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Watching my teen stepdaughter build her own experiences and memories

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: August 2, 2018
  • Published August 2, 2018

My stepdaughter, 15, astounds me.

I know it's trite to talk about how amazing your kids are, but it's not exactly like that.

For one, stepparenthood is a role that for me is distinct from parenthood. I am another adult in her life; a resource who loves her fiercely and is on her team supporting her as she grows up. But our relationship is built over years, experiences and trust, not on the default of parenthood.

The awe I have for her is not maternal — it comes from watching a little human evolve into a complex human, with wit, preferences and her own motivations that I can't always intuit.

And that human is smarter than me. She always has been. I observed this over the summer as she made decisions from a place I'm not sure I could have, when I was her age.

In the summer when she comes to Alaska to spend school break with us, life changes radically overnight. My husband and I go from our usual autonomy — a kind of zig-zagging life path that takes us from work to mountains to side gigs to home — to something that resembles a hurricane, with my stepdaughter at its calm and wry center.

My husband and I get our outdoors doses in fits on the sidelines and scrape creative dinners together. We try to bring as many friends as we can into the summer orbit, all while trying to leave some downtime to read and watch "The Office" with the kid.

It's a hot mess. But it creates a strong and buoyant feeling of family, and possibility. I can feel the ties that bind us get stronger and deeper, and it's a credit to all three of us that we maintain these connections over distance and time when she is not here.

What particularly astounded me about my stepdaughter this summer was watching her say yes.

As background: Years ago she neatly corrected a friend who assumed she must be into all of the crazy outdoor activities her dad and I do.

"Nature is Daddy and Alli's thing," she said.

Yet, she has always at least assented to joining us outside. We try to tamp down the intensity of the activity, but my husband in particular is not known for his ability to objectively judge the difficulty of terrain. Back when his job required him to lead trail maintenance trips, he got blowback from volunteers who said these trails were not at all "easy," as described by their trip leader.

The three of us have cross-country skied together, no problem. But that one time Dad and daughter went on a solo ski, she came back vowing never to go on that particular trail again. Something about skis getting crossed on a steep downhill, and a moose.

The moose wasn't my husband's doing, but perhaps the too-steep hill for the novice skier could have been avoided.

This summer something changed. No, it's not that suddenly my stepdaughter was an avid outdoorswoman who transferred her love of reading to the great wild. She spent long mornings with her nose buried in a book. But, she started suggesting things.

"When are we going camping?" she asked at the beginning of the summer. My husband and I exchanged a look. We were caught. We hadn't actually put a camping trip on the calendar. She continued, explaining, "I mean, we always go camping."

We found time for it.

Then, she wanted to hike. No, not Matanuska Peak, the giant that looms in our backyard. But she liked hiking out to Echo Bend, the trail that winds through the woods to a wide expanse of Eagle River.

Last weekend, when an impromptu Sunday afternoon invitation came to come raft on the Knik River? I told her I was going and assumed she probably wasn't up for it, but her eyes told me differently. She said yes. She was ready within 10  minutes, and we hopped in the truck.

I am sensitive to these particular changes in her because I am attuned to the patterns of how we, as individuals and a family, get outdoors. I am sure if I were as much of a bookworm as she is I would notice similar things happening in her book-world. What is astounding to me is not that she is choosing to go outside more — although that's awesome — but that she seems to be reacting to something that feels fleeting.

It's not lost on me that we have two, maybe three, more of these types of summers together, but she seems highly aware of that. I've never met a kid who was so aware of how good childhood is, and who is actively saying yes to opportunities to make the most of it. I get a sense from her that she's building her own experience and memory bank.

Maybe that comes from being a young person in two places, with two vastly different sets of lives — school, routine, discipline during the year; the Alaska  freewheeling hurricane with its calm center in the summer. Maybe it just comes from who she is — a highly astute observer who has always said 8 years old was her favorite age. Old enough to be aware and sentient, young enough to be only dimly aware of adult responsibilities.

I admire her ability to see this, even as I'm rooting for her to choose to round the corner into adulthood. It really isn't so bad over here. With those responsibilities come the choices we've made — to live in this incredible place with all of the spectacular wilds we can access, right in our backyard. We can make it so that, when prompted, we can scrap an impromptu camping trip together.

At the end of the summer, she said that was her favorite part.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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