Monday, March 2, 2009

My Alaska Grown Girl

She was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, my skinny blond girl with the high-pitched voice. Her mother, the toughest woman ever, so independent and capable, grew out of the 50's and was so much her own person. And so Daphne learned to be her own woman from the start; she never knew there was anything she couldn't do. At six months old, we wrapped her in caribou hides and a down bag, put her in the dogsled and her 5-year old brother on the back of the runners next to me and mushed across the arctic. It was -35 F. at night. She grew up tough but never knew it. By seven she could jump naked in a glacial river and stay longer than the boys. Daphne could out-hike me going uphill. I've never again caught up.

Denali Park was her first home. We built a beautiful log cabin when she was a baby, and this is the house that comes to her mind when the word 'home' is used in our house. We had 30 sled dogs in the yard, and Daphne would go for rides with me at night after work, sometimes thirty miles up the Yanert river in the sled under the moonlight. As a family we criss-crossed Alaska with the dog team, Daphne on the back of one sled, her brother on the other. Into the heart of Denali she went, to the base of Mount McKinley, sleeping in the canvas wall tent at night, feeding the fire, caring for the dogs. In the summer she floated rivers, hiked mountains, camped in the rain, and swam in the Chena sloughs. One day she tried to touch a wild caribou.

When Daphne was eight, we moved to Kotzebue, Alaska, on the northwest Arctic coast, an Inupiat village where Daphne was part of the ten percent minority. She loved school, made friends with everyone, and made it her home. One day she went swimming in the ocean while the sea ice was just 10 feet off shore. I sat on the sand in a down parka. She swam for half an hour screaming with joy at the water. She learned to drive the Lund skiff, steer a snowmachine, shoot a gun and a bow and arrow. Her mom taught her tumbling and gymnastics; we had a huge tumbling mat upstairs. I taught her to climb rocks and mountains; we had a rock climbing wall from the ceiling.

One Christmas we went to Costa Rica. Daphne spotted birds, played in the ocean, caught sailfish, and spied a leopard. One night we were watching a soccer game, and a black beetle as big as a frog flew and landed in her long blond hair. I picked it up and threw it into the air.

Off to Chugiak, where Daphne really grew up. A dilettante, she could do anything well. The violin became her passion, and she gave the piano a valiant effort. Soon she was first violin in the city-wide orchestra. Music had entered her life and took her for a ride she's still on. With me she went rock climbing at Hatcher Pass, and later she became the best ice climber ever, ascending the frozen waterfalls in Valdez, Alaska, every winter. After her brother left for college, she became my main climbing partner.

In the summers we lived on Lake Clark, the 60-mile long blue gash between the jumble of granite peaks like a hundred Teton ranges piled up on the Alaska peninsula. We flew in single-engine aircraft everywhere, as no roads lead to the lake. Daphne had two African geese, Squach and Bea, who followed her everywhere. With no TV and no radio, I read out loud to the kids every day. "Siddhartha" was her favorite. It lead her to read other great books, like "On The Road", and "The Dharma Bums".

In school she studied hard and did well academically. Gregarious and fun, she joined the cross-country ski team; I remember standing by the trail ringing the cowbell to cheer her on as she rounded the corners at zero degrees, snot pouring from her nose, frostbite on her cheek, and steam shooting from her lips. But volleyball became her passion. As a tall willow with great jumpers, she became the center of the varsity team. I never missed a game, screaming at the top of my lungs for her and the team.

On the weekends she and her coterie of friends would head to Hunter Creek for music fairs, or to Hatcher Pass for camping, returning home covered in dirt and smoke. More and more she spent nights away from home with the friends. I missed her on the weekends.

When she was seventeen, she, her brother, I, and some friends climbed 20,320' Mount McKinley in Denali National Park. She was the toughest and strongest member of the team. It was cold, hard, and steep, but Daphne was so tough. On the way to 17,000' camp the wind frostbit her cheek so badly it turned into a giant blister. Her mother made me promise I'd bring her home safely, so she and I with tears in our eyes turned around near 18,000'. We may return some day...she's a very determined woman.

That fall we put Daphne in the little van and drove 4,000 miles down the AlCan highway to college in Durango, Colorado. Fort Lewis was a whole new world and a social set she loved. I lost track of the day-to-day as Daphne blossomed into womanhood and made Colorado her home. She jumped in with both feet, never returning to Alaska. Weekends she climbed mountains, skied, and hit the rock concert circuit from Nebraska to Vegas.

After a few years she wanted a break from school. I was superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, so Daphne came to Jackson Hole with her Pomeranian, 'Sir. Didymus', to live with me. What a treat! But I still looked on her as my little girl, as I probably always will. She had grown and had become her own person, just like her mother likely was at her age. I returned to Alaska, and Daphne stayed to work in Jackson, the perfect hostess at the Cadillac Cafe. One day she took off and followed Pfish on it's last six concerts through New England and ending at Woodstock.

But in spite of the adventure of the Tetons, she wanted to finish college. I don't know if the early Kerouac was the influence, but she decided to go to Naropa University in Boulder. For Christmas that first year she sent me a tape of Allen Ginsberg, the founder of the school. I never was very practical, and I'm sure my father cringed at my choice of a major: Classical Greek. So, I was delighted when she told me, probably with trepidation, that she finally settled on yoga as a major. Her father's girl!

Although we live thousands of miles apart, I visit her often, fix her car, take her to fun restaurants, and do the things that fathers do. I love every second we are together. Last summer we climbed a mountain above Boulder together with her little dogs. This winter she drove to Ouray, Colorado, where I was staying and went ice climbing with me, just like the old days. She can still climb with grace and speed. We invited Annie Whitehouse, one of the women who first climbed Annapurna, to dinner and they became friends. Daphne had worn out my old T-shirt from Annie's expedition: "A WOMAN'S PLACE IS ON TOP", printed on the front.

Last week Daphne called to say she had made me one of her five cell-phone favorites, so we could talk for free. How much better could it get!

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