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Higher Love: Father & Daughter Climb Mt. Chamberlin

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

The next day, down at the lake, I ask Siena what’s wrong. Aside from the weather–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 miss Mama. And everything feels hard. Everything is hard!”

I feel that hollowness that you get when your loved one hurts and there’s nothing you can do to help. I can only try for words of comfort.

“Yes, I miss Mama too. But isn’t it beautiful here? Do you feel that glow of satisfaction 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.”

That’s true. 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 what she just accomplished on Chamberlin looms 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. 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 sun as they break through thinning clouds. We can see far beyond the lake, all the way to the Sadlerochit Mountains. After an inspection of the old cabins 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. Duh. Siena and I move down the lakeshore, one cast at a time. Suddenly her rod doubles over and the reel starts screaming. She carefully protects her lightweight line, and eventually I can reach into the water and shove a 34-inch lake trout onto the tundra. 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 even in love with the Arctic. I don’t yet know if I did the right thing by basing 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–all framed by these magnificent mountains. It’s like your soul expands to match the vastness.

When I told Siena that this trip would be as much a growing experience for me as for her, I had only a vague idea of what that really meant. I’m still not sure. Will my life lesson be to indulge her or to push her? To accept or to challenge?

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