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 of 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 spun his plane and gunned the 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. Its point jutted up from behind a long, rocky ridge.
“There it is!” I yelled, delighted. “Mt. Chamberlin! Look!”
Siena didn’t gasp audibly, but the smile that had been on her face vanished instantly.
“Are you serious?” she finally asked, 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, 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 pick-up option, and no contact with the outside world. We were stuck with the plans I’d concocted in safety back home, far from this wilderness outpost in the far north–itself the very definition of remote.
The Brooks Range sprawls 700 miles across the top of Alaska, from Canada to the Bering Sea. In the northeast corner, where Chamberlin rises above it all, the rounded peaks consist of loose shale broken occasionally by bands of limestone. There’s not a tree anywhere. Sparse willow bushes grow a few feet tall in streambeds; in summer, wide valleys radiate green as tundra grasses soak up sunshine 24 hours a day. Peaks like Chamberlin jump thousands of vertical feet above the bare landscape, culminating in glacier-crusted summits. But mostly it’s the light that I love up here. An evening’s golden hour can last all night; the hills glow as if illuminated from within. The buckled landscape extends as far as you could hike in a summer–and chances are you’d never see another human in all of 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 into, but sure!” Later, when details of the trip sank in and friends and family half gasped as they asked what she thought of the adventure, Siena 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.