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Book of family's travels on Arctic coast set to release this month

August 23rd, 2013 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

Anyone who has gone camping in remote Alaska knows it's not for the ill-prepared or the faint of heart. Weather changes are extreme. The geography can have you slogging through bogs and cresting rocky ridges all in one day. And you are absolutely not at the top of the food chain.

Now imagine doing that with small children. In the Arctic. While pregnant.

That's the story found in Erin McKittrick's most recent book, "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska," which recounts the family's exploration of the coastline of the Chukchi Sea as well as setting up a home in Seldovia.

Many in the area may have heard of McKittrick, her husband Hig Higman and their two small children Katmai, 4, and Lituya, 2, who started an epic journey around the Cook Inlet earlier this year on foot and in pack rafts in an effort to better understand the many features of what they called the "Heart of Alaska."

Prior to having children, the couple also traveled from the Pacific Northwest up to the Aleutian Chain, which is the topic of McKittrick's first book, "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski."

The family is now about to launch a different sort of journey, touring the state with its book, starting with events in Southcentral Alaska, up to Fairbanks, Southeast Alaska and down to the Pacific Northwest in early winter. The book, available through Mountaineers Books, can be preordered by Sept. 15 at a cost of $14.95 for delivery in late September. It is also available on

A book for Alaskans

McKittrick said she wrote the book for Alaskans who love Alaska. While it certainly is about the experience of adventuring with children, it is not a how-to guide on camping with children, she said. Instead, the couple aims to include readers in their adventures, which is as much an exploration into the amazing features of the state as it is the nuts and bolts of dealing with diapers on the trail.

"It's still more or less an adventure book," McKittrick, who hails originally from Seattle, said. "It's the kind of book for people who like to read about Alaska."

The book includes a section on the couple's setting up of their home and life in Seldovia after finishing their trip to the Aleutians, where they found out they were pregnant. After having Katmai, the couple spent a year laying down roots in Higman's hometown of Seldovia before venturing out on a trek along the Chukchi Sea for 300 miles at toddler speed while McKittrick was mid-way through a pregnancy with their second child. In the following passage, McKittrick describes the couple's first bear encounter only days after starting their trek.

"As soon as we set foot on the Arctic shore, we were in the realm of the bears. Bear tracks stepped upon bear tracks, weaving back and forth across the smudged depressions left by older bear tracks. There were paths beaten down by the bears at the top of the beach, in the middle of the beach, and vanishing into the lapping waves. Their trails crisscrossed around a dead whale washed up on shore, where they had feasted on the rotting flesh. Nestlike depressions in the sand marked where they had slept off their meals. Katmai toddled--a half-dozen steps for every one of the bears'--as my eyes scanned the horizon in either direction, squinting for the hint of a dark moving shape.

Our first lunch break brought our first flesh-and-blood bear. Katmai and I filled water bottles at a creek while Hig gathered wood for a fire. The bear spray cans sat in their instantly grabbable chest pouches--which we'd left next to the packs, a handful of steps behind Hig. Then we saw it, rounding a rare blind corner in the open terrain, and almost on top of our campfire. It saw us, but not the kid. Katmai didn't notice it either, busy throwing pebbles into the creek with a backdrop of squeaky chatter that now seemed cringingly loud.

We both knew the rules. You shouldn't ever run from a bear--potentially triggering a predatory chase. You also would do better to be holding some sort of deterrent--that bear spray we'd left by the packs. Hig went for the spray, backing up in a hasty rush he hoped appeared like anything but a run. The bear lurched forward in the wake of Hig's retreat, but hesitated when he spun around to face off with it, spray in hand. I moved to stand between Katmai and the bear, too far away to do anything but watch.

The bear was likely just a few years old--an ursine teenager--testing its limits. Such bears can often be bluffed into submission. This one fit the pattern, stomping aggressively to see if we'd run, then galloping away when Hig advanced instead. It circled around to see if we really meant it, looking for a tactical advantage from a perch on the small dunes above us. Hig was there to meet it, charging up with pepper spray in hand. That was enough. The bear beat a hasty retreat--fleeing down the beach, its bounding rump vanishing into the distance. I filed the encounter in my extensive mental catalog of normal bear behavior. We finished our lunch, and continued, on top of bear tracks, down the beach.

It had worked out the way that things almost always do; appropriate human behavior, appropriate bear behavior, and no need to even use the defense we carried. But after that, the pepper spray traveled with us at every moment--through day and night, on rest breaks and berry-picking stops and water-filling excursions. After that, we ate our meals where we had a long view of all the terrain around us, keeping half an eye on the horizon.

Hig and I have always prided ourselves on a cool-headed analysis of risk and the overall safety record of our journeys. If we weren't endangering ourselves in the first place, did being parents really change anything? But it wasn't just the bears. I knew that a child being carried wouldn't keep warm as well as a walking adult could. Katmai wouldn't know how to keep moving to stave off hypothermia in dangerous weather. A packraft-flipping wave would leave him reliant on the small orange comfort of his life vest. Fully dependent on our wisdom, in every circumstance.

Despite all the careful planning we'd done to mitigate every one of the potential hazards, when I listened to the steady sleeping breaths on my back, I felt the weight of his vulnerability as well as that of the unborn child inside me."

The couple returned to the wild in the fall of 2011 to spend two months living on the surface of North America's largest glacier — Malaspina Glacier — with both children. They also traveled along the Arctic near Kivalina where the Red Dog Mine sits.

Ground Truth Trekking

While Higman and McKittrick enjoy a good adventure, their walks in the wild also have another side. Ground Truth Trekking, a nonprofit founded in 2007, is their umbrella under which they seek to educate and engage the public on Alaska's natural resource issues. Describing what they do, Higman and McKittrick say mostly they listen and document what is happening for those less adventurous or lucky enough to travel to remote melting glaciers or along the rapidly eroding coastline of Alaska. They ask people questions about what they see as the future of Alaska.

Those observations and thoughts appear not only in the books, but also in McKittrick's blog, where photos and stories weave together to give readers an up-close view at the family's adventures.

And while "Small Feet, Big Land" is not primarily about camping with children, it's unquestionably part of the story.

Higman said the pre-trip planning is probably the most difficult part of camping with children. Once they are out the door, it's really not that much more complicated. They carry a bear fence now. They move much slower, for sure, but children are extraordinarily resilient, sometimes more comfortable in harsh conditions than adults.

And the couple quickly downplays their bravery at taking on what many parents would consider impossible adventures with little folks to care for.

"We don't get out the door any faster than anyone else," McKittrick said. "We just stay longer."

That's not to say they weren't daunted in the beginning, though. At first, they thought their adventures were going to be significantly curtailed.

"Once we had the kids in hand, we realized they were incredibly capable and versatile out there," she said. "It's not the kids that are the limiting factor here, it's our willingness to adapt. They are perfectly capable of being out in the wilderness."

The couple, who just arrived back from their tour of the Cook Inlet in mid-July, said they plan to spend a year at home before venturing out again. McKittrick is still working her way through blog posts on the Cook Inlet trip, as more than half of that trip was without Internet access. An event is planned later this year in Homer to tell more about their adventures.

For now, however, McKittrick and Higman said they are excited to get on the road promoting their most recent book, talking to Alaskans about the amazing and changing state, and the adventures they have had in it, offering inspiration for adventurers with and without children.

"We can still do things with kids that most adults would consider an adventure that's real," she said.


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