Alaska Brought My Son Back to Me

My son, on the cusp of becoming a teenager, was starting to slip away. So I planned a trip to Alaska that changed everything.

Fish jumped, dimpling the water. Bald eagles — snowy heads held high and regal — perched on treetops surrounding the cove. Then, the barnacled black snout of a whale emerged with the sudden stealth of a submarine and blew off a pungent spume forty yards to starboard.

Whooshhhh!

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My 9-year-old son, Nicholas, and I were fishing on a boat in Alaska’s Resurrection Bay. Nicholas and I were close. I used to read to him, we shared most of our meals, traveled, wrestled, joked, skied, and got along famously. But I was increasingly reading alone and he was more and more interested in playtime with his peers and I didn’t want to lose the connection with my quickly maturing son. I’d never enjoyed a close relationship with my own father, who had died at 83 — just two months earlier. So, his grandmother kindly sponsored us with two tickets to Alaska.

I was a park ranger and spent many incredible years in Alaska. Nicholas often commented on the prized photograph, mounted in the study, of me with a Denali National Park ranger colleague and an Athapaskan neighbor alongside a wild river in Alaska, each of us visibly struggling to hold up king salmon half as big as our bodies. I wanted to give my son the same experience — and much more.

Denali National Park

Nicholas had developed into an advanced pre-teen with energy, charm, and the skills to chat up adults. As adolescence approached, time with him, I knew, would become more and more limited. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity in this lull between tweenie and teen when his attention still somewhat on his dad — at least during these one-on-one opportunities in Alaska.

Nicholas leaned tightly against me, but he wasn’t cold. Even if normal communication faltered, physical closeness and touch, along with time shared together, promised the sort of father-son relationship that I could never find with my own dad.

I had come to accept that my father, an introverted yet gentle scientist, simply lacked the tools for reaching out to me.  After months, sometimes years apart, he greeted me with only palm outstretched — when I bypassed the handshake for a hug, he didn’t resist but was never capable of lifting both arms to squeeze me back. He was always kind, yet couldn’t express his feelings.  When he passed away in June, I felt empty but knew I had to take Nicholas to Alaska to do those things I couldn’t with my own dad.  I didn’t mind that my father had been wedded to his science and the computer screen, or that being outdoors was not his cup of tea. But I was haunted that we could share so little of our lives together.

Another reason: I had limited Nicholas’s exposure to media, yet I knew it was only a matter of time before his inevitable fascination with “the screen” set in — limiting his time to more wholesome moments at play or in the outdoors. He would soon get a cell phone and a huge new distraction would set in. Alaska, one on one with his dad, seemed the perfect interim step on the path to adolescence.  But there was more.

In moments like this with the whale it was easy to understand why kids need nature.  Not just backyards with the disconcerting hum of nearby traffic, but wild places that harbor quiet and stimulate imaginations.  I had a lot of reasons for wanting to expose Nicholas to the wonders of nature.

In the groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv describes how social media, internet screens, and video games have created a “Nature-deficit Disorder” in today’s children. Studies have shown that this “lure of the screen” and lack of access to the wilds results in behavioral issues including ADHD, obesity, anxiety, and depression — the last things I wanted to see.

With my son’s face still filled with awe and wonder, we discussed humpback whales’ diet and migratory habits.  The mirror-still water in the cove reflected the green hue of surrounding forest, and we stood holding our fishing poles in silence. Another humpback surfaced even closer, gently rolling a dinner-plate sized, black eye toward us — soliciting a round of oohs and ahhs from the fishermen.

father and son fishing in lake

No sooner had the second whale submerged then Nicholas’ line went tight, bending the rod nearly double as my son’s catch sounded. “A whale Dad, I got the whale!” Nicholas yelled. “What’ll I do?”

I told him he had hooked a king salmon and stood back and watched as he fought the fish. Forty pounds of salmon versus 90 pounds of boy, my son barely able to hold the rod up, taking in line slowly, letting the fish rest, then cranking in more line. All the adults on board had pulled in their lines and were watching as we gaffed the wildly flopping king at the gunnels and lifted it aboard.  Then the youngest fisherman on board struggled to hold a salmon two-thirds his height. I snapped the requisite photograph.

More important than the photo, however, would be that catching such a huge fish would add immeasurably to my son’s confidence. After all, no one else in his class went to Alaska and caught king salmon.

Still, as a modest and thoughtful kid concerned about the environment and the welfare of animals, Nicholas had chosen to be a vegetarian. I thanked him for catching my dinner and shook his hand.

Amid our small differences as omnivore and vegetarian, Nicholas and I had discussed how we had evolved from hunters and gatherers. I was deliberately exposing my son to our innate craving to be immersed in nature — shown in part by the path that I had taken here in the North when I was a younger man.

The preeminent biologist E.O. Wilson calls this innate, human attraction to the natural world “Biophilia.”  As parents, I believe that the most powerful experiences we can give our children — particularly amid a complex, information era disconnected from nature — is to show them the awe and wonder of a great, green ocean teeming with birds and scaly finned creatures; or of mountains rich with sweet berries and furry critters.

And this is, most of all, has always been what I’ve sought for my son.

***

After Ressurection Bay, we drove north, toward my old stomping grounds in Denali National Park, crowned by North America’s highest mountain. While kids respond to spectacular landscapes, filled with wildlife, or adrenaline-packed sports activities, I had learned that it’s important to “go micro” as often as possible, if only to imbue a sense of curiosity for the less obvious and hidden enigmas of nature. Developing knowledge for and digging into these wonders where they’re more accessible and touchable — versus the frightening grandeur of the whale — would prove essential to the goal of having a son participating, if only briefly, in his father’s passions.

So we stopped and took several hikes, calling in birds by making “phishing” noises in the forest (“What’s that funny looking one with the huge crest Nicholas?”); identifying plants (“Get down here with me, bud, down low, and smell the incredible perfume of this twin flower”); or trapping a mosquito on my arm by squeezing the flesh around it until the engorged bug fell to the ground, unable to fly.

With kids, it’s always fun to go scatological — the more you gross them out, the more the lesson sticks.  So on the backside of Flattop Mountain, high above Anchorage, I found a horse-sized pile of grizzly poop, and proceeded to pick it apart with a stick.

“That’s gross Dad!”

father and son on hike

Soon enough, we were speculating about what the bear had been eating; then Nicholas found grass, berries, and blonde fur. Each of these small discoveries served to build his curiosity, develop his powers of observation, and allowed us to share father and son moments that we had never experienced before. Like more urbane dads, I treasure kicking around the soccer ball, but the moments that we’ll remember most vividly are those found alone together, miles from the trailhead where all of our neurons are firing and our senses are engaged.

There’s no better way to connect with the primeval than picking apart grizzly shit out in the Alaskan wilderness.

Nicholas grew entranced, looking around and paying attention to all that surrounded us: a marmot whistling in the boulders, the prickly devils club we avoided walking through, and how tartly delicious the blueberries tasted on the way up the mountain.

On top, we had the summit to ourselves and the city seemed Lilliputian below us. The only noise came from the wind as watched the light coruscating against the waters of Cook Inlet, surrounded by a sea of glaciated mountains, and a boreal forest that stretched almost forever.

“Daddy,” Nicholas said, “this schools Disneyland.”

He gets it, I thought, he really gets this.

In Denali, riding an old bus 80 miles into the backcountry, I explained to Nicholas that my time climbing and performing rescues up on the mountain had been the high point of my life. I told him that as a boy, climbing mountains was all I wanted to do, and that whenever he found a similar passion — be it mathematics, or sports, or science, or the outdoors —then he too should follow those dreams. I told him that my father had encouraged me in just the same way.

From a safe distance on the bus, we watched grizzlies hunting for ground squirrels. Through the binoculars, we watched a fox, jumping with all four legs up into the air, up and down like a spring, trying to trap lemmings  Then a golden eagle swooped down after a snowshoe hare near Sanctuary River. Although we had no working cell phones or Nintendos like another sadly distracted kid on the bus, Nicholas shot countless pictures with my camera — struggling to hold up the heavy zoom lens — so that we could treasure the images when we got home.

My son and I stood silently for a moment and he reached for my hand. And when it turned into a hug, I felt I’d come full circle in life.

Caribou, more grizzlies and white dots of Dall sheep appeared high on the ridges above as the camera continued to click away in my favorite park, created as a great wildlife reserve. Although Nicholas couldn’t approach them as closely as the captives we visited at the Denver Zoo, he agreed that animals of the wilderness seemed infinitely more playful and wild.

We camped that night beneath Denali rising 18,000 feet above us like a great ghost cloud. From our tent we heard an eerie wail, like laughter coming out of an echo chamber: Nicholas’s eyes went big. I told him that the original Athapaskan residents here believed that the cry of the loon gives the listener good luck.

We took a walk. I waved up at Denali, a great white wall more than three miles above us, with the greatest vertical land rise of any mountain in the world. My son and I stood silently for a moment and he reached for my hand. And when it turned into a hug, I felt I’d come full circle in life.

Mosquitoes were buzzing around us, but I could tell that Nicholas — like me — had moved onto another plane of awareness.  He was bursting with awe, taken by the largeness of our world. While the trip would act as a transformation for me, a bridge to move on from my father’s death, Nicholas was already light years beyond with his sense of security, self-esteem, and a capacity for love. I should never have doubted that we had long ago clicked, beyond mere blood and genes, as father and son.

We stood alone together, hand in hand, staring up at Denali, the High One, as the loon laughed once more from Wonder Lake.

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