Most of us who love wilderness pause sometimes, and reflect on our own inability to appreciate the vastness of the universe around us--not just the sweep of the Chugach, for example, but the inestimable intricacies of a inch-long piece of lichen growing on the tundra, or the particular and unnameable sweetness of an alpine blueberry after the first overnight frost of late summer.
As adults, our own habits and preconceptions circumscribe our understanding of the world around us far more than circumstances or geography: There is more wonder in a patch of Lilies of the Valley in the corner of my front yard that I will ever fully comprehend. In fact, I’ve walked by many of those blossoms without even glancing at them.
Thus, it is a privilege to have a child--an infant--see the world for the first time and remind myself of the majesty around us.
My wife and I recently took our eight month old daughter Zara on her first backpacking trip, in Chugach State Park. There are enough logistical challenges related to infants and backpacking to fill several of these articles, or indeed entire books, ranging from diaper management to distribution of gear and babies between two adults who can only carry so much weight into the backcountry. But that’s not the important thing--suffice to say, it is eminently possible to backpack with a baby, at least for low-mileage trips, if you pack light for all the adult gear.
What matters is everything that Zara got to experience for the first time, with eyes that have not been clouded by the cataracts of repetition, ennui, cynicism, or smartphones. She grabbed little staghorn antler formations of lichen that grows in the shadow of Raina and beneath the long, couloir-stenciled ridgeline that descends from Cumulus’ east flank. Awake long after her normal bedtime, she flopped backward in the tent, turning sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and her parents into alpine trampolines. She touched crowberries for the first time, those humble little mountain dwellers who are our constant companions above treeline. She saw what water looks like after it has melted from the toe of a glacier, dropped its silt, and spread out in a wide, shallow pond where the glacier’s snout once pushed up an old moraine.
Eight month olds generally can’t talk, including Zara. I don’t really know what she perceived, or wondered, upon witnessing alpenglow for the first time, or the crepuscular rays filtering through rain clouds that hung low over Cook Inlet, even while sunlight bathed our alpine valley and dried out dew on the tent in the morning. She certainly did see, feel, and grab the fireweed, the high grass, the monks hood (she didn’t eat it), and other wildflowers that grow abundantly just below tundra line--those are at a baby’s eye level when the babe’s in the chest carrier. She breathed the air that only exists above treeline, that flows chilled downvalley in the evening off glaciers, and sweetly upvalley in the morning from the ocean, air that seems distilled of all our usual perturbations, and allows us to see more clearly the landscape around us. Of course, really it’s Zara who allowed me to see more clearly the landscape around me, and maybe see more in a two mile backpacking trip than I’ve witnessed on trips ten times longer in mileage.