The dad in this story, James (Jim) Campbell, is an author, who’s no stranger to braving it alone. He went into Alaska’s wilderness to write “The Final Frontiersman: Heimo Korth and His Family, Alone in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness” back in 2004. He also ventured into the frightening jungles of New Guinea to pen the World War II novel “The Ghost Mountain Boys” in 2007. But this time, in 2014, the father decided to take his teenage daughter along with him to write his next thriller, “Braving It: A Father, a Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild.”
Most people who would try something as daring as that would come back to write a book called “Braving It: Why My Daughter Hates Me.” But Jim and his 16-year-old daughter, Aidan, made it through a month in the wilderness and lived to tell their story – a story that involves Aidan staring face-to-face with a grizzly bear.
This is their story of venturing into the same place that took the life of a young girl, many years ago…
Alaska is not the most welcoming of places. It’s beautiful, sure, but it can also kill people “a thousand different ways,” as Campbell wrote in his first book. And we’re talking about relationships, too; not just lives. And the thing is, most folks don’t even need Alaska to do that. A bad weekend camping trip can scar some families for life.
A hunting trip among friends can ruin long-time friendships more than a case of infidelity. And yet Jim and Aidan still love each other. They actually journeyed together three separate but equally demanding times – all in Alaska. And if those trips in 2013/2014 weren’t challenging enough, the father-daughter duo spent the summer promoting Jim’s book while sharing planes, cars, a ship, and motel rooms across the Western United States and Alaska.
Jim Campbell spent his childhood in Appleton, Wisconsin, but now he lives in Lodi, California, with his wife, Elizabeth, their daughter Aidan, and their younger daughters, Rachel and Willa. Jim has made a name for himself as his book “The Final Frontiersman” inspired an eight-week TV series called “The Last Alaskans” on Animal Planet. Maybe you’ve seen it?
“Braving It” also revisits Heimo Korth, Campbell’s cousin. Korth moved to Alaska over 40 years ago as a teenager. He and his wife, Edna, live there alone now but raised two daughters there in a small cabin in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Tragically, their third daughter, Coleen, died at the age of two in 1984 in a river when their canoe overturned in icy waters (but we’ll get to that story later on).
When Aidan was four years old, she made her father promise that he would take her into the wilderness of Alaska someday. It only took about 11 years, but he finally held up his promise. When she was 15, he took her with him to Alaska. From early on, Aidan fell under the spell of her father’s stories.
It started when she read his first book, The Final Frontiersman, about his cousin, her second cousin, Heimo Korth’s life in the Alaskan bush. A decade later, Korth invited Jim to spend the summer with him and build a cabin. Jim thought this could be the time to finally take his eager daughter with him. The father and daughter then set off together to enter one of the most isolated and magnificent landscapes in North America.
Jim had to first convince his wife, of course. And so he used statistics on bear attacks to persuade her to allow Aidan to go with him on the trip. “Virtually every person in the lower 48 thinks there’s grizzly hiding behind every willow thicket in Alaska.” Elizabeth Campbell was one of those worried moms, and grizzlies were her biggest fear.
She made her husband produce statistics to calm her down. And what were the stats? “That most of the people that went into the Arctic were quite fine.” Jim laughed. But he ultimately convinced her that “we were emotionally, mentally, and physically prepared.” His wife then took a leap of faith and said, “Alright, why don’t you all go.”
This first trip (of three) together in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, was a place that a friend of Jim’s called “possibly the loneliest place on the planet for a teenage girl.” When asked if he worried about the trip becoming a disaster, Jim replied that yes, he did. “Aidan and I talked a lot about it during the two months we prepared — about safety in bear country, the isolation, the loneliness.”
But Aidan said she felt that she was ready for it – you know, as a 15-year-old can be. But Jim also personally felt that his daughter was ready. Jim took Aidan with him for the first time to Alaska in July of 2013 to help his cousin Korth build a log cabin after the Coleen River threatened their previous cabin.
They managed to arrive at the same time that the region was experiencing its worst mosquito infestation in years. Aidan wrote in her blog that her head was the only part of her body that didn’t get stung and turn into one huge welt. And that’s only because she sealed her head inside a mosquito-proof headnet.
The trio worked long hours for days, getting dirty, sweaty, and stinky as they hauled, scraped, and assembled logs for the new cabin. On their breaks, they ate Ramen noodles and blueberry pancakes, sprinkled with mosquitoes. But beyond the challenge of eating mosquito-flavored food day in day out, there was a deeper meaning to the trips they went on together.
Braving It is a story about a father who was facing what people call the “unfamiliar channel of middle age” along with a girl coping with her teenage years. “I’ve always had a lot of wanderlust or “fernweh,” as my mom calls it. I’ve traveled all over the world, and my body has largely not betrayed me,” Jim admitted.
He also said that a part of him was looking forward to the challenge of taking three trips to the Arctic. “But I was worried, too, that my body might not hold up.” According to Jim, confronting middle age and the resulting diminished physical abilities and dreams has been hard for the adventurous author. And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…
Not only does Jim get itchy feet, so does Aidan, who always had a big imagination and big dreams. Up until they went to Alaska, Aidan was happy with their hometown and the farm they lived on. But once she saw the beauty and glory of Alaska, their hometown of Wisconsin just didn’t quite cut it anymore. Her heart and imagination turned to Alaska.
On that first trip, they faced their share of hardships. Mosquitoes were only part of the wilderness package. Jim explained how the only place to bathe was in the Coleen River, which was full of ice. As a result, Aidan said she smelled “like the monkey cage at the zoo.”
At the end of an exhausting day, all they wanted to do was collapse. But they had to harvest berries, fish, build a fire, and wash dishes. The thing about the wilderness up there is you can’t just drive a camper and park it like you would an RV in Florida. Alaska is a remote spot – 20 million acres large to be (somewhat) exact.
It’s pure, raw wilderness, and it’s the size of South Carolina. The only way to get to where Jim and Aidan (and their cousin’s family) were is by a two-hour flight via a bush plane from Fairbanks. And there’s nobody there. The Inuit who inhabit the Arctic coast use it to hunt for caribou and fish sometimes. But you can go for hundreds of miles without seeing a single soul.
In November that year, Jim and Aidan returned to the same place for their second trip of the three-piece saga. They returned to the now-new cabin they built to help the Korths hunt for meat that would last them the whole winter. There and then, Aidan learned to skin and butcher caribou.
She also learned how to handle a gun and heal frostbitten ears after being exposed too long to minus-50-degree wind chills. One of the main characters in Braving It is a Siberian Yupik Eskimo by the name of Edna. When Jim’s cousin, Heimo, first moved to Alaska in the ’70s, he ran a small dry goods store for his friend. He learned to speak the language and hunt for polar bears, walrus, and bowhead whales along with the Eskimo.
It was then that Heimo fell in love with Edna Rose. She then agreed to join him and head 1,500 miles east into the interior of Alaska. Decades later, when Jim and Aidan came to visit, Edna taught Aidan that women are just as competent as men in the wilderness. Edna can do everything that Heimo can do. “And even more,” Aidan said, “because she does all that stuff he does and cooks the meals!”
It was through Edna that Aidan learned how to shoot and handle a gun, as well as skin and butcher animals. “I don’t believe in the apocalypse or end time preppers or anything like that, but the emotional skills that Edna taught her, like self-reliance, competence, and adaptability, are all things she will use for the rest of her life,” Jim proudly explained.
They made their third trip to Alaska in the summer of 2014. First, they flew into Fairbanks and headed to the Brooks Range — Alaska’s northernmost peaks — where they backpacked over the mountains with two of Jim’s Alaskan friends, Chris Jones and Dave Musgrave. They unpacked their folding canoes and went 110 miles through the often-treacherous Hulahula River toward the Arctic Ocean.
It might sound like one big and fun, dreamy adventure, but that would overlook all the hard work, planning, training, and preparation required for such a journey. Although Jim is an adventurer who loves venturing into the outdoors, he cringes when people say things like “romantic adventure” or even worse, “communing with nature.”
According to Jim, that summer was the coldest one in the Arctic in about 20 years. And he said that they faced a lot of dangers, including polar and grizzly bears. Just the act of canoeing on a wild river is scary enough. The biggest challenge, as Jim put it, was figuring out how to maneuver the boat together. “It’s something we’d prepared for, but I had trouble letting go of my need to control the situation.”
Aidan was then given the role of bow woman – her job was to read the river and lead the way. She would pick a line, make a stroke, and Jim would make a similar stroke from the back of the boat. But it was the furthest thing from smooth.
Sometimes she would scream out strokes but, and since Jim admits that he couldn’t let go of being in control, he would also be screaming out strokes from the back of the canoe. “After three days of near-disasters, she came to me and said, “Dad, we prepared for this, and you said that you would trust me, and you’re not trusting me. This is not working.”
Leave it to a teenage girl to lay it straight up and tell it like it is! She told her father that he needs to faith in her and her ability to see the river and make the right call! “That was an important realization for me,” Jim admitted.
Jim understood that they weren’t going to make it if he didn’t relinquish control. It was really hard, but it was what he had to do. Jim said in an interview that parenting in the teenage years, in general, is all about the joy as well as the pain of letting go. “If we do the right things as parents, our children go off into life with grace and composure, but they leave us behind.”
He described how it leaves parents feeling pride and joy, but it’s a bittersweet period because it represents the end of something, too. Something else Jim takes pride in is the fact that he raised his daughters to fish, camp, paddle, and backpack.
While Aidan is indeed smart, athletic, and a hard worker, he ensured that she didn’t go into Alaska ill-prepared. With her dad’s guidance, Aidan studied maps, built fires, tested out the gear, mastered compasses, and GPS units. She repeatedly set up and took down their tent and canoe. The most demanding part, however, was the endless canoe training with Aidan in the bow and her dad in the stern.
“I’ve certainly been scared, and probably even lucky at times in the past, so we didn’t go into any of this unprepared,” Jim said. In preparation for the Hulahula River, they regularly canoed the Baraboo River in their folding canoe. They built team skills and confidence by testing the river waters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Idaho, and Colorado.
Those training trips didn’t always go smoothly, serving as picture-perfect loving examples of teamwork or father-daughter bonding. The two spent many evenings both at home and in the wilderness, reaffirming their duties, dealing with feelings, and resolving misconceptions. “There were moments of bliss and moments where I’m sure Aidan wanted to be anywhere but Alaska, with anyone but me,” Jim said.
Jim not only had to learn how to let go of being in control, but also show confidence in her. Whether it was a good day or a bad day, the duo had little choice but to be teammates in Alaska. As Jim explained, Aidan said it’s easy to carry a grudge back home as long as you want, but in the wild, there’s no time for it.
There’s no time to relax in the wild – not for a second. It’s all hard work and very little time for any heart-to-heart talks. Jim said it bluntly: “People who go up there to write poetry don’t last. It’s a hard life.” But at the end of the day, the hard work pays off. How? With priceless views and life-changing experiences.
“We had real moments of trepidation,” Jim described, “but Aidan really blossomed.” Jim’s hope is that people read the book and realize just how important training and discipline is – to take you to beautiful places, giving you “incredible mixtures of awe and fear.” Their journey eventually came to an end, and they had to accept it…
As they got to the mouth of the Hulahula River, Jim realized that the trip they had dreamed of for so such a long time was about to be over, and Aidan was going to move on and enjoy her future adventures without him. It was, despite all the hardships of the rollercoaster ride of a trip, a hard pill to swallow. So what were the highs and lows of their three trips together?
“One of the best moments was on our first trip when I noticed the change in Aidan’s whole attitude. She was no longer terrified of bears, no longer griping about the hard work. She’d come to the realization that she was in a beautiful place, and she wanted to make the best of it.”
Jim explained how, after that, there was a major difference in his daughter’s attitude towards the adventure. Before that point, he was mostly uncertain and undecided about the whole thing. That was a “high” of the trip. But there were definitely many low moments, too, particularly on their third trip.
Jim had a heart arrhythmia, something he hadn’t encountered in over six years. Jim described how it was terrifying because he didn’t know if he was capable of walking out. It was worrisome because he knew they weren’t going to be able to call a bush plane as they were in a spot where such a plane wouldn’t be able to get them. “That was a scary, scary episode.”
When the father-daughter team does book readings together for his latest book, the incident Aidan talks about is when they were walking in the mountains toward the headwaters of the Hulahula River. As she recounts the event, she was way out in front, her dad far behind her, lugging her backpack and complaining that her knee was aching.
All of a sudden, Jim saw this pile of bear feces. It was steaming, so he knew it was recent. He finds himself screaming and whistling at Aidan, but she didn’t hear him. “I was terrified, trying to run, with a shotgun cinched to my backpack.” It’s precisely the reason his wife didn’t want the trip to happen in the first place.
Suddenly, Aidan rounds a bend, and there, standing directly in front of her is a grizzly bear. Yeah, just imagine that for a moment. Aidan was equipped with bear spray, Jim recalled, and they had practiced a lot for a moment like this. But when it comes to the real thing, people usually tend to freeze up. Aidan recalls being utterly petrified.
Aidan couldn’t move – she was staring into the bear’s eyes, and the bear was looking right back at her. Luckily for them, the bear simply turned and scampered up the mountain at a 70-degree angle. It was the absolute last thing Aidan expected – that the bear would run away from her! As for Jim, he had to witness the whole thing from a distance with his heart already in a poor state.
When asked what lessons Jim and his daughter learned from their time together in Alaska, and what he would recommend to his readers, Jim had a few things to say. First, he wanted to mention that it was one of the toughest experiences of his life, and it was certainly the toughest of Aidan’s. But on the other hand, he still would definitely recommend it.
He also strongly recommends preparation. “Anybody who tries the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or a similar wilderness has to hope for the best and prepare for worst.” His book is also about the thrill of breaking out of one’s comfort zone. Jim discovered that Aidan was —and is— capable of way more than he ever imagined.
Remember how I mentioned the little girl, the Campbell’s family member, who lost her young life in the Alaskan wilderness? Well, this is what happened, as Aidan recounted the story in a blog post that she wrote a few years back. It was a day in December in Alaska, when Aidan was spending her time with her dad, her dad’s cousin, Heimo, and his Eskimo wife, Edna.
In those moments in the isolated vastness of the wild, she came to learn their stories of Alaska. That winter day, Edna and Aidan were piling on layers of clothing. They were preparing for the first day of winter’s moose season. The wind howled as the temperatures reached below 40 degrees.
For nine months out of the year, the Korths live with no running water, no electricity, and almost no connection to the outside world. They are the last year-round residents of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They also happen to be some of the last of their kind in Arctic Alaska. Aidan recalls Edna waiting for her at the cabin door, with her 30.30 rifle slung across her shoulder.
“Almost ready, slowpoke?” she asked the teenager, prodding her with her glove. Aidan nodded and followed Edna outside and down the paved path. They turned west, away from the Strangle Woman Mountains and the now-frozen river. They walked in silence, stopping once in a while to look at a track in the snow. The trees eventually opened up, and they got to a clearing.
Edna then told Aidan: “Yesterday, I saw two bulls together right under that peak,” as she pointed north. “We’ll wait here in case they stuck around.” Edna then crouched down in the snow and patted the spot beside her for Aidan to sit down. They waited in silence until Edna spoke. “You see that peak there?”
She was pointing to a small peak. “That’s where we put Coleen’s Cross.” Edna stayed quiet for a while but broke the silence when she said, “We’ll go up there in spring and put flowers on the grave. If you’re here, you can come, too.” Edna went quiet again. Aidan knew she was thinking about her daughter, Coleen, whom she lost years ago.
Coleen Ann Korth, the daughter Edna and Heimo named after the Coleen River, was born in 1982, on May 29th. She was their first child. Edna actually already had a daughter named Millie, from a previous marriage. Coleen, as Edna told Aidan later, was “a child of the woods.” She loved to pick blueberries during the summer.
And during the heat of July, they would wade in the shallow river with Heimo toting her around on his shoulders. More than anything, little Coleen loved to explore. She would wander off so often that Edna had no choice but to tie a bell to her coat to keep track of her whereabouts. In the evenings, the family of four (at that point) would walk along the river, hand in hand, with Coleen’s bells jingling with her every step.
Five days after her second birthday, on June 3rd, 1984, Coleen drowned in a river. In the aftermath of her tragic death, friends and relatives of the Korths tried to convince them not to return to the bush. But leaving was never an option for them. The way they saw it, the bush was Coleen’s home. She was everywhere.
They would hear her laughter echoing along the river, hear her footprints on the sandy bank, which used to serve as her playground. In their eyes, to leave that behind would mean leaving her behind. When you hear it that way, you can really understand where they’re coming from (at least I can).
Sadly, the Korths never recovered Coleen’s body.
In August, when the family returned to their cabin, Heimo built a cross to serve as their daughter’s gravestone. He carved into it: “Coleen Ann Korth 5/29/82. Died 6/3/84.” That autumn, Heimo, and Edna carried the cross to the summit of a small peak and placed it at a spot that overlooked the valley and the Coleen River.
Edna told Aidan about Coleen’s death a week before they walked out onto the frozen river together. It was the same river that took Coleen’s life. When they got back, Edna showed her a photo of her daughter playing on the sand of the riverbank. Sometimes when she and Aidan were together, she shared memories of her daughter, as painful as it was to recall them.
After Coleen’s death, the Korths petitioned the Board of Geographic Names to have the peak, which was unnamed at the time, designated as Coleen Ann Mountain. But unfortunately, the Board refused their proposal. They insensitively stated that Coleen was of “no historical significance.” And that was after having received support from the former Alaskan Governor, Steve Cowper, and Alaska Congressman, Don Young.
The Board demanded a petition, and so Heimo started one. He collected over 100 signatures, but the Board still refused. Eventually, the grieving couple gave up. In their opinion, it was like putting salt in a wound. As Aidan sat there with Edna, looking up at the peak, she thought of Heimo and Edna and their history there. And the Board said there’s “no historical significance”…
As it turns out, in the Arctic, only the most prominent geographical features get named. Most of the peaks, valleys, and hills remain nameless. Maybe the geographical surveyors knew that they couldn’t assign names to a land they didn’t know. But the Korths know the land in and out – more than anyone.
Due to the terms of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, after the Korths will be gone, no one will ever be allowed to establish a home there again. The Korth’s request is a simple one: to name a nameless mountain after a little girl who lived and died there – for her memory to live on in the place she called home. Is that too much to ask for?