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How an Alaska Trip With His Daughter Taught a Dad to Let Go How an Alaska Trip With His Daughter Taught a Dad to Let Go

Aidan and Jim ford an ice-cold mountain stream en route to the Hulahula, July 2014.

(Dave Musgrave)

One summer trip turned into a longer, life-changing adventure for James Campbell and his teenage daughter, Aidan. They began with a mission to help build a cabin with relatives in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The 15-year-old loved it so much that she returned to Alaska with her father twice, upping the ante by adding caribou hunts and kayaking to the list of activities.

Campbell documents the experience in his new book, Braving It: A Father, a Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild. Here, he talks about adversity, getting older, and how the trips helped both him and his poised, determined daughter grow out of old roles.

Why a trip to Alaska at age 50:

It’s always hard for someone to come to terms with middle age. Diminished physical skills are particularly tough to deal with for someone like me who has tried to lead a fairly physical life. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still handle the Alaska I’d once known and loved, and I also wanted to prove to myself that I could still feel the thrill of breaking out of my comfort zone.

There’s raw beauty in Alaska, 20 million acres of it, but there’s also real fear that you can’t entirely escape. You balance moments of utter bliss with moments of knowing something could go wrong at any second—no matter how well you’ve prepared.

Aidan stands in front of the Campbells' home-away-from-home, an Arctic Oven tent, December 2013.
Aidan stands in front of the Campbells' home-away-from-home, an Arctic Oven tent, December 2013.
(James Campbell)

Why Campbell’s fears were well founded:

We discovered that even if you have the wilderness skills of a homesteader, things can go very, very wrong. Six years ago I had atrial fibrillation and an ablation; years went by, and I was fine. Then, when Aidan and I were trekking the [Hulahula] river, my heart went into tachycardia. For a few days we were terrified.

I guess I’d never imagined my body would betray me, and I had to finally admit I’m not the man I was 20 years ago. I felt like I was being foolhardy just having gone there myself, let alone taking Aidan. There were times when I had many doubts; have I done the right thing? Was it smart? Was it irresponsible? Ultimately, I felt that it was right that Aidan was going through this process and I was hopeful that it would keep moving.

In that last third of the book you’ll see that Aidan really, really blossoms. There’s this moment on the river when I was screaming at her, and the next morning she simply said: You have to trust me, Dad. That was a role reversal, and a huge learning experience for me. I had to let go, in so many different ways, but especially of our roles. That was a key to the trip, and an opportunity for both of us to grow.

What his cousin Heimo and wife Edna, who built the cabin, taught Aidan::

I was really hoping that Edna would take to Aidan, and vice versa, because I knew Edna could teach Aidan so much about being a “wilderness woman.” It’s not just the physical, outdoors-y side of things, but a kind of equanimity Edna has, a real poise. I wanted Aidan to see a woman in the process of killing, cooking, and eating animals, which is in some ways a sacred act. I wanted Aidan to see Heimo and Edna’s gratitude in that sublimity.

Heimo and Edna are remarkable people. The point I always try to make about Heimo is that he was part of that “Coming Into the Country” generation that arrived in Alaska for adventure—but now it’s his way of life. They’ve confronted great loss in that way of life, which I detail in the book, but it’s important to recognize that you can’t do what they do and not confront danger and mortality on a daily basis. There are so many things that can go wrong, and you’re so far from any kind of help.

Aidan on Arey Island on the Arctic Ocean, August 2014.
Aidan on Arey Island on the Arctic Ocean, August 2014
(James Campbell)

Why teamwork has special meaning:

Great pain can also be defused by teamwork. Heimo says “A man ain’t a wolverine. A man needs people.” You learn to depend on others and you learn to follow through on what you promise because others are depending on you. Heimo depends on Edna, and vice versa. Aidan was, at first, dependent on me—but during our third trip, I became utterly dependent on her, and she rose to the occasion.

When you face adversity like that it brings out the best and worst in you. There were tender moments, but there was also confronting adversity. Out there you can’t carry a grudge for long. You have to forgive, forget, and move on. As Heimo says, the people of his generation who went to Alaska and wanted to be poets didn’t last, maybe a season or a year but they weren’t committed to the work. Committing to the work means committing to the way of life, you learn to love that way of life and gain insight that other people don’t have.

Why a father-daughter trip was important:

Aidan was entering a phase, at 15, in which she was discontented with home, of course, it’s natural, she was breaking away and what I wanted her to know was that, that’s okay, I get that. But I wanted her to know that you have to be aware of who you are and where you come from. I wanted her to learn from Heimo and Edna it was not an adventure, it was a way of life and a commitment to place. I wanted her to see that commitment, that there’s beauty in overcoming the tedium and frustration of daily work, it’s kind of a metaphor for life. If you begrudge the work, you’ll never be happy!

Why his wife, Aidan’s mother, is part of the story, too:

The only thing that pains me about some people’s reactions to the book is that they think my wife Elizabeth wasn’t part of it. Not true! She’s a wilderness woman herself—we met in Colorado and honeymooned in New Guinea—but she has zero interest in Arctic Alaska. She’ll go to Costa Rica with Aidan for a few weeks this year, as it happens, and she’ll go on many trips with me and our daughters in the future. But she is part of Braving It because she believed in me, in Aidan, and in our time together. I don’t think that I could have done it, psychologically, if I didn’t know that Elizabeth believed in it. Aidan is our daughter, and Elizabeth’s consent meant a great deal to both me and Aidan.

What the takeaway was:

I mention it in the prologue that Aidan’s nickname is “Cap,” for “captain,” because she’s always had vision and she’s always had, in her words, “’termination” (determination). She would go on a hike with me and I’d worry that she couldn’t keep up, and she’d say, “Daddy, don’t worry! I got ‘termination!” Not that our other daughters don’t, they do, but she’s always had it in spades. She’s also had enough vision to realize her dreams. I’ve always been impressed with that: She is willing to work hard. Going to Alaska is something she’s always wanted to do, and she was willing to put in the time to prepare herself to overcome the many discomforts and hardships. Ultimately, I knew she was ready.

After we finish this summer’s book events, Aidan at 18 is taking a gap year in which she’ll travel from Costa Rica with a backpack and see how far south she can get. She’ll work on organic farms along the way to make money for her travels.

Our two younger daughters are clamoring for their own trips with me. I’m going to have to find the fountain of youth, and I’m also going to have to come up with something new and imaginative for each of them.