Katmai McKittrick and Lituya Higman have explored nearly a thousand miles of rugged Alaskan coastlines. For two months, they traversed the world’s largest piedmont glacier, living on ice and landscapes transformed by glacial ablation. For three and a half months, they followed the shore of Cook Inlet with its mudflats, bears, and powerful currents. When blizzards rail around them, they huddle in their packrafts or beneath the roof of an ultralight pyramid shelter. They savor simple joys – polished pebbles, sculpted driftwood, oozing mud. Like the wildlife they encounter, they live in each moment. They listen to sea lions roaring on surf-pounded shorelines and mimic calls of shorebirds and ravens. They laugh as curious harbor seals and sea otters approach their tiny packrafts. When they wander into remote native villages, new friendships sprout instantly.
What makes these adventurers special among those who explore wild Alaska? Katmai and Lituya accomplished these wilderness journeys before they needed two hands to show their ages. Katmai, at age four, set the pace for their three-and-a-half month circumnavigation of Cook Inlet, with sister Lituya still months away from her third birthday. Both wore diapers in the fall of 2011, when they explored the Malaspina Glacier for two months. Lituya was still in the womb when Katmai rode on his mother’s back along a month of Arctic coastline. Imagine taking a dozen two-week expeditions. Imagine that these expeditions represented an eighth of your life. One needs that much experience to equal these young Alaskans’ time in the wild.
Their parents, Erin McKittrick and Hig (Bretwood Higman), have never shied from new challenges. Complete a 100-day Alaskan wilderness trip with children? Why not? Bringing two youthful forces of nature as expedition partners would add new dimensions to their adventurous lifestyle.
Erin and Hig embarked on their first extended wilderness trip together in 2001, hiking and paddling 700 miles down the Alaska Peninsula. Since then, Erin and Hig have wandered more than 8,000 miles across the far north by foot, ski, and packraft. In 2007, they left Seattle on a 4000 mile trek. They completed the journey more than a year later at Unimak Island in the Aleutians. Yet, it’s impossible to encompass the couple’s experience in tracks on a map or in the statistics of distance and time. They possess wisdom born of living in rhythm with wild weather and rugged terrain in all seasons. Their travels fine-tune judgments, hone senses, and heighten perceptions. Half-way through their life-altering trek to the Aleutians, Erin reflected on how the journey shaped their lives:
But slowly and subtly, the world changed around us, and we changed with it. Physically, we got in better and better shape. We learned to adapt to the seasons as they came – the horseflies and heat of the B.C. coast, the rain of southeast Alaska, the winds of the Lost Coast, and the bitter cold of the Copper Basin. But the biggest changes came in perception.
I had never spent so much time in my life just noticing things: the intense smell of a broken spruce branch in cold, still air, the tracks of a tiny pine siskin, the sliding trail of a river otter, the sound of cracking ice. Much of the world was snow. So we noticed the heavy wetness of warm snow, the weightless fluff of cold snow, the elaborate crystals built by the frost, its swish or squeak, or crunch beneath our feet. Nothing was bright or loud. Nothing screamed for our attention. There were only the details. And the details mattered — only subtle differences in snow textures distinguishing a safe place to ski from a spot of too-thin ice. There were no written signs to explain what we saw. We discovered the world by watching, listening, and smelling. — Erin McKittrick – A Long Trek Home
A well-trained scientific mindset complements the wisdom acquired through their wilderness journeys. Hig has a background in physics and computer science and a PhD in Geology. Erin holds a Masters in molecular biology. She is also a gifted and accomplished writer. Her first book, A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski, shares the couple’s experiences and reflections from their Seattle to Unimak adventure. In Small, Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska, Erin relates joys, challenges, and insights of their first treks with Katmai and Lituya. Her books, essays, articles, and blogs go far beyond adventure writing. Her voice is passionate about spreading awareness of rapid and permanent effects of human actions on natural environments. She knows that choices we make today will shape the world that Katmai, Lituya, and their grandchildren will inherit.
As the husband-wife team plans adventures, they don’t seek first ascents of forbidding peaks or descents of raging whitewater rivers. Their motivation is not to be the first, travel the farthest, or race the fastest. Though enamored by raw wilderness, their routes also encompass massive mineral prospects, threatened salmon streams, coal fields, clear cuts, and active mines. They travel to landscapes transformed by wasting permafrost shorelines and ablating glaciers. They visit remote communities and listen to local voices. They contemplate potential impacts of massive mineral development. They consider rampant fuel consumption, as they bear witness to real-time effects of rapid climate change in the sensitive arctic.
Erin and Hig co-founded Ground Truth Trekking. This non-profit “seeks to educate and engage the public on Alaska’s natural resource issues through a combination of wilderness adventure, scientific analysis, and the creation of web resources.” Their mission is “to provide people with the knowledge they need to make smart decisions about these issues, now and into the future.”
Between wilderness adventures, Katmai, Lituya, Hig and Erin live in a 450 square foot yurt in Seldovia. Hig grew up in this quiet community overlooking Kachemak Bay. Home is warmed by wood harvested from their land. Local salmon, wild berries, and rewards reaped from their summer garden grace their table. They walk or bike to town. Like many Alaskans, a deluxe outhouse allows them to leave home in winter without worries of frozen drains and burst pipes. Connections to the the electrical grid and high-speed internet facilitate networking with communities of fellow scientists and adventurers.
Adding a log to the wood stove, Hig joins Katmai at the laptop screen. Launching Google Earth, they zoom into Alaska and ponder new paths across the landscape. As the children grow, they join in planning family adventures.
Erin and Hig embark on big (month-plus) expeditions every other year, and plan to keep these focused on Alaska, which has no shortage of new places to learn and explore. And they also have one special journey in mind for the future— a repeat of their Seattle to Unimak trek in 2032. We’re betting that Lituya and Katmai will join them. Perhaps, as they approach Izembeck Lagoon on the Bering Sea, Erin will recount her thoughts from a quarter-century earlier…on the 366th day of the trek, already kindling the spark of a new life inside her:
Each of our days was characterized by something extraordinary This day it was a tense encounter with a golden-brown bear and Hig’s discovery of a large, rare glass ball on the coast of the Bering Sea. The day before, it had been difficult navigation along a snowy caldera rim in a whiteout of fog. Before that, it had been following winding bear trails over alder and tundra-covered lava. And before that, it had been a day stretching our legs in long strides along open beaches, listening to the cries of arctic terns overhead. Each day had its own unforgettable story. And today was another ordinary, extraordinary day. Our journey could be considered “extreme” in all sorts of ways. But at this point, it was, quite simply, our everyday life. – Erin McKittrick – A Long Trek Home
You can purchase Erin’s books and Hig and Erin’s movie from the Ground Truth Trekking Website:
- Small Feet, Big Land – Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska
- A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski
- Journey on the Wild Coast – the Movie