While most of Anchorage was hunkered down last week waiting out the meanest cold snap in years, Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman were scouting for a way to paddle their packrafts -- the lightest and seemingly frailest of boats -- from Anchorage through the shifting pack ice that rides the notoriously swirling tides of Knik Arm to the far shore.
Before you jump to the knee-jerk conclusion that they're crazy, consider what the couple has done to get to this point -- about 2,700 miles of packrafting and hiking, usually without trails of any sort, along the wild coast of the North Pacific since leaving Seattle on June 29.
The specifics of a Knik Arm crossing may be new. The challenge of finding a human-powered way to best Mother Nature is not.
All the way up the Wild Coast, as they call it, they've tangled with her. She has thrown just about everything imaginable at the duo -- near impenetrable tangles of cedar forest in British Columbia; treacherous, hidden cliffs beneath tangles of Southeast Alaska vegetation; raft-threatening icebergs driven by winds across Alaska's Icy Bay; even a wet-sand sandstorm on the wind-pounded northeast edge of the Gulf of Alaska.
Through it all, McKittrick and Higman have kept moving forward one step, or paddle stroke, at a time.
"We're not great athletes," McKittrick told a full house at the auditorium in the UAA Arts Building in January.
The 27-year-old native of Seattle and her 30-year-old husband are simply persistent to the point of doggedness and thoughtful to the point of inspired. So far, there hasn't arisen a riddle they couldn't solve or a problem they couldn't suffer through.
McKittrick, who grew up in Seattle, and Higman, who was reared in Seldovia, have spent much of their adult lives as students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. A top liberal arts institution, Carleton has been an international leader in pushing for environmentally conscious development, and the two adventurers share the institution's passion for sustainable use of the planet's resources.
Despite its length, the trip is a low-budget affair. They're carrying all their gear and replenishing food where possible at villages along the way, with no food drops. To help fund the trip, they've had equipment sponsors and solicited donations on their Web site.
But it's never been easy and sometimes seemingly impossible.
Higman describes their thin-ice crossing of the Copper River Delta as "sketchy,'' and McKittrick says a detour from Valdez into the Interior to follow the Matanuska River back to saltwater forced them, at one point, to their hands and knees to crawl across glare ice.
But they are now more than halfway through a grand adventure by foot and paddle that isn't supposed to end before they reach Unimak Island at the start of the Aleutian Islands sometime this summer.
Epic doesn't begin to describe this undertaking. Audacious might be better.
"I like the word visionary," said Alaska Pacific University professor Roman Dial, an adventurer who has hiked the length of the Brooks Range, among other things. "What they're doing really is visionary. What they're doing is not something anyone else has ever done."
Perhaps, no one has even tried.
There are no records of anyone setting out on a journey like this before. To find someone who might have given it a go, reach back to the Paleoarctic peoples of prehistory. Microblades left scattered along the coast from the Bering Strait to the Pacific Northwest indicate the earliest settlers moved along the coast on foot and by small boat.
Alaska Natives who came later were quick to recognize the easiest way to travel the coast is in a good boat. That has been the preferred mode of travel for thousands of years. Paddling one of those north from Seattle to Haines is challenge enough, but boaters lose a certain amount of intimacy with the land.
McKittrick and Higman want to know the land; McKittrick and Higman are, as they call it, "Ground Truth Trekking.''
"We raise awareness of environmental issues and controversies through our expeditions," they say on their Web site, www.GroundTruthTrekking.org. "We journey through the lands at the heart of the controversy, and communicate our on-the-ground information, photos and stories.
"Long-distance trips allow us to see the wilderness in its larger context, to explore and communicate issues that span hundreds or thousands of miles. By traveling solely under human power, these expeditions provide a unique on-the-ground perspective, and a depth that can only be achieved by traveling through the landscape step-by-step."
That step-by-step approach has worn out four pairs of shoes, McKittrick said.
Since transitioning into the season of snow and cold, they've found cross-country ski boots even less durable. Their first sets didn't survive the trek from Valdez. Seams near the toes blew up.
Skiing all day with a ski boot open at the toes isn't much fun, he said, but as with so many other things, if you put it out of your mind, you can keep moving forward.
And moving forward is what it is all about.
"Approaching the Copper River Delta, we were sorting out our options, and none of them looked good,'' Higman said.
"We were already on rations, and it's never good being on rations," McKittrick added.
When the two talk, there are seldom any pauses. When one drops a narrative, the other immediately picks it up.
Snow had already fallen on the Delta, and they were worried about more coming to further slow their already too-slow progress.
"Rivers were an issue too," McKittrick said.
"Really thin ice, sketchy ice," Higman added.
Looking for open water for river crossings and hoping to avoid deep snow, they went as far out onto the coastal beaches as they could -- before being pinned down in a raging windstorm.
No problem. They got their two-pound pyramid tent up, gathered beach grass with which to line it for warmth and waited out the storm. As it was dying, they resumed doing what they'd done almost every day for months -- walking.
They expect to have completed 4,000 miles -- more than a coast-to-coast trek across America -- by the time they reach the end of the journey. What they will do afterward is unclear, though McKittrick has a contract to write a book.
With amazing photographs of the places they've been and a comfortable stage presence, they could take their show on the road.
On this journey, the couple noted, they are usually far from people, but the signs of people are never far from them.
"The whole place has been altered by man," Higman observed.
"Everywhere you go," McKittrick added, "the stuff is there."
That "stuff" is the flotsam and jetsam of human progress.
McKittrick and Higman expect to find more of it as they move west along the Alaska coast. Higman noted that the couple originally wanted to follow tight along the coastline, but there are few coastal villages left at which to resupply so they will have to jog inland to the Lake Iliamna country.
The Wild Coast, it appears, is both wilder and less wild than one might imagine.
Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at email@example.com or 257-4588.
GROUND TRUTH TREKKING: The fledgling organization is McKittrick and Higman with some help from Web guru Shaun Roberts. The couple met at Carleton College in 1999 and married in 2003. Over the past seven years, they estimated, they've trekked across 3,000 miles of Alaska wilderness. They also operate Sundrop Jewelry, which crafts glass jewelry using solar energy.
ERIN McKITTRICK: The Seattle native grew up hiking with her family in the Cascades. She holds a master's degree from Carleton in molecular and cellular biology. In addition to wilderness adventure and photography, she is a painter.
BRETWOOD HIGMAN: A graduate student in geology, he's studying tsunamis and the sand layers they leave behind. He's traveled to Kamchatka, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand for research. He grew up in Seldovia and began hiking in the woods behind his house.