EDITOR'S NOTE: Erin McKittrick and her husband Bretwood "Hig" Higman are in town this week to discuss their epic journey from Seattle to the tip of the Alaska Peninsula by foot, packraft and skis. McKittrick's new book, "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft and Ski" recounts the journey. The excerpt below focuses on the couple's effort to cross Knik Arm in the dead of winter.
Sometimes people along the way would ask how the journey had changed us. At the beginning, I didn't think it would. We weren't out to experience epiphanies of self-discovery -- we wanted to discover something about the world.
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 -- to 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 Copper Basin.
But the biggest changes came in perception. I had never spent so much time 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 texture 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. Our senses were heightened, and even in Anchorage, I found myself constantly examining the world for clues: staring at dishes and bookcases the way I'd peer at tracks in the snow, asking them questions I might have otherwise asked our hosts.
We spent two weeks in Anchorage -- the longest we'd stopped anywhere along our journey. Despite the minus-20 temperatures, we zipped around the city on studded-tire bicycles we'd borrowed from a friend, sticking to our "no motorized transport" rule through the longest cold snap Anchorage had seen in years.
Both of our mothers and Hig's father flew to Anchorage to see us. We visited with old friends and met several new ones. We were interviewed by reporters from newspapers and radio. We presented a slideshow to a crowded auditorium, telling everyone about all that we'd done so far.
Hig spent hours seated at a borrowed sewing machine, reconstructing our grubby and torn gear with swatches of bright new fabric. What we couldn't repair, we replaced. Our sponsors happily sent us new versions of their gear for us to destroy. We were the grateful recipients of a third set of dry suits, new spray decks, our third pyramid shelter, and after our frigid days in Copper Basin, yet another layer of puffy synthetic coats and pants.
Our time in Anchorage wasn't really a vacation but a regrouping. We had planned as much of the trip as possible before we left Seattle.
But now, from food, to gear repairs, to route details, to the logistics of meeting up with people in towns, it seemed that we prepared for each leg on the fly, in a whirlwind of activity at each of our resupply points.
Anchorage was our chance to pore over and print out new maps, to bike to the outdoors store for new ski boots and the other odds and ends we needed. To plan. Our two weeks of relaxing quickly turned into two weeks of meetings and errands and frenzied activity -- spending money left and right and biking grimy roads alongside hurtling, oblivious cars. We were ready to re-exit civilization.
CROSSING KNIK ARM
Even in my dreams, ice swirled. It flowed back and forth with the tides -- a rushing, shearing mass of grey and white. Ice floes formed a dancing maze -- opening filigrees of dark leads between them and then smashing together in a solid block of slush, edges crumbling as they collided.
The shadows of buildings flashed on and off against the whirls of white. Tugboats stood in silhouette, pushing through water that was barely even liquid. The world was full of motion but devoid of any obvious life -- a rushing current of ice. The skyscrapers of downtown Anchorage stood watch over the most desolate, unnerving, and wild place we'd seen since the Copper River Delta -- Knik Arm.
We were trying to escape the road. Our destination lay on the other side of Cook Inlet -- two miles west of Anchorage -- just across the narrow point of Knik Arm. Skiing around the channel would take us at least four days and bring us back along roads and roaring highway-parallel trails that we were willing to do almost anything to avoid. Paddling across would take only two hours in open water. If open water existed.
A small crowd of packrafters -- friends from Anchorage -- had joined us for an attempted crossing. Five of us stood on an ice pan a dozen feet wide as the world spun in confusing procession, giving us first a view of giant container stacks at the Anchorage port, then golden beams of sunset glinting off a vast sweep of jumbled ice and the unattainable hills beyond.
Our paddles chopped into a thick slush of skim ice. We struggled through narrow leads, grunting and shoving as the world solidified around us. Walls of ice formed suddenly between the rafts. Twenty feet apart might as well have been a mile.
The tide swept the world sideways. Fifty feet from shore, we worked hard to regain it, measuring our progress in spinning inches. It seemed we'd invited our friends to join a foolish dream.
We twisted our way back through the bergs, back to the safety of the city shore. Dark fell over the Arm as we shared beers in the Snow Goose restaurant bar, our friends remarking how odd it was to be in a bar wearing dry suits, while Hig and I wore ours as though they were the only clothes we owned.
We speculated. Would a different tide or launch spot have let us through the maze? Was crossing Knik Arm even possible?
Each time an errand brought us downtown, we'd stop and stare across the icy water -- standing on a snowy bench while skiers and dog-walkers cruised past on the trail behind us. It was a "look but don't touch" wilderness. The tidal range in Knik Arm is more than 30 feet. In the narrow neck between Anchorage and Point MacKenzie, the currents run fast and wild.
In the summer, sinking mudflats provide a barrier between land and water.
In winter, ice swirls, binding and crunching until it's difficult to tell if there is any water at all. As far as we knew, no one had ever paddled a small craft across Knik Arm in winter.
After our aborted effort with friends, we tried alone. On our next attempt, we barely escaped spending the night in the shifting currents and ice of upper Cook Inlet. Halfway across, we were nearly frozen in.
We raced back to Anchorage through the narrow leads between ice floes as each dark ribbon slammed shut behind us, always one step ahead of impenetrable floating slush -- an action movie escape. Our retreat was closing fast, just behind us, but each time we managed to squeak through.
Day after day, we returned to Knik Arm, staring across the ice-choked water, willing an open path that never came. Each time I looked out at that jumble of ice, it seemed more malevolent than the day before--rapidly turning from an obstacle to an enemy.
TOUGHEST 2 MILES
"Sometimes, the hardest lesson to learn is when to turn around." I typed the line into my blog post in an Eagle River motel, two days after that second crossing attempt, and one day after giving up on Knik Arm.
When we had drawn the original line -- the plan dreamed up in Seattle -- crossing Knik Arm had seemed the most sensible way to go. Even if it was a difficult crossing, it was only two miles, and it would take us straight to where we needed to go.
By the time we reached Anchorage, Knik Arm was the salvation that would let us escape the highway. At that point, I'd have done anything to avoid the several days of roadside drudgery it would take to ski around.
But after two weeks in Anchorage, Knik Arm had become a mission.
After covering more than 2,500 miles, including packrafting across Portland Canal and through the ice-choked waters of the Hubbard Gap, Icy Bay, and the Copper River Delta, I was reluctant to believe that two miles of water could be impossible.
We persuaded friends to set up time-lapse cameras trained on the icy channel. We spent hours poring over the resulting videos, analyzing how the ice responded to the swirling tides. We scouted the crossing more times than I could count, dragging our packrafts out to the coastal trail or simply staring across the gap. We discussed every variable -- every shift in the temperature, wind, and tide. We waffled back and forth for days, debating whether to give up, or to wait just one more day. I think we spent more time preparing for these two miles than we had spent preparing for the other 2,500 miles of the trip so far. But it didn't matter. The Arm refused to budge into a resolvable puzzle.
Knik Arm won. We skied around it.
Meet the author: Erin McKittrick will describe and show slides of her epic journey at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Title Wave Books and Thursday at REI.