Children in Alaska’s barbaric country

As parents, we watch our kids walk into vast new worlds — like it or not.

In the glacial enclave of Whittier, Alaska, the man who rents sea kayaks asked the three dads in our group to step into his boatshed. A broad-shouldered man, middle-aged like the rest of us, he leaned against his desk in the corner of the room. “As a father, I’m appealing to you,” he said. “You should rethink your plans.”

 

We were about to set off on a nine-day expedition with seven adults and five children into the wilderness islands of Prince William Sound, a country of dark, mountainous forests and vast glaciers unloading into the sea where icebergs ground on rocky shores.

“I won’t turn business away,” the man continued. “You can do whatever you want, but this looks like a mistake waiting to happen.”

It was the ratio that worried him: too many kids, not enough grown-ups. When he sent out children, it was usually one or two in a clump of athletic, keenly dressed outdoor folk. We looked more like a tribe. I’d come with my two boys, aged 6 and 10. Steve, a gray and grizzled orchard farmer from western Colorado, had a 10-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy. And Irvin, a Filipino-American Forest Service biologist and wildland firefighter from Southern California, was a solo dad with a 4-year-old bruiser of a son. Irvin and I had both worked as backcountry guides and trained in emergency medicine, and Steve had the skills and demeanor of an Eagle Scout.

We’d be fine, we assured the man. “Have you ever seen a kid die from hypothermia?” he responded. None of us had. Steve shook his head. “I’d rather not,” he said.

What we were planning was different from any of our adventures in the Lower 48, the boatman warned, the consequences more immediate. Little bodies can lose heat fast when dumped in icy Alaskan waters. But we weren’t planning to island-hop, racing through a guidebook as if to a finish line, we explained. We’d be slower, more methodical, careful. We wanted to get to know the geography of just one sheltered corner of the sound, spending more time on foot than in kayaks.

The boatman seemed unconvinced. “Are you outfitted for bears?” he asked.

Steve gave a slow nod. “We’ve got it as covered as we’re going to,” he said.

Children play in a lily pad pond in the island interior; it was hard to convince them to climb out and continue exploring with the adults.
Craig Childs

Of course, there are risks involved when you take children into deep wilderness. I’d seen enough fresh kills in bear country to know what happens to small, fragile prey. We had a good plan, though. Put the right group of people together, with a good mix of skills and personalities, and you could do damn near anything with kids. Throw in a radio to hail a passing boat in an emergency, and at least one firearm (ours was a .357 magnum, not the best for bears, but better than sticks and stones), and you have yourself a family adventure in the bush.

It’s better than leaving the children behind. Whenever I traveled in Alaska without my two young boys, I never heard the end of it. My youngest, even when he was 3, would be outraged. How could I leave them at home for this one? What kind of parent was I trying to be? My job was to bring them inside my life, guiding them through the rooms of my own landscape. They didn’t have to know the weight of my concern for their welfare. Our task as adults was to bring them here and get them out alive.

And so we set out. Smacking waves for three hours in a steel boat, we wound between islands, cathedrals of mountains and glaciers passing around us. When the boat nosed into the cove on a small, anonymous island about 60 miles from Whittier, we leaned over the edges looking down into clear water, rocks armed with starfish. Wearing knee-high mud boots, I jumped in with Will, Steve’s 12-year-old son, and we ducked through the alders, checking for high tidelines and clearings big enough to camp in. Will was ready for adventure. He would be our fire starter with his new knife, a magnesium fire-starter rod, and some dryer lint brought from home. His dad had given him four dry matches to last the entire trip.

We found a clearing, then circled back to each other on a swift scouting mission. “This look good to you?” I asked. The straggle-haired boy nodded eagerly: “Yeah.”

We unloaded our full complement on the shaggy shores of the cove. Then the boat left us, to return in nine days. By late afternoon, we had two camps set up. One was for the kitchen (and the bears, if they wanted it), the other held our tents and our children, who’d be sighing in their sleep.

In the long, warm light of July, Will’s 10-year-old sister, Adair, plopped down on a rock outcrop beside our saltwater cove. The smell of the outgoing tide mixed with moss and spruce duff, and the younger children squealed and splashed in the tidal pools.

Adair set out her colored pencils on the dark, iron-hard rock: blue, orange, red and purple. With a sketchbook open in her lap, she began drawing flowers. A silky-headed seal popped up in the cove, studied her a few moments, then slipped underwater with hardly a ripple.

Adair flicked between pencils, flopping her black rubber boots back and forth. “I don’t really have a good pink,” she said, half to herself, half to me. “Isn’t this just a crazy world?”

Adair, 10, sports a limpet collection on her fingertips, the fleshy mollusks suctioned to her skin.
Craig Childs

It was my fault she was missing a state gymnastic meet and a friend’s water-park birthday party back in Colorado. She blamed me; I’d come up with this stupid Alaska plan and wrecked her schedule. “It’s not that I don’t want to be here, I do,” she said. “But you’ve interfered with my life.”

Adair grew up on a farm and had seen all manner of life and death. She was comfortable in nature, would be the first to plunge her hands fearlessly into a slick nest of seaweed, placing limpets at the tips of her 10 outstretched fingers. But she was outside her comfort zone in deeper wilderness than she’d ever seen.

She was drawing cosmos flowers, the kind that grew in her mother’s terra-cotta pots back home. She said she didn’t think cosmos grew in Alaska. “I wish we had a better way to communicate,” she told me as she continued drawing. “What if one of us gets hurt? How can we get to civilization? I don’t know what would happen if one of us slipped on these rocks and broke a bone. What happens if there’s a bear attack? What if we don’t know what to do?”

“You’re with good people,” I said. “I’m not worried.”

Adair stopped drawing for a moment and looked at me over the top of her notebook, unimpressed.

Back at home, it’s dishes and books, toys on the floor and …who broke this?… or that? You can afford to take your kids’ wellbeing for granted for longer chunks of time. Out here, you or someone you profoundly trust has to know where they are at every moment. In the wilderness, the image of them burns deeper into your mind, their every gesture magnified, every leap and shriek, every strike of knife on flint, every drawing of a wildflower.

On the third day, we explored the southern perimeter of our small island by water, paddling around coves and gray bedrock shoals. As our gaggle of sea kayaks moved a quarter mile into open water, a humpback whale spouted to our left. “Look!” I told Jasper, my 10-year-old, who sat in the front of the kayak letting his paddle drag lightly in the water, looking down into the fathomless vaults of Prince William Sound.

He looked up in time to see the whale slide back under, its fluke last to go. Low storm clouds bruised the sky. For a minute, we stared into water and clouds, the same shape and color, no real sense of up or down but for the sporadic islands. When nothing else happened, Jasper returned to the study of his paddle blade in the water, captivated by its ripples.

I kept watch, and when a second spout appeared, I shouted again. The whale was about a hundred feet to our left. Spray rose 40 feet in the air and curled into mist followed by a great, windy inhalation, as the whale turned for its next dive. An obsidian-green spine slid into the water followed by flukes flipping upward, casting off a rain of seawater. Jasper said, “Did it go under us?” I said it must have.

The boy watched the whale dive again, its fluke lifting and then sliding beneath the surface. When it disappeared, Jasper touched his paddle to the water, as if a whale were no more exciting than the small roller-coaster ripples he was making, all sense of scale thrown to the wind.

 

Father and son return from checking a shrimp pot.
Craig Childs

A few days in, we ran out of juice boxes. Then candy bars became scarce. My wife stood over the cooler and, without looking directly at anyone, said to the forest, to the seawater cove, “Where are the rest of the snacks, you guys?”

She meant two of the dads: Irvin and me. We had flown in a day early to hit the grocery stores in Anchorage. We’d gotten a lot of grains and nuts and cheap cases of Indian food packets. But in the rush and jet lag, we’d neglected to do an accurate snack assessment. Snacks — appetite suppressants and mood enhancers for kids. Without enough snacks, our foodstuffs were being depleted faster than planned.

Becky, the orchard mom, a slight and brazen woman with sturdy hands and a big, open laugh, nodded slowly, as if surprised the discovery had taken this long.  “Maybe we should add up what we’ve got left,” she said.

By we, Becky meant the women: the two moms and our friend Bethany. Bethany had come with her boyfriend, a street cop from Denver who carried the .357, every member an invaluable part of the tribe. She and Becky sat down with a notebook and began calling out orders, making the rest of us dig though boxes and metal-lined dry-bags to figure out what we had left. Using the notebook, they planned each meal. Irvin and I had not thought to do this. We’d flown by the seat of our pants, apparently too much.

 

Four-year-old Ethan sometimes questions the value of doing dishes.
Craig Childs

I used to take kids into the wilderness as a hired guide. The expeditions ranged from a few days to a couple weeks. Most often, this was in the desert. I loaded up on supplies in Yuma, Arizona, and hauled unsuspecting high-schoolers into landscapes of scorpions, tarantulas and cactus. A girl from Los Angeles saw a shooting star for the first time on one of these trips. We were in canoes along the lower Colorado River, on a night paddle, where we all tied up and leaned silently back, floating and watching the sky. When a meteorite skidded over us, just a little streak of light, the girl looked at me, her eyes excited and puzzled. She couldn’t even form the question: What was that?

As parents, we have the chance to be ushers, opening a door into wilderness and watching as our children walk out into vast new worlds. In many ways, the kids are more open than we are, seamlessly moving into whatever comes next, Adair laying her colored pencils on the ground, studying flowers, Jasper gazing at the whale, equally entranced by the ripples from his paddle.

We did things with our kids that other parents would consider dirty or foolhardy or downright dangerous. But we believed that our kids should grow up in our lives, experience the world firsthand, get it all over their hands and faces — moss, wind, water and the shroud of the sky.

There were basic rules for the children: Never leave adult sight, always be with a buddy, inform us of every potty break. Each child carried a whistle, and the older ones had good knives.

Bears, though numerous in this part of the state, gradually became less of a concern. Given enough fish, coastal grizzlies can reach up to 1,400 pounds, but they tend to be less aggressive than inland bears; their life along narrow shorelines and crowded rivers forces them to become more social. Besides, our children made so much noise wherever they went, crashing through the woods, screaming at the tops of their lungs, that we figured all the bears on our island were huddled on the opposite end, with their paws covering their heads, wishing we’d leave. I’d been worried about bears and hypothermia, not so much about food. Perhaps I should have reconsidered my priorities back in Anchorage.

 

Children fascinated by the smallest details in Prince William Sound.
Craig Childs

On the fifth night, near midnight, I sat at the edge of the kitchen tarp with Becky. Rain fell in the dusk light. The tent lights were out, the kids asleep. All the food that wasn’t in bear boxes had been packed into bags and hung as high and intricately as possible. We had rigged a pulley system over a sturdy spruce, suspending about a hundred pounds of food 30 feet above the tidal flats. Becky and I had just finished cleaning up after the nightly rampage. We’d put away toothbrushes and picked up stray, damp articles of clothing, hanging them on guy-wires from the kitchen tarp.

Now, Becky sat on a cooler, whittling a stick into a pile of shavings. I asked what she thought about the gender roles we’d developed as wilderness parents. She took a breath, slivered off another curl, and told me it seemed clear that the women were planning the meals, doing most of the cooking, while the men were building fires and catching fish.

The mothers knew where each kid was at any moment, she said, and what they were doing, who was cold, who had spilled hot chocolate all over their pants, who couldn’t find their socks. It didn’t matter whose kids they were. “I think if we stayed here longer, our gender roles would evolve,” she said. “We’ve got three strong, competent women who are probably just as happy fishing and paddling and lighting fires as, say, boiling ‘Tasty Bites.’ ”

An annelid worm Will wanted to put down his sister’s shirt.
Craig Childs

Will, almost 12, gathers clams in the midnight dusk of South-Central Alaska.
Craig Childs

The women may have suspected that Irvin and I had intentionally shorted us on food. It’s something he and I might have thought of; it gives you a reason to step up the foraging. Fishing lines were now constantly out, and we checked and moved a shrimp pot until we found the sweet spot. At dinner, kids proffered seaweed, collecting different species along the shore. They lightly toasted the preferred species of red-ribbon, Palmaria hecatensis, with olive oil, calling it sea bacon, making it on the stove until no one could eat anymore.

Every meal now included something recently alive: fried lingcod added to Kashmir spinach, the probing head of a prawn sticking like a radio antennae from a bowl of watery refried beans. We were gradually going primal. By breakfast on Day Six, the fathers and Will stood around a plastic bucket of steamed clams, cracking them open and popping the morsels in our mouths like peanuts.  The mothers stood back and watched, waiting for food poisoning.

Irvin was our marine specialist: He’d say yes to one thing, no to another. “Yes” to the many mollusks we were digging up; “No” to the two-foot-long annelid worm Will wanted to put down his sister’s shirt.

By Day Nine, when the boat returned for us, we had explored most of the surrounding coves, and had even ventured to other islands and inlets. We knew our spread of resources. We still had some rice left and several packets of Indian food, and we probably could have survived happily for another week, even without juice boxes. Left out here long enough, we could have turned into Robinson Crusoe. (Or maybe Lord of the Flies.)

But it was time to leave; we were meant for the mainland. The boat arrived like a warship, prow driving up on shore to almost touch our kitchen. I felt like darting back into the woods, throwing rocks at it from the shadows, racing off to live with the bears, but the kids were already running up on deck. They were ready for the next adventure, whatever it might be, a whale, a ripple, a steel boat to carry us home. We loaded up and left our cove, turning back toward Whittier. The boat slapped over waves. Little heads fell into laps, the children lulled to sleep by the water, as the islands parted for our safe return.

Craig Childs, an HCN contributing editor, writes from western Colorado.