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Father-Daughter Travelers Return From Alaskan Wilds


50 years ago, President Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act, which protected more than nine million acres of federal land from any development by man - no roads, no mines, no buildings.

To celebrate this anniversary, author and adventurer James Campbell spent a month traveling through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, perhaps America's greatest wilderness. But he wasn't alone. His 16-year-old daughter, Aidan, went on the journey with him. Together they trekked over the Brooks Mountain Range to the headwaters of the Hulahula River. From there, it was a long, arduous paddle by canoe to the Arctic Ocean.

We caught up with them last month via satellite phone when they still had 50 miles to go along the Hulahula to reach the Arctic Ocean. At that time, James Campbell told us the trip had been very, very difficult.

JAMES CAMPBELL: I think it was a bit more than we'd banked on. The river is dangerous. It's full of rock gardens. The current just pours out of the mountains. And it's really cold and very hard.

NEARY: Have you had some scary moments?

J. CAMPBELL: Oh, yeah. Too many. We've almost turned the canoe a number of times, both when we've been in it. And we've lined it - which means Aidan's on the bow line, I'm on the stern line - through some of the really big rapids. We've lined it. And that's very hard to do because the water's just so powerful.

NEARY: What's the most amazing thing you've seen so far?

J. CAMPBELL: Two things. We came down into the Hulahula River Valley after eight days of backpacking. That morning, we woke up to the wolves howling. And we rushed out of our tents, and the wolves were calling to each other from the mountains. And we could see them, and it was beautiful. And about six days later on the Hulahula River, we saw quite close a grizzly sow and two cubs.

NEARY: When James' daughter Aidan got on the sat phone, she told us there were some things she wished she'd brought along.

AIDAN CAMPBELL: Well, we're low on food, so I definitely wish we had more food. We're going to be lean when we return. And the other thing is I never bargained that it was going to be this cold. It's freezing, and it does not warm up very much throughout the day.

NEARY: So what is the next stretch of river like? It sounds like the last stretch was pretty rough. Does it get a little calmer heading out towards the ocean?

A. CAMPBELL: I wish. I thought it was going to be calmer, but it's all boulder gardens. The river's bony. The current is swift. And I think I reached my limit yesterday.

NEARY: Well, James and Aidan Campbell have made it back from their Alaskan adventure. And they join us now from the cozy confines of the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Welcome back to civilization, both of you.

J. CAMPBELL: How wonderful to be here.

A. CAMPBELL: Thank you.

NEARY: And I can't help wondering what you're thinking about as you hear your voices on that satellite phone from the wilds. What are you thinking about now when you hear that?

J. CAMPBELL: You know, we live such compartmentalized lives. We've kind of moved back into, you know, our modern day, everyday existence. And it seems almost impossible that we did that.

A. CAMPBELL: Yeah, it feels like a different person saying those things. I was looking through my journal last night, and just what I was writing down. I was like, how did I ever do that? How did I get through that?

NEARY: Yeah. Well, when we last spoke to you, when we had that conversation, you still had 50 miles of very dangerous river travel ahead of you. So tell us about it. What happened in that last part of the journey, Aidan?

A. CAMPBELL: Actually, the day you spoke with us, that day, my dad fell in. And that was the scariest for me. We high sided on a rock, and my dad was trying to get us off the rock. And he fell in the water. And luckily, he was able to grab onto the boat. But he was wet, and he was cold. And I was worried that he was going to get hypothermia.

NEARY: What do you do in a case like that, James? What happens then?

J. CAMPBELL: We contemplated building a fire. But it was rainy that day. It would have been difficult to start a fire. I had a map, and on the map I saw that there was a native hunting shack downriver. And that night we holed up in that shack, and I think it saved us.

NEARY: Wow. Aidan, this is your third Arctic wilderness adventure with your dad. Are you guys ready for the Caribbean yet?

A. CAMPBELL: Yes, bring it on. Please, I am so ready. I came back to Wisconsin and it was 90 degrees here. And I was like, yes, this is what I've been waiting for.

NEARY: Well, what stays with you after this kind of incredible wilderness adventure, Aidan?

A. CAMPBELL: Well, it was a huge experience for me because everything was a challenge. Everything was an adventure. And I had to break out of my comfort zone numerous times. I had to learn to be more independent and self-sufficient. And I - one of the biggest things for me was encountering one of the world's greatest wildernesses.

NEARY: James, what about you? What do you bring back from this trip?

J. CAMPBELL: This trip down the Hulahula River was as spectacular a trip as I've ever taken. It's just one of the most beautiful places.

Also, when we were canoeing, something Aidan didn't mention is she was in the bow. And the bowman or the bowwoman is the one who reads the river, gives the commands, and dictates the strokes. So there was a real role reversal. Aidan was screaming at me, and I had to follow.

And so we kind of switched roles. And that was really an interesting dynamic for us. And I didn't know how that was going to work out but Aidan did marvelously. And she's the one who really got us to the Arctic Ocean. And that was an unforgettable experience.

NEARY: Adventurers Aidan and James Campbell. Thanks to both of you for joining us. It's been great fun sharing this adventure with you.

J. CAMPBELL: We've really enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

A. CAMPBELL: Yeah, thank you very much for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.