Cold stings my cheeks. Rime dangles from my eyebrows. Even my five-year-old daughter’s blue eyes look frigid, peering down at me from the narrow gap between her knit hat and frosty gaiter. I’m on my knees in the snow, wrestling her ski out from under a log, and she just asked for the second time when we’re going to be home. I don’t know, I think, but it needs to be soon. We are alone in a snowbound valley amid a population of winter-weary moose, and the sun is sinking behind mountains. The temperature is six-below and dropping.
As I check Stella’s rosy cheeks for frostbite, my inner Dad voices disappointment. These are harsh conditions for a little kid, he says. Suddenly, the reasoning for this mission feels as brittle as the hoarfrost atop today’s snow. I had just wanted to show my daughter we can ski home from her little preschool, through forests and meadows and down a frozen river. But I also admit to some urgency courtesy of climate change. After several warm winters, south-coastal Alaska is finally cold again, with deep snow and frozen waters I am perhaps overly eager to share with her, not knowing when they might return.
She was excited for this adventure back at preschool, now 40 minutes behind us.
“I have a surprise,” I told her inside the warm building, over the din of cooped-up kids.
“Skiing!” she said as I dramatically pulled her boots from my backpack.
But now I feel an avalanche of doubt. Although she has skied since she could walk, she has never navigated the ungroomed river valley or skied such a long distance. Hunger, fatigue, broken gear, and emotional meltdowns are all possibilities we’ll have to manage by ourselves, as no roads follow the river.
We face bigger risks, too. The river has areas of overflow and thin ice where we could plunge through to its swift current. Imagining my small daughter in that frigid water terrifies me. The cold air matters, too. It can easily penetrate her mittens or permanently damage her tender cheeks. And with this year’s deep snow, moose are posted up along the river, where they munch willows and tooth away the bark of young cottonwoods. Moms with calves are bedded among trailside alders, and I’d rather not surprise one of these unpredictable giants.
I remind myself of my precautions. I’ve skied the route for weeks, tracking where the thickest ice has formed. Stella’s winter clothes are top quality Alaska hand-me-downs that have kept a generation of local kids warm. My phone is charged and stowed warm near my chest. I have a headlamp, food, tow strap, and hand warmers. And duct tape for repairs.
And this is not Stella’s first backcountry foray. We have towed her on ski tours and taken her winter camping. She’s joined us floating rivers and on week-long kayak adventures in rainy Prince William Sound. She’s encountered bears, whales, moose, and a nasty bout of phototoxic dermatitis from a naked tumble through cow parsnip. Through it all she’s learned patience and endurance in the wilderness.
But bringing children into the backcountry is still scary. While we parents want our kids to know the outdoors we love, we’re haunted by both runaway imaginations and real-world tales of accidents that have claimed young lives, from bears, falls, rivers, and more. We know it’s safer — and much easier — to stay home watching Molly of Denali.
Today I have a feel for how accidents happen. I ran late at work and of course overestimated our speed down-valley. Now the sun rides low along mountaintops and we’re barely halfway home, with several river crossings ahead. With rising nerves and cold fingers, I grow impatient freeing Stella’s ski from the log, which requires backing her up without toppling her over. That’s when she asks again when we’ll be home. And it’s when I remember patience in the backcountry is not just for kids.
“It’ll be a little while longer,” I tell her. “Let’s check hands and have a snack.”
She plops into my lap in the snow and I slide off her mittens. I expect to find hands cold like mine, but they’re soft and warm. I jealously hold them an extra moment against my own chilly digits.
While snacking we hear the rattle of a kingfisher and the chirp of a dipper hunting a narrow opening in the ice. Ravens wheel above barren cottonwoods, and I show Stella vole tracks crossing a big depression where a moose had rested. The sun is cold and far away, stretching our shadows over smooth snow and spreading creamy light across the mountains to the north.
I wonder if she appreciates the scene. Regardless, Barbara and I agreed from the start that her childhood would be immersed in Alaska’s grandeur. She may never remember these individual moments, but they will wire her mind to the outside world, where if she’s anything like us she can turn for peace and endless entertainment.
“How do we stay warm on a cold day?” I ask.
“Keep moving,” she says with enthusiasm.
With that she’s up and skiing down the trail, practicing her kicking and gliding and belting out a song from the movie Frozen. Maybe the singing will alert any moose while I linger to video her tiny body moving among mountains.
She shrinks into the landscape, looking as ephemeral as her own childhood. At five, she’s already growing as fast as these riverside willows. In a blink she’ll be romping up the surrounding mountains with friends, skiing without me, and pulling her own salmon from this river. For a moment I watch her sail away, swinging her little poles against powdery snow and singing loudly. Sunlight glints off the vapor of each kid-sized breath. Then I tuck away my phone and hurry along before a moose stomps her or she falls into a tree well.
At the next river crossing I make sure she’s focused on the rules: I’ll hold your poles. Squeeze my hand tight the whole way across. Listen for cracks. Hurry.
Our skis skim across frost-covered ice, but there’s a loud crack when we reach the other side. It’s just a hollow bit of side-channel ice, a remnant from early winter when the river was higher. But it spooks Stella. For ten minutes she skis close to me and claims she hears cracking, even though we’re no longer on ice. She’s wrapping her mind around a hazard, learning skills that may save her life one day.
The sun is gone when we reach the riverbend where the trail heads up though forest toward our home. Helping Stella over snow-covered logs at the valley’s edge, my pole plunges through some airy snow and I nearly fall.
“That’s deep,” she says as I extract my pole.
She casually falls to her side and begins digging with her mittens. I’m hungry and just want to get through the woods before the light fails and her hands get cold. But this interaction with the snow — and especially its deepness — is important.
“Dad,” she says in a tone reserved for big news. “If I went down that hole the snow would be over…my…head.”
Despite my groaning stomach, I sit to help dig. I show her storm layers in the snowpack. We talk about snowy days we’ve enjoyed this winter – out kick-sledding or skiing at the local resort – and how those days are scribed into the snow.
She listens to some of this but shifts to the idea of digging a tunnel we can crawl into. And that’s fine, too. Attaining this easy intimacy with winter is the reason I dragged us out here. I don’t know when the snow will be this deep again, or this cold and light. Or how often in the years ahead the river will freeze enough to ski this corridor. In that moment, I recognize how much I want my daughter to know the thrill of cold Alaska. As if imprinting it in her young mind will somehow save it for her. This is my own brand of climate denial.
Stella grows tired as we continue through the woods. I tow her with my pole, and by the time we scramble over a snow berm and onto the road she’s coming unglued. With Venus shining from a purple sky, I pop off her skis and hoist her onto my shoulders. I walk the last stretch clumsily grasping our skis and poles to my side with one hand and holding onto her ankle with the other. She rests her cheek on my head and whimpers. Inner Dad returns to chide me.
At home she snacks by the woodstove, uncharacteristically quiet. But then she is up and singing her Frozen tunes again. I wish she would boast to her Mom about her first ski home. But she lives in the moment, which right now is about singing. I’ll have to be satisfied we made it home safe and enjoyed one more winter adventure.
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