Sun, Sept. 15

For Father's Day: a letter is better

A few days ago I dug out a Father's Day letter from my daughter, Caroline. She sent it several years ago while working in Alaska as a river guide and natural-history safari guide. Caroline and I exchanged a lot of letters during the years that she pursued her love of wilderness.

Through those letters, I learned some of her greatest hopes, some of her worst fears. I'll see Caroline on Father's Day, after she returns from a five-day float trip down the San Juan River. She called me early Monday before she left, and again when her group stopped in Flagstaff for lunch. She wanted to reassure me that she'd be careful. She, too, has learned what her father's greatest fear is.

Her letter from Alaska began: "I had a very long day. I'm quite content to be sitting in bed (which was her cot in a Yukon-style tent) in front of my heater. I rowed guests down the Kenai River today. First one of the season where I did the whole river with six guests. I'm pooped!

"It was a good day, though. Saw three moose and two new calves. They're so cute! I pointed out a bald eagle's nest, and, as if it were on cue, an eagle flew out from behind trees and over our boat with a salmon in its talons. Doesn't get any better than that for timing."

Caroline included in the Father's Day letter a few pages torn from her journal that were written while she was on a solo camping trip to the Savage River.

"Savage River, Denali National Park. This is one of the most inspiring places I've found. With all the frustration, long days, group living, annoying people, I come to this river at the east end of Denali and still feel the same as I did one year ago -- Thrilled!

"There's just something about the sound of water flowing over rocks, all to wind up in the Bering Sea. I don't know if the icy temperature, clearness and the crisp feel on a dusty face make the sound better than other rivers, but I believe so.

"I also believe that thoughts of the 600-pound grizzly seen here yesterday help this river's sounds. Sitting with your eyes closed and the sun on your face where only the gurgling of the water can be heard leaves much to the imagination of your ears.

"Regaining one's self by hopping from river-rock to river-rock, dunking your head under water for a shocking gasp and then sitting just to listen makes your life feel significant, meaningful, purposeful, like you were born for a reason, to be in this moment.

"This is important, especially in a place that can impose its force of insignificance on you. The Alaska Range: Denali reaching 20,320 feet, 30-mile glaciers, alder forests that will stop you in your tracks and the sight of a grizzly sow teaching her yearlings to dig roots in the tundra, 4-inch claws moved by a fantastic display of mass and muscle.

"But when you get to sit by a river such as this, or get on your knees to examine the tundra, you see the smallest things holding the greatest significance.

"Kneeling down to look at what appears to be a fragile and delicate wildflower in an alpine zone, high on a ridge amidst rocks and weather, this tiny alpine azalea with its purple blooms, standing maybe a half inch, looks precious. But precious reminds me of something that isn't very tough, something you can shatter. But this flower is as tough as the grizzly bear, in its own right.

"Look where it lives! The conditions it withstands, the minimum soil it has, as well as water. It wavers on the edge of rock after a nine-month winter to gloriously bloom and come to life with the tundra.

"This place will never cease to give me wonder, amazement and perspective."

After reading Caroline's letter and journal pages again, I have a suggestion for those of you who won't be with your dad on Father's Day. Instead of sending a card that was written by some anonymous person sitting in a cubicle at some greeting card company, send him a letter.

He wants to know how you're doing and what you're doing. Even more, he wants to know how you feel about this miracle that is your life.

He wants to know what amazes you.

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