After our pancakes-and-fishing layover, 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 appear and vanish intermittently. 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 that must be a thoroughfare for caribou. Bands of bulls gather around 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 that distinctive 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 to reach our airstrip.
Barely 200 yards below the pass, Siena becomes grumpy because her pack keeps bumping her lower back. I offer to help, but she gives me an exasperated shrug, dismissing the possibility of improvement. I react with equal exasperation. By now 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 add cushion, 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, but 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 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. She’s hiking strong and sure, easily managing campsite rituals. We’re reaching our daily mileage goals, which lowers the stress, as does the prospect of nearing Mama and home. But I see more. In the little details of the long trek out, I see her confidence rising daily, and with it her appreciation for our surroundings.
“I have a question for you,” she continues. She likes to 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. I lie on my belly to explore its miniature intricacy, the layered little worlds that you can only see if you get down at nose level and 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 my elbows disappear in its folds. You can see as much in a square yard of such tundra as in an acre anywhere else. Across the valley a band of little puff clouds breaks off from the Canning and streams up Franklin Creek at caribou speed. 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 disappears. They look alive, these clouds. I remember them from past Arctic trips, like old friends.
Siena wakes up in a great mood. Our bluff-top campsite is glorious. Her pack feels light. After only a couple of miles of hiking, she declares, “Let’s cover some distance today!” And we do.
At our daily fast-water stream crossing, I’m packing my camera into its waterproof bag and rigging my shoelaces to suspend boots around my neck, so I can cross before I attend to Siena. When I look up, I’m startled to see that she’s halfway across the stream, trekking poles braced against the rushing 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 the expression on her face–not tense anymore, but interested, expectant, assured. She smiles and waits patiently for me to follow.
Contributing editor John Harlin’s latest book, The Eiger Obsession: Facing the Mountain That Killed My Father (The Lyons Press), explores his family’s mountain roots.