The Brooks Range sprawls 700 miles across the top of Alaska, from Canada to the Bering Sea. To the west, in the Arrigetch section, peaks surge sharp and craggy because they’re made out of granite. But here in the northeast corner they’re mostly rounded. Each hill—whether it rises a few hundred feet or a few thousand—is basically a steep pile of decomposing shale with the odd band of limestone thrown in for relief. There’s not a tree anywhere—occasional streambeds grow willow bushes a few feet tall—but the wide valleys radiate green as tundra grasses soak up 24 daily hours of summer sun. Though the odd peak jumps a few thousand vertical feet to a glacier-crusted summit, the beauty here comes not from spectacular relief but in artful details. Stripes of color from different sedimentary layers snake across the hillsides, traceable sometimes from one mountain to its neighbor. But mostly it’s the light that I love up here—oh the light! An evening’s golden hour can last all night, with hills glowing as if they were illuminated from within. This buckled landscape extends from valley to valley as far as you could hike in a summer—and the next, and the one after—and chances are you’d never see another human in all your travels.

When I first proposed the idea of climbing Mt. Chamberlin, Siena fired back enthusiastically, “I don’t know what I’m getting myself in for, but sure!” Later, when details of the climb and the hike sank in and friends and family half gasped as they asked what she thought of the adventure, Siena universally dropped her eyes and answered, “I’m nervous.” She wasn’t the only one. There was also her mother, Adele. And my mother—Siena’s sole living grandparent. I grew tired of them constantly pounding into me the need for safety and for adjusting the trip to Siena’s pace. These things were obvious, even to me.

The great unknown was how Siena would take to the Arctic and climbing. While she and I had read some Arctic books out loud together, including Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens—one of my childhood favorites—she never identified with young survivalists happy to eat what they kill before wearing its pelt. We’d also read climbing books, including James Ramsey Ullman’s Banner in the Sky, but struggling with frostbite and conquest didn’t inspire her, either. In Siena’s books, the protagonists ride dragons to battle against evil princes in faraway kingdoms. I knew she loved nature and camping—but heights, backpacks, and breaking a sweat? That was another story.

But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced—and overcome—real challenge. We moved to Mexico when she was nine. As an adult, it’s easy to see the benefits of learning a new language and adapting to a foreign culture. Siena didn’t understand that, then. Besides not knowing the language, she was the only blonde in her school, the only kid not born in Oaxaca. It was hard, but in a year she studied her way to the top of her class, aced all of her tests, and made new friends. After four years, even she agrees that moving to Mexico was a grand adventure. My dream for our Chamberlin climb was for her to conclude the same thing about the Arctic—after two weeks.

To take her mind off the mountain’s height, we went fishing. It was July and there was no ice on the lake, but I remember ice well from a June arrival in 1970, the year after my ascent of Chamberlin. We’d just hiked in from the Arctic Ocean in an epic walk under crushing packs. As a 98-pound 14-year-old, my most lasting impressions were of the hunger and of standing on the lake ice, watching a 38-inch 20-pound lake trout swim toward my silver spoon before engulfing it. Now it was Siena’s turn. Wham, her thin rod with its six-pound test line bent double. Soon I was standing in the shallow water, tossing a 28-inch fish onto the shore with my hands so that the line wouldn’t break. We carried it back to camp for a feast. All would have been well if it weren’t for the mountain, still looming above.

I’ve always taken pride in my youthful adventures, including perhaps being the youngest person to have climbed to the top of the Brooks Range. The ascent joined a list that began with roped rock climbs with my father in the Alps when I was six, seven, eight, nine. Then Dad’s rope broke as he attempted to put up a new route on the Eiger, in Switzerland where we lived at the time, and he fell 4,000 feet to his death. Losing him ripped a giant hole in our family. Mom moved us to Washington, where she entered graduate school. And I continued to climb and ski, now with Mom’s fellow graduate students. But a sense of real purpose came when I discovered the Arctic in the pages of Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, a book I found in the Seattle Library at age 12. When I read that, I knew what I would become: a wolf biologist. Soon after, Ken Davis—a high school teacher—invited me on a Seattle Mountaineers outing to climb Mt. Chamberlin. But it wasn’t until 1974, during my fourth trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Range (before it became a greatly expanded Refuge), that we finally saw a wolf: a whole den-full of puppies playing alongside the Kongakut River. As it happens, I didn’t become a wolf biologist. But I never lost my love for the Arctic. Or mountains.

After dinner, as I was digging for enthusiasm, Siena spilled her heart.

“If we could just hang around and fish and see things it would be great,” she said. “But I’m pretty nervous. That mountain is big. If we didn’t have to climb the mountain then hike out 40 miles I wouldn’t be so nervous.”

She paused for a while, faint moisture gleaming her eyes, and then she finally let the rest out: “Why do I have to follow in my dad’s footprints so much? Living in a foreign country. Watching you on the Eiger [I climbed it a few years back]. Climbing the mountain you climbed as a kid.”

Her questions stung. Am I really like that?

I assured her that she doesn’t have to follow my footsteps. But I also told her that these are the things that mattered to me when I was growing up; they still do. I want her to know them. Like all parents, I struggle with boundaries. When should I just open doors and let her choose which ones to enter? When should I nudge—or even push—her through one? When she was younger we learned the “10 times” rule: keep putting a new food item on the plate, and eventually it will seem familiar enough to try. With hiking Adele and I have nudged her a little harder than we did with food. With skiing I even pushed a little, then gave up. Now I wondered if this trip was more like a shove, given that she had so little idea of what Chamberlin would entail. Yes, I’d asked her if she wanted to come, but it really wasn’t a fair question.

My own father had no concerns about pushing. I remember coming back from my first big international ski race, held in Italy when I was eight years old. When Dad found out that I’d fallen—twice—he was furious. Another time he discovered me getting pummeled by the playground bully; Dad made clear what he thought of my weakness. These are not the memories of him that I cherish, and yet they dominate. With my sister he was different. She wasn’t expected to be strong, like him. I often wonder how different I’d be as the father of a son. With Siena I manage to back off, taming my disappointment when she doesn’t want to go bicycling, or climbing, or even to help build her own tree house. “Ah, well,” I say to myself, “she has her own interests.” But would my son get off so easily? Would I expect to see myself showing up in him? I don’t know, but I’m sure it would be a challenge for both of us. With a son I might snap that he should stop whining and start climbing. But when Siena’s afraid it squeezes my heart; I want to provide comfort, not lessons in toughness.

At breakfast Siena felt, “Kind of lousy. Restless and nervous and homesick. And missing Mama.” She pointed to her upper stomach area. “It all kind of settles right here, like a knot. The only time I feel good is when we’re reading Never Cry Wolf. That takes my mind off it.”

After breakfast she returned to the tent to try to sleep, and I was left to remember her chronic stomach pain each morning before school in Oaxaca. Fear always settles in her stomach, cold and hard. It’s difficult for a parent to watch. But as she grew more comfortable with Spanish, she slowly let go of her fear.

Later, when I checked on her in the tent, she wasn’t sleeping. I decided that this was the time to remind both of us about our deal: The summit is entirely optional. The thing that matters is the journey, the experience of being here. If Chamberlin frightens her this much, maybe we should instead concentrate on the hike out.

Then she asked, “How much time do we have for the mountain?”

“I’ve allowed a week—four days plus three for weather. But if we decide not to, that leaves more time for the hike out.”

She pointed her finger upward.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I’m going to hike up the mountain.”

“You really don’t have to.”

“I don’t want to disappoint my dad.”

“I won’t be disappointed. This is about the journey.”

“You wouldn’t be even a little bit disappointed? Come on. I know my dad.”

“OK, just a little bit. But really it’s fine. This trip is as much a growth experience for me as it is for you.”

At that moment Arlene called out, “Look! Caribou!” A band of 50 or so was trotting alongside the lake; they hadn’t detected us because we were downwind. They stopped for a while as we watched their scatterbrained antics, dashing here then there, splitting and merging, no attention span at all. Eventually they resumed trotting along the lakeshore.

Siena beamed. “Remember how I said how cool it would be to see caribou out the tent door?”

* * *

My plan for success was to carefully pace each day. It helped that the heavy stuff went into my pack. And that ankle-high blueberry patches graced our route. We alternated talus and berries for 1,500 vertical feet, until we reached a green field with a reasonably flat spot: a carpet of moss, deep and soft as fresh snowfall, a living memory-foam mattress.

We set up the tent and I left to scout the route ahead. I didn’t know the best way to reach the glacier from here, nor even which glacier to choose on our way to the now-hidden summit. There were two options, and I found the best route on a long lateral moraine on the far side of valley, where I hiked past flightless ptarmigan chicks and browsing Dall sheep.

Two hours after leaving camp I was back in sight of it, yelling, waving my shirt, and hoping they’d see me. No response. But soon I saw Siena’s bright blue shirt not far below, scrambling toward me fast. She had a familiar, frightened look about her, her face tense and concentrated.

“Were you worried?” I asked when I reached her.

“Yeah.” By her expression, I could tell it had been a lot worse than mere worry.

I’d underestimated how much she depended on me up here. On the mountain, so far from the security of Mama and home, I was her connection to life and everything she knew.

The next morning we followed the moraine to the toe of the glacier, nearly 1,500 feet above Mossy Camp. I knew Siena would enjoy the glacier. She had explored the edge of one on Oregon’s Mt. Hood. But that had been sneaker play, sliding with friends. Here she was strapping on crampons for the first time in her life, and tying into a rope. As she practiced walking in crampons along the glacier’s base, punching her feet down to make the points stick in the hard ice, she grinned and said, “I’m not feeling scared anymore, Daddy.” She flashed me a thumbs-up and added, “I’m feeling game!” My heart skipped a beat, I was so happy.

One of my most cherished memories is of the time I first crunched glacier ice in crampons. It was on the Mer de Glace in France while hiking up to the mountain hut where Dad was based during a drawn-out siege on a new route above. I was seven years old, but I swear that in the 46 years since, each time I crunch blue glacier ice underfoot I’m transported straight back to that hike. There’s no place I’d rather be. I wondered what Siena will remember when she’s middle aged.

The basin below Chamberlin’s summit pyramid didn’t turn out to be as flat as I thought. What was white was slush, not snow. What was blue or black was ice, steep as a boat ramp. Eventually we found a place where we could chop a flat spot into the ice and flesh it out with gravel. I twisted in ice screws to anchor the sides of our tent.

To my delight, Siena wanted to play, not hang around camp. “At this pace, I’m not tired,” she declared. So we hiked up the glacier in search of something to slide on. Finally, at the left edge of the rocky north face of Chamberlin, we found a patch of ice where we could safely slide a couple dozen feet using a piece of ensulite I’d cut off Siena’s pad. Looking over to the ridge, we chose the next day’s route to its crest. Siena really was game: happy, loving her first day on crampons, looking forward to her coming first night on a glacier. She didn’t mention the climb.

On the way back down to camp she brought up a conversation she’d had earlier. Arlene told Siena about the time when we went for a short hike near Hood River, where Siena was born. Siena was perhaps a year old, in a pack on my back, and we were exploring a little rock canyon near Arlene’s house. As I reached onto the cliff and started climbing, still low to the ground, Arlene reminded me about Siena, implying that I might want to think about being more careful. A few minutes later, with Siena still on my back, I traversed across easy rock above a deep pool of water. Because of the water, I felt completely safe. The feeling hit me partway across: an instant, paralyzing realization that falling into the pool with Siena was a horrible option. While we’d make it out alive, the trauma and above all the loss of trust that she’d feel would be utterly inexcusable. I climbed out of there as if we had a 2,000-foot drop below, not a pool of deep water.

On the glacier above camp, Siena reminded me of that conversation. “Until today, I never thought that you had to learn to be a dad,” she said, both amused and surprised. I told her sure, there was a lot to learn. I’m still learning now.

She followed up, “Have you been surprised by how much I’ve changed from when I was a baby until now?”

I didn’t understand the question, so I dodged it. It seemed obvious that she’d change enormously from birth to young womanhood. The interesting thing is not how much she’s changed, but what in her has not changed: her warmth with her family, her unflagging consideration toward others, her subtle humor, her sharp insight, her sparkling smile, her quiet introversion, her love for animals and good stories. Also her need for security, her craving for stability, her worries for the future, her competitiveness (usually handled with grace), her high self-expectations (and frustration when thwarted). These have been there since before she could speak; Adele and I can only nudge the course of their braiding strands, trying to tame the ones that don’t help her, nurturing those that do.

That evening in the tent, while we were reading, she zipped open the door and exclaimed, “It’s kind of wild to be in this tight enclosed little space and then to open the door and it’s, ‘Wow!’”

* * *

In the morning the weather was good, so I packed extra clothes, food, and gear for our summit bid. Cresting the rocky ridge that we’d follow all the way to the ice near the summit, we discovered a cluster of Dall sheep beds in the fine schist gravel. But Siena wasn’t much interested in wildlife; the ridge revealed a massive view down a steep slope on the other side, which startled her into a touch of vertigo.

It’s always easier looking up, and as we scrambled along the decomposing ridge the view was of boulder fields broken by 10- to 20-foot bands of steeper rock where we had to search for passage. After more than an hour following the ridge we needed to break for lunch. For me, rest stops demand a view, so I led us back to the crest where an amazing ledge of ochre- and brick-colored shale jutted over a 1,000-foot plunge. On our left, the black scar of Chamberlin’s rocky north face revealed its 2,000-foot profile. And way, way down below, a barely discernible speck of yellow was our tent. Spectacular.

Siena ate with her back to the void and said, “You sure know how to pick ’em.”

“Thanks,” I replied, before realizing it wasn’t a compliment.

I should have roped her up at lunch for the sharp edge above, but I was focused more on her physical abilities—I knew she wouldn’t fall off—than her psychological needs, and I shamefully missed her requests to tie in.

Her tense grumpiness eases as I attach the rope to her waist. Just being connected by a rope makes such a difference. It’s a bond of trust and of teamwork, in addition to a sense of security. We move together, 10 or 15 feet apart, so the rope makes no difference to our speed of ascent.

When our ridge finally merges into the main summit shoulder, I’m nearly giddy about how close the top looks. This is the exact spot seen in my childhood photo with the Frisbee. So I’m surprised that Siena is again wearing her deeply pained look, her eyes wet with barely repressed tears. I don’t know what’s going on, so I hold her tight in a long, strong hug. I assure her that she’s just tense from the recent scrambling. It turns out I’m clueless. She’s looking at the summit ridge, and it’s scaring the hell out of her.

“It’s so steep! I don’t know if I can do it.”

To ease her fear, I remind her that we don’t have to climb it, that we can treat any point of the climb as our personal summit if we want to. That was our deal, and it still is. In a cracking voice, she replies, “But it will feel like such a waste to have come all this distance and not climb to the summit!”

So I tell her not to worry about the slope in front of us: “One of a mountain’s biggest tricks is to make you think it’s steeper than it really is.” Then I explain with my hands how something looks steep when you view it straight on, but from the side you see its true perspective. Things aren’t always as they seem, in mountains or in life.

I’m not sure how convincing I am, but after we eat a snack and put on crampons, the tension eases. We are moving well, crampons crunching the ice as we move toward the summit. And then everything drops away on all sides, and there is no higher place to go.

A giant “Yeeeehaaawww!!!” rips from my lungs as I turn around to pull the rope. “Can you believe it?” I yell through a mouth that can barely move because my smile is so wide, “This is it! The summit! This is incredible! We’re here! We’ve done it! Yeeehaaawww!” Now I really am the happiest man-child on earth. I grab her and dance in my giddiness. Though she’s smiling and obviously relieved, Siena’s mouth is still somewhat tense, her true reaction hard to gauge. But my joy knows no limit and it wants to be contagious. “You did it, you did it!” And I grab her again and hug tightly.

Then we break out the Frisbee. Siena and I toss it for a while as she indulges my nostalgia. She’s smiling, happy to have reached the top and amused at my antics, but I can tell that something’s on her mind. The descent.

“Do you want to go down now?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says.

* * *

The next day, down at the lake, I ask Siena what’s wrong. Aside from the weather—after the summit, we experienced a powerful lightning storm in our glacier camp and a drizzly hike down—the descent went smoothly and we arrived safely at basecamp.

“I’m feeling rotten,” she says. “I’m dirty. My clothes are dirty. Everything is wet. This gray gloom. I’m cold. I haven’t slept well. I’m missing Mama. And everything feels hard. Everything IS hard!”

I feel that hollowness that you get when your loved one hurts and you can’t help. I can only try for words of comfort.

“Yes, I miss Mama too. But isn’t it beautiful here? Do you still feel a glow of satisfaction or accomplishment from the amazing climb you just did?”

“Some. But this trip is sooo long. A backpacking trip would be good if it were a weekend or three or four days. We have so much more to go.”

I’ve actually worried a lot more about the second half of our two-week trip than the first half. We could have turned around at any point on the mountain. We can’t turn around on the hike out. But the example of Chamberlin just climbed is huge in my mind, if not in hers.

“You’re right,” I tell her, “It is a long time. But it takes time to feel comfortable on a trip like this. After a while you just start to feel like this is home, like you’re a part of the land. But it takes time to get there. I think that as soon as we get some sunshine you’ll feel a lot better.”

“If we ever get sunshine. It might rain the whole time.”

Siena sleeps 11 hours, finally waking to a few rays of sunshine as they break through the ever-thinning clouds, striking our tent. We can see far beyond the lake, all the way to the Saddlerochit Mountains standing crisp where once they were no more than vague apparitions in the haze. After an inspection of the old cabins on the lake a mile away (built in the 1950s to house scientists), I ask Siena if she wouldn’t mind a rest day. We’ll make pancakes on cast-iron skillets, sleep on mattresses, fish, and recharge. Arlene hikes there directly, while Siena and I move down the lakeshore, one cast at a time. Suddenly her rod doubles over and the reel starts screaming. She’s slow and careful to protect her 6-pound-test line, but eventually I can reach into the water and shove a 34-inch lake trout onto the tundra. I’m careful as I work the lure from its teeth, and then we slip the gorgeous creature back into the water. I doubt I’ve ever seen Siena smile so broadly. This is what she loves. Not high summits or long hikes, but cool huts and beautiful fish.

I’m so happy to give her this moment, this free day at the lake, this wolf-bitten glove. It’s obvious that if our two weeks were spent here, like this, she’d be happier, more eager to return, perhaps in love with the Arctic. I don’t yet know if I did right by hinging the trip on a mountain, rather than a lake. From my perspective, the challenge is the thing: It forces you to grow as you overcome it. I want this for Siena. And yet, it’s only down here at the lake that she sees the Arctic as I do: the vastness of its horizons, the delicacy of its textures, the richness of its details—lush in subtlety—all framed by mountains that appear much closer than they really are. It’s a landscape that expands your soul to match its vastness.

When I told Siena that this trip was as much a growing experience for me as it was for her, I had no more idea of where we would end up than she did. I’m still not sure. Will my life lesson be to indulge her or to push her? To accept or to challenge?

* * *

After our rest day by the lake, we need to average seven miles per day—no trivial distance considering that Arctic tundra changes its stripes every few hundred yards, from smooth and dry to wet and boggy to ankle-deep moss or ankle-spraining talus. Whenever possible we hike caribou paths, which spring up and vanish seemingly at will. Where side valleys enter we cross fast-moving streams. The creekside ritual is always the same: After changing into rubber wading slippers, I first carry my pack across, then go back to carry Siena and hers.

On the second night we camp on a pass heavily used by caribou. Bands of bulls gather round the tent, wondering what the strange yellow object might be. When the wind shifts and they smell us, they toss their heads skyward and lope off, ankles clicking in caribou style. From the pass we drop into the Franklin Creek drainage, which we’ll follow for three days before turning up the Canning River.

Barely 200 yards below the pass I look back and see Siena grumpy because her pack keeps bumping her lower back when she’s hiking downhill. I offer to help, but she gives me her exasperated “Oh well” shrug, dismissing the possibility of improvement. I react with equal exasperation. By now I figure she’s proven herself and knows the score. Enough with the princess syndrome.

“We can try to adjust the pack,” I tell her, “but we know your attitude can be adjusted. That part is up to you.”

After a brief standoff, she lets me tackle the problem. I cut one of our ensulite pads to provide tie-on “hips” for Siena’s lack thereof, and the bumping abates.

A few miles later we spot a mother grizzly and two cubs—fortunately on the other side of the valley. Just specks, really, until binoculars reveal what they’re doing: digging up roots and ground squirrels, stripping currant berries from bushes. We’ve been filling baggies with huckleberries ourselves.

At camp at the end of the day, as we’re going to bed, Siena tells me, “Daddy, I thought this was going to be a bad day, but it turned out to be a good one.” She seems at last to be submerging into the journey, accepting and maybe even welcoming it as her new world. She’s hiking strong and sure, her campsite rituals coming easily and happily. We’re reaching our daily mileage goals, which lowers any stress, as does the prospect of home. But what I’m seeing is a lot more than that. I’m seeing her confidence rise daily, and with it her appreciation for our surroundings.

“But I have a question for you,” she continues. She likes to puzzle and bedevil me with “choose this or that” questions.

“Would you rather carry the food or carry me?”

This one is easy. “I’d rather carry the food,” I tell her, “and know you can walk on your own.”

In the morning, while the ladies are still sleeping, I steal out of the tent to visit the tundra. With time to myself, I can lay on my belly to explore its miniature intricacy, the layered little worlds that you can only see if you take the time to look closely. Lichens three inches tall form an understory to heather only two inches taller. Six-inch blueberry “bushes” tower over moss so thick and lush that your elbows sink deep into its folds. You can see as much in a square yard of such tundra as in an acre of the world that we know. Across the valley a band of little puff clouds breaks off from the Canning and streams up Franklin Creek at caribou speed, all in a line. The cloud formation flows up the valley all the way to the pass that we crossed, hangs out for a while, then slides back to the Canning and is gone. They look almost alive, these clouds. I remember them from past Arctic trips, like old friends.

Siena wakes up in a great mood. Our campsite, perched on a bluff, is as beautiful as can be. The pack feels light to her, and after a couple of miles of hiking, she declares, “Let’s cover some distance today!” And we do.

At our daily shin-deep fast-water stream crossing, I’m packing my camera into its waterproof bag and rigging my shoelaces to suspend boots around my neck before I can attend to Siena. When I look up, I’m startled to see that she’s halfway across the stream, trekking poles braced against the current. Then the water washes up to her knees, causing her to wobble; my stomach clenches and I nearly jump into the creek. Suddenly I’m angry that she didn’t wait for me to help.

But she steadies herself, finding her balance. A few more steps and she’s across. As she turns to face me, I see a look on her face, not tense anymore, but interested, expectant, assured. She smiles and waits patiently for me to follow.


As I’m still experimenting with the best way to present these things, I’ve embedded this slide show from Picasa web way down here where no one will likely see it!