When she was four years old, Aidan Campbell made her father, James, promise that he would take her into the Alaskan wilderness someday. When she was 15, he finally did.
At an early age, she had fallen under the spell of her father's stories from his first book, The Final Frontiersman, about his cousin Heimo Korth's life in the Alaskan bush. A decade later, when Korth invited him to spend a summer building a cabin in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Campbell decided to bring Aidan along. Father and daughter set off together for one of the most isolated, and magnificent, landscapes in North America. [Find out how Arctic foxes grow their own gardens.]
In Braving It: A Father, a Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey Into the Alaskan Wild, James Campbell describes this and two more trips to Alaska, where father and daughter faced off with grizzlies, battled clouds of mosquitos, capsized in a freezing river—and pushed the bond between them to its limits. Speaking by phone from Telluride, Colorado, Campbell explains how he used statistics on bear attacks to convince his wife to allow Aidan to go on the trip, why the hardest part for him was relinquishing control to his daughter, and why you can never fully relax in the wilderness. [Discover why six million acres might not be enough for Denali National Park.]
Your first trip involved building a log cabin in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which a friend of yours called “possibly the loneliest place on the planet for a teenage girl.” Didn’t you worry that the trip could be a disaster?
I did. Aidan and I talked a lot about it during the two months we prepared—about safety in bear country, the isolation, the loneliness—but she felt that she was as ready for it as a 15-year-old can be. I felt she was ready too. But I had to convince my wife. Virtually every person in the lower 48 thinks there’s a grizzly hiding behind every willow thicket in Alaska. So my wife was primarily worried about the grizzlies. She made me produce statistics, which showed that most of the people that went up into the Arctic were quite fine. [Laughs] But ultimately I convinced her that we were emotionally, mentally, and physically prepared. My wife made the leap of faith and said, “Alright, why don’t you all go.”
This is a story about a father facing what you call the “unfamiliar channel of middle age” and a girl coping with adolescence. Put us inside your heads as you set out.
I’ve always had a lot of wanderlust or fernweh, as my mom calls it. I’ve traveled all over the world and my body has largely not betrayed me. So part of me was looking forward to the challenge of making three trips to the Arctic, but I was worried, too, that my body might not hold up.
Confronting middle age and diminished physical abilities and dreams has been hard. We both love this little Wisconsin farm where we live. But I get itchy feet and Aidan has always had a big imagination and big dreams. Up until we went to Alaska, she was largely content with our hometown. But once she saw the beauty and magnificence of Alaska, Wisconsin just didn’t quite cut it. Her heart and imagination was in Alaska.
Describe some of the hardships you faced together.
They varied. On our first trip, it was the worst bug season in the Alaska interior in decades, so there were hordes of mosquitoes. You couldn’t escape them. While we were building the cabin we had to build smudge fires around the perimeter to smoke them out. The only place to bathe was in the Coleen River, which is a glacier-fed river. Aidan says she smelled like the monkey cage at the zoo. [Laughs] We were working all day long cutting and limbing trees, bucking them to size, dragging them out of the woods, peeling them, lugging them to the cabin site, and then building the cabin. At the end of the day all we wanted to do was collapse. But we had to harvest berries and go fish, build a fire, and wash dishes. It was endless work.
You can’t just drive a camper there, can you? Give us a picture of the remoteness of the place.
It’s 20 million acres of raw wilderness, as large as the state of South Carolina. The only way to get to it is a two-hour flight by bush plane from Fairbanks. There is nobody there. It’s an empty place. The Inuit of the Arctic coast use it to occasionally hunt for caribou and fish, and there are a few nonnative homesteaders living in the refuge. But you can go hundreds of miles without seeing a soul.
One of the main characters in the book is a Siberian Yupik Eskimo named Edna. Introduce us to her.
Her Yupik name is Miti Dowin. She grew up on an island in the Bering Sea, closer to Russia than Alaska, called St. Lawrence Island, in what was then the ancient hunting village of Savoonga. When my cousin Heimo first went up to Alaska in the 70s, he would go to Savoonga in the spring and run a little dry goods store for his friend. He learned how to speak the language and hunted polar bear, walrus, and bowhead whales with the Eskimo. He fell in love with Edna Rose. She agreed to join him 1,500 miles east in the interior of Alaska.
Edna taught Aidan that women can be as competent in the wilderness as men. Edna can do everything that my cousin does—and even more, as Aidan says, because she does all that stuff he does and cooks the meals!
Aidan learned from Edna how to handle a gun, skin and butcher animals. It’s not great preparation for life in the 21st century, is it?
[Laughs] I think it is! I don’t believe in the apocalypse or end time preppers or anything like that, but the emotional skills that Edna taught her, like self-reliance, competence, and adaptability, are all things she will use for the rest of her life. Aidan will be in uncomfortable situations many other times in her life, and I think she will be able to harken back to this experience and summon the perseverance for whatever is needed.
It was the coldest summer in the Arctic in about 20 years. And we had a lot of dangers: polar and grizzly bears and canoeing on a wild river. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to maneuver the boat together. It’s something we’d prepared for but I had trouble letting go of my need to control the situation. Aidan was the bow woman. Her job was to read the river, pick a line, make a stroke and I’d make a similar stroke from the back of the boat. But sometimes she would be screaming out strokes but, because I was unable to relinquish control, I would be screaming out strokes to her from the back of the canoe. After three days of near disasters she came to me and said, “Dad, we prepared for this, and you said that you would trust me, and you’re not trusting me. This is not working. You need to have faith in me and my ability to see the river and make the right call!” That was an important realization for me. We weren’t going to make it if I didn’t relinquish control. That was really hard.
Parenting in the teenage years is all about the joy and pain of letting go. If we do the right things as parents, our children go off into life with grace and composure, but they leave us behind. We feel pride and joy, but it’s bittersweet because it represents the end of something too. As we got to the mouth of the river, I realized that this trip we’d dreamed of for so long was over, and Aidan was going to go on and enjoy her future adventures without me.
What were the highs—and lows—of your three trips together?
Oh, man! One of the best moments was on our first trip, when I noticed the change in Aidan’s whole attitude. She was no longer terrified of bears, no longer griping about the hard work; she’d come to the realization that she was in a beautiful place and she wanted to make the best of it. There was a discernable difference after that. Up until then I had been beset with uncertainty and indecision.
There were many low moments, particularly on that third trip. I had a heart arrhythmia, something I hadn’t encountered in six years. That was terrifying because I didn’t know if I was capable of walking out. And I knew we weren’t going to be able to call a bush plane, because we were in a spot where a bush plane wouldn’t be able to get us. That was a scary, scary episode.
The incident Aidan talks about when we do book readings together is when we were walking in the mountains on the way to the headwaters of the Hulahula River. She was way out in front, I was behind, lugging my pack and grumbling that my knee was aching. All of a sudden I saw this pile of bear scat. It was steaming so I knew it was really recent, so I’m screaming and whistling for her, but she didn’t hear me. I was terrified, trying to run, with a shotgun cinched to my backpack.
All of a sudden she rounded this bend and there was the grizzly in front of her. She had her bear spray and we had practiced a lot for a moment like this, but she was petrified. She couldn’t move. She was looking at the bear and the bear was looking at her. [Laughs] Then the bear turned and scampered up this mountain at a 70-degree angle. It was the last thing she expected, that a bear would actually run from her! For me, way behind and imagining the worst, I was absolutely terrified.
What lessons did you and your daughter learn together in Alaska? And would you recommend this to our readers?
It was one of the toughest experiences of my life and certainly the toughest of Aidan’s life. But I would definitely recommend it to your readers. I would also recommend preparation. Anybody who tries the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or a similar wilderness has to hope for the best and prepare for worst.
The book is in part an exploration of the father-daughter bond, but also how adversity challenged that bond, tested, and, I hope, ultimately enhanced it. People always say what a beautiful thing for you and your daughter to have done. And it was beautiful. There were many tender moments. But there were also many moments when we weren’t getting on, where we were frustrated or angry with each other.
It’s also about the thrill of breaking out of your comfort zone. I learned that Aidan was—and is—capable of much more than I’d imagined. If you prepare and are put in difficult situations you can rise to the occasion and Aidan certainly did on many occasions. The greatest moments of the trip were when I saw her come alive and reach her potential.
The joy of being in a landscape like that is really powerful. We saw caribou, musk-ox, wolves, grizzly and polar bears, and golden eagles. But the counterpart to joy is fear. The two are inseparable and that’s necessary and really important. You can never entirely relax in the wilderness.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.