It’s my family’s first night in the Alaskan backcountry. Things are not going well. Actually, calling it backcountry is pushing the definition. We’re about 100 yards off the pavement in a roadside state park.
Hardly a minute after our three kids pile out of the car, they’re slapping at mosquitoes and acquiring that whining tone parents recognize as the precursor to imminent meltdown. Within 15 minutes, Ruby, our 5-year-old, has welts the size of nickels, and her whine-o-meter is hovering in the panic zone. Eli, 8, and Sawyer, 7, aren’t faring much better.
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Marypat and I exchange alarmed looks. The mosquitoes aren’t nearly as bad as what we’re about to experience on a 2-week float down 300 miles of the Yukon River. To their credit, the kids are seasoned campers who thrive in the outdoors. But this is the first time we’ve exposed them to the rigors of the northern bush.
Back in our prekid days, Marypat and I traveled often to the Arctic wilderness. It’s where we fell in love, and then stayed in love. We long ago determined to share that passion with our offspring. As well, we knew there could be no better proving or learning ground. Neither of us minds if Mother Nature steps in and teaches our kids a thing or two. In fact, that’s exactly what we want.
Two days later, we launch our canoes into the swift current of the Yukon. High and silty, the river is full of sticks and branches destined for logjams downstream.
In the bow of my canoe, Eli grabs a stick out of the current, inspects it, then lays it back in the water. Ruby, amidships, snatches it up as it goes past and stacks it in the canoe. Sawyer, in the bow of Marypat’s boat, sees what his siblings are up to and starts his own stash. Our friends Kim and Charlie, a childless couple who have gamely signed on for a crash course in family camping, paddle ahead.
The river coils in immense bends, and forested hillsides hump away into the green distance. While the kids amass mounds of sticks the size of small beaver lodges, I allow myself a moment to be pulled into the spell of the wilderness, to sense the muscular, gritty river under the hull. I relax a notch. Maybe we can pull this off.
When we stop at the first in a series of gravel-bar island camps, the youngsters explode into action. Time spent paddling or hiking is always entertaining, but camp is where the fun stuff really happens. Log piles, pretty rocks, and sandy expanses are playgrounds that dispense with the need for toys. Kim joins in their play as they follow a set of lynx tracks down the shoreline.
On this first night of river travel, after a chapter of Harry Potter, I smile at the sound of steady sleep-breathing beside me. My pretrip concerns have faded; the wilderness already seems more welcoming than forbidding.
Each day, memories pile up like the sticks in our canoes: a cow moose browsing in a clump of willows; prospectors’ cabins hunkered in the woods. What’s more, Eli, Sawyer, and Ruby are coming up to speed in the ways of the bush. When the bugs are bad, they simply put on repellent and windshirts with hoods. The whine-o-meter doesn’t register a blip.