Book Review - Braving It: A Father, A Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild by James Campbell by Todd Henson

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I received my copy of Braving It, an uncorrected proof, through a giveaway at goodreads.

Braving It: A Father, A Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild by James Campbell was an absolute pleasure to read. The book is non-fiction, and is the story of James Campbell taking his daughter, Aidan, to the wilds of Alaska multiple times. Campbell had always been a traveler, visiting many far off places around the world, and many times returning to Alaska. When Aidan was younger she’d told her father she wanted to go to Alaska with him, so when he felt she was old enough they began making plans.

About this time Campbell was contacted by his cousin in Alaska, Heimo Korth. Heimo and his wife Edna are some of the only permanent residents of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The river near his cabin was changing course and his cabin was at risk, so he needed to build a new cabin in a safer location. Campbell talked to Aidan and they decided to go to Alaska to help Heimo build his new cabin. I thought this was an interesting choice for a first trip to Alaska, given the grueling nature of the work building a cabin in the backwoods of Alaska. And as expected, it wasn’t easy and tested the relationship of father and daughter. But once Aidan became used to the work and the environment she came to appreciate the closeness with nature and the raw quality of the lifestyle.

Returning home was a mix of emotions after acclimating to such a lifestyle. They both obviously missed the rest of their family and friends. But they also both had that wanderlust feeling, the desire to return to Alaska. So they planned a second trip. This time they would spend the winter with Heimo and Edna in their new cabin. They would get to experience the lifestyle of a homesteading family living mostly off the land through the deep winter. They would hunt, trap and fish. They would learn about tight living conditions and getting along with one another. They would learn to depend on one another and learn both the joys and sorrows of living so close to nature.

Prior to the first trip they had hoped to go to Alaska for a paddling trip along one of the many rivers in Alaska. They had put that plan aside to help out Heimo. But after returning home from the second trip they almost immediately began planning a return trip to Alaska, this time for hiking and paddling. They contacted some friends in Alaska who were happy to come along. Such a trip would be safer with more people, given they were rafting through wild areas. There weren’t populated pit stops along the way or companies to help them out. People do sometimes die on such trips because help can’t arrive in time. So once again they were in Alaska, this time with friends, and long time Alaskans, Chris Jones and Dave Musgrave, ready to raft and hike along the Hulahula River. This gave them an entirely new set of challenges and once again tested their relationship. The Hulahula was a rough river in places. And the terrain around it was home to all manner of wildlife, from musk oxen, to wolves, to grizzly bears and polar bears.

Braving It is a beautiful book. It shows the beauty of Alaska, of living or traveling through the wild, through areas barely touched by humans when compared to much of the lower 48. I came to a better appreciation of Alaska, the amazing terrain, and the varied wildlife through reading about Campbell’s already healthy appreciation, and Aidan’s growing appreciation. It’s also a book about the relationship between a father and daughter, about the tensions trying to learn to let go, about the desire to share an experience, the hope for the future, and the amazing bond that forms when people are put into frightening and invigorating experiences together.

This was my first exposure to James Campbell’s work. I had not realized that Heimo was brought to the worlds attention through one of Campbell’s previous books, The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness, or that Heimo has since starred on the TV show, The Last Alaskans. For whatever reason, I don’t often find myself as drawn to the TV shows, but I do thoroughly enjoy books about the wild and finding ones place within it.

I have since listened to an audio version of The Final Frontiersman, and can highly recommend that book, as well. It tells the story of how Heimo first came to Alaska, how he met his future wife, and the experiences he had starting a family in Alaska.

These books brought back memories of reading The Cheechakoes by Wayne Short when I was younger. It is another non-fiction story of a family who moved to Alaska and lived off the land. It’s been decades since I read that book, but reading Braving It has ignited a desire to reread The Cheechakoes.

Respect Wildlife: Don't Touch! by Todd Henson

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher building a nest. Keep a respectful distance when photographing or observing nesting behavior. Don't stay at the site very long. Don't disturb anything.

I love photography, and I love photographing wildlife in its own environment. But the photograph has to be secondary to the welfare of the animal. We can’t endanger or harasses an animal just to get a photograph. If we don’t respect and protect the wildlife we enjoy watching and photographing, we may lose the privilege, either because the parks we visit restrict access or because the wildlife moves off or dies off.

I've read several news reports over the last year about people mistreating wildlife, sometimes just to capture a selfie, but other times thinking they were helping. It's sad. I'm hopeful some of these people are just ignorant, they don't realize the damage they're doing. I’m hopeful over time they’ll learn and change their behavior. But I fear some people just callously don't care.

The most recent incident I’ve read about involved a mountain goat in Seward, Alaska. The goat entered a populated area, something that is apparently unusual. When it made its way to the harbor people were following it, trying to get pictures. They kept following it, giving it nowhere to go but towards the ocean. It jumped or fell into the ocean and drown. If people had not crowded it, if they weren’t so determined to get close and photograph it, perhaps it could have made it’s way back out of the populated area. And perhaps not, but at least it would have had a chance.

Earlier in the year a couple of tourists at Yellowstone National Park apparently saw a bison calf they felt looked cold, so they picked it up, put it in their truck, and drove it to the ranger station. The rangers brought the bison back and tried to reunite it with the herd, but the herd rejected it. They later euthanized the bison because, having been abandoned, it kept endangering itself and others by approaching tourists and cars. Though it does appear these tourists meant well, and it’s entirely possible the calf would have died anyway, they never should have approached the animal. If the mother had been nearby the tourists could have been attacked. And by interfering with the calf it is entirely possible they were responsible for the mother rejecting it. Wildlife doesn’t care whether we mean well.

There have been several reports of people picking up and taking home harbor seal pups along the U.S. northwest coastline, thinking they had been abandoned by their mothers, not realizing mothers often leave pups for long periods of time so they can hunt for food. Unfortunately, the pup sometimes dies as a result of what are often well-meaning, but ignorant people. 

Perhaps some of these reports have left out important details. Perhaps, in some cases, animals are already dead when people approach them. Either way, in most cases they should be left alone. If people feel the need to try to help they should leave the animals where they are and contact organizations better suited to helping injured or abandoned animals. Contact an animal rescue group. If it’s on park land contact the park authorities.

I recall one instance of the correct way to help wildlife. A large osprey nest in a park fell from a tree with a mother and a couple chicks in the nest. The nest landed near a trail. One of the regular visitors of the park saw the fallen nest and osprey. Instead of approaching too close he called the park’s wildlife biologist, then waited by the nest to keep watch and assure no one else approached until the biologist arrived. If he had approached too close he could have been injured, as osprey have very sharp talons and beaks. Or one of the birds could have become agitated by the approach and injured itself. When I happened to arrive at this part of the park the biologist was putting the injured osprey in her truck. She was taking them to a raptor rehabilitation facility. From what I heard later the mother and one of the chicks recovered enough to be released back into the wild.

If you’re new to watching and photographing wildlife, please learn from these examples. Don’t approach wildlife too closely. Don’t harass animals. Don’t feed them or attempt to touch them. Watch from a distance. Observe the behavior of the animal. You can tell if an animal is ok with you being there. If it becomes agitated, if it tries to move away from you, then you’re too close. Move away, perhaps leave and come back another day. You know you’re observing wildlife correctly when the animals seem to completely ignore you. I’ve been in situations where the wildlife I was observing lay down and went to sleep right in front of me. I love those moments!

Young sleeping fox. Don't get too close. Don't try to touch or pet wildlife, no matter how cute they appear.

By all means, go out into nature, observe and photograph wildlife. But realize it's a privilege to be this close to wildlife, a privilege than can be taken away or destroyed if we misuse it. Learn to respect the wildlife. Learn to care more about the wildlife than the photograph. Then when you view or capture a beautiful wildlife moment it will have even more meaning.