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Sharing the trail with born Alaskans

Image: 
Anna Rozell exits the tent near Phelan Creek while joining her parents
for nine days of hiking the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Photo by Ned Rozell.
Ned Rozell

Who is this girl, hair in braids, emerging from the tent with a full backpack?

She is 10 years old, a recent fourth grade graduate, out here with a friend from her class. Within the 20-year-old tent they share, they stay up for hours, chatting and giggling. It is mountain music.

The girl, my daughter Anna, spoke to me a few days ago as I walked beside her.

"I'm never coming out here again to hike the pipeline," she said. "You made a bad decision."

At the time, it was hard to debate with her. Forty mile-per-hour winds shoved us, drilling raindrops into our cheeks. The girl is good at arguing. I tell her she would be a good lawyer, though I hope she does not pursue that line of work.

The two girls, Anna and Salak Crowe, were hiking the path of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline with me, their moms, and my friend Andy Sterns. For nine days, they joined me through the Alaska Range, from Meier's Lake to Black Rapids.

Their 60 miles of trail featured the worst weather I've felt in one month of hiking. Sub-freezing temperatures each night. Rain, wind and graupel pellets during the day. One morning we woke to three fresh inches of snow.

We adults were freaking out. How are we going to keep the girls warm? The first three days, we broke the golden rule, handing the girls bowls of oatmeal through the tent flap. We fretted about hot chocolate spills on sleeping bags.

But when it came time to hike, the girls popped out of their tent with backpacks full and boots on. A ready adult carrying bear spray would get them striding down the trail to warm up.

And there was one of my favorite images: the girls, leggy as newborn moose calves, walking hip to hip, talking, singing, never running out of things to say. Anna walks with a bounce in her step that reminds me of my younger brother. Salak has a light, pigeon-toed stride that looks like her father's.

Their smiles and happy chatter warmed my wind-chilled heart. There were other times, of course, when Anna whined at the wind and her cold feet. She vocalized exactly what I was feeling. I had to walk away sometimes and let Kristen take over.

Our girl does not "suffer in silence" as my mom often requested of her five children. Anna is a lot like me, which leads to perhaps greater understanding but also a lower tolerance to our shared impatience.

During nine days of Aleutian weather, both girls impressed us. There is perhaps something to growing up Alaskan. River trips with real hazards of bears and splashy water. School playgrounds where 20-below is just something to dress for. Endless summer days with no school!

I didn't have those elements growing up in a New York mill town. My parents did, however, take the five kids on camping trips to the Bertrands' upstate property, and somehow to Maine in a Volkswagen bus. There the outdoor seeds were planted.

But this open-air world has been thrust upon Anna and Salak. Regardless of where they end up (Anna says she likes Brooklyn, where her aunt lives), the girls will be shaped by this place.

On this trip, they showed they belong. Led by Salak, who has a great sense for outdoor living, (shown when she placed rocks on her mittens so they wouldn't blow away), they pitched their tent and lit the cook stove. Their hiking pace was as fast as the adults. They weathered the elements with less alarm than we did.

Hiking alongside Anna, I told her I want to be on the trail with just her and Cora later in the summer. I don't want to force her along, and I'm indebted to Kristen allowing my selfish mission, but I think time alone with her will be fun for both of us.

"No," Anna said. "I'm not coming back out with you. This is your trip, not mine."

I did not argue with her logic. However, just like me, no is often her immediate response to a proposed plan. She needs a while for a notion to cook. Sometimes, she changes her mind.

A few days ago, I said goodbye to Kristen, Salak's mom Jennifer, and the two girls, snug in the car as the wind rocked it where it sat next to the old Black Rapids Lodge. Just before I continued down the trail with Andy and Cora, the car door swung open.

Out ran Anna. She jumped in my arms for a hug.

"So, will you come out and see me again?" I asked.

"I'm thinking about it," she said, squeezing me before climbing down. "Love you."

Photo 2: Anna and Kristen Rozell hike through a snowstorm in Isabel Pass.
Photo 3: Salak Crowe and Anna Rozell, both 10, in the Alaska Range.
Photos by Ned Rozell.