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Backpacker Magazine – March 2010

Higher Love: Father & Daughter Climb Mt. Chamberlin

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

by: John Harlin III

The author's daughter leads the way on Summit Ridge.
The author's daughter leads the way on Summit Ridge.
Caribou lope past Lake Peters.
Caribou lope past Lake Peters.
Siena jumps a crevasse.
Siena jumps a crevasse.
The Harlin's start the tough 40-mile exit hike.
The Harlin's start the tough 40-mile exit hike.
A game of summit frisbee.
A game of summit frisbee.
A moment of low anxiety.
A moment of low anxiety.
Siena lands a whopper.
Siena lands a whopper.

  See Harlin's photo journal of the trip in this gallery.

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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Reader Rating: -


Apr 13, 2010

fantastic story of an honest, patient father. good job dude

Apr 01, 2010

Wonderful Read!

Mar 28, 2010

Isnt this the same thing as parents wanting their kids to be doctors and lawyers just because either they themselves are or couldnt be?
Just because your idea of adventure is standing on a high peak does not mean that the child or your child enjoys that as much or should be pushed in that direction unless it is on a slow pace. I find this sense of always looking for an "adventure" a very Western concept. Children can find that same sense of adventure in undertaking projects that they show interest in-volunteering, growing an organic gardner, helping with environment projects etc

Mar 28, 2010

Its not about hiking. I believe we should first open them to the beauty of nature and then slowly get them to participate in finding that beauty around them in hikes, kayaking, climbing etc. This is so rewarding then as they discover the world around them.

Mar 28, 2010

I have a 3 year-old daughter that loves camping, mountains and just got introduced to skiing. I cherish that but also realize that she is very cautious, mildly introverted and liked sitting close to me on the chairlift as much as skiing. Thank you for this article, it's a bluntly honest assessment of the reality of parenthood and how it changes your priorities. But also thank you for showing the way to those of us that dream of big adventures with our kids but fear how they will receive them.

Mar 26, 2010

I know some will nay-say but, I have a close friend that permanently soured his son on hiking by taking him out and pushing him too soon. He only grudgingly goes on long walks now, let alone share his fathers love of hiking.
Be very careful about pushing your love of the sport on loved ones that are not ready.

Jim D
Mar 25, 2010

As a single father of 3 girls I have to admit this article choked me up quite a bit. I am an avid backpacker and want desparately to share the outdoor experience with my daughters (the ex hated camping so no support there). There are things you learn about yourself and your place in the world that only mother nature can teach you. But I constantly fight that battle expressed by the author "Is it for me or them I do this? Is the right thing to lead, hope they follow, or push?" We all want our kids to have experiences that make them stronger and create cherished memories. As parents, we just hope we can be a part of the making of them.

Mar 25, 2010

I have six adult children. From age ten on We started climbing the High Peaks in the Adirondacks We have climbed most of the 46 and several high points in some of the western states. This has been a great strength for my family. Our family is scattered all over the US persuing lives and careers. We still manage to get together, we enjoy remembering our time together in the wilderness and plan new trips. Last year we had a family reunion in the Adirondacks with all our children their spouses and our grandchildren we rented two houses. Some of my sons and I are planning a canoe trip to the Boundry Waters as a family we are stil creating these out door memories and they are sweet.

Jason Kuehn
Mar 09, 2010

I just finished reading this article in the magazine. What a wonderful story! I have an 18 month old boy who already shows lots of adventure spirit and I can't wait until we can go backpacking together. This great article made me look forward to it even more!


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