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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.

photo icon  PHOTO GALLERY: CLIMBING MOUNT CHAMBERLAIN
  See Harlin's photo journal of the trip in this gallery.

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.




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Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Dave
Apr 13, 2010

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

Steve
Apr 01, 2010

Wonderful Read!

Naomi
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

Nice
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.

Dan
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.

John
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.

Gary
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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