Family footwork: A trek across northwest Alaska

August 2, 2010 

Don't let the word "only" slip if you talk to Seldovia residents Bretwood Higman and Erin McKittrick about their upcoming trek across the northwest corner of Alaska.

The couple, you may recall, accomplished what seemed impossible a couple of years ago, traveling by foot, packraft and ski from Seattle to the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, a journey of some 4,000 miles that culminated in Mc- Kittrick's book, "A Long Trek Home."

By comparison, their upcoming trip from Cape Lisburne to Kotzebue, due to begin later this month, is about 200 miles.

But this time, they've got company.

Their 18-month-old son Katmai will accompany his parents. And McKittrick is five months pregnant with the couple's second child.

"We just had a nice conversation with our midwife about the trip," Higman said last week, "so we're feeling a little more comfortable with the idea. It's definitely a challenge, but we were surprised how doable trips were earlier this summer."

Higman, who's aiming to keep his pack under 65 pounds, will carry the family's gear. McKittrick will carry Katmai in a front pouch -- and under her raincoat when the weather turns sour.

"We kind of feel like we know a bit better what will work with Katmai after a few test hikes this summer," Higman said. "A lot of people would feel uncomfortable out there, but he's done quite well.

"He changes our schedule. Without him, we have a little more freedom to set our schedule. Instead of lots of short break, we might push for a couple hours at a time and then stop for an hour.

"It'll be up to Katmai; he'll let us know."

The family plans to pass through Point Hope, Kivalina and Noatak, replenishing supplies in each town.

"We're kind of the circus coming to town," Higman joked. "But there's no way we're going to carry a month's worth of food."

Like many of the couple's trips, this one has a theme. They hope to learn more about prospective coal development and climate change in the area -- as well as the Red Dog Mine and the historic site of the once-proposed Project Chariot.

"One of things we were interested in is getting the big picture on conservation issues across Alaska -- what's the most important thing going on out there," said Higman, who has a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Washington, where his wife earned her master's degree in molecular biology. "Adding a theme like that really adds a lot to a trip. Then you've got something to talk to people about."

"With my background, I'm hoping to see what's going on with coastal erosion and the fact that the sea ice has been slower coming in."

But big themes and big issues will take a back seat to the daily needs of Katmai.

"We were a little worried that people would freak out that we're taking our little one out in the wilderness, but we haven't had that," Higman said. "In Seattle, I don't think a midwife would have gone along with what we're doing."

Alaskans have largely been encouraging.

Still, the couple expects challenges -- perhaps threats. Weather could turn nasty. McKittrick's body will be changing. Although they face one large water crossing where the Noatak River dumps into Kotzebue Sound, the water is cold everywhere.

And, of course, bears.

"Bears I've been thinking about more than usual," said Higman, who will carry pepper spray and try to select particularly safe campsites. "But I tell people compared to some steep slopes and cold water, bears are way down the list."

Earlier this year, Anchorage author Jennifer Aist's guide for parents taking young children hiking, camping and boating was published by The Mountaineers Books of Seattle. "Babes in the Woods" aims to dispel "parental fears about taking young children out hiking -- even for day hikes. They're afraid of the weather, getting lost, catching colds and the thousands of 'what ifs' that loom over parents," Aist wrote.

She admits Higman's and McKittrick's trip is a bit beyond the pale of her book.

"That's pretty hard core, I have to say," Aist acknowledged. "Most people are a little reluctant to go car camping."

But she said a well-prepared couple with strong backs should do well. Alaskans fret less about such trips than Lower 48 residents.

"If you asked someone in New York City, they'd probably say its tantamount to child abuse and that it's the most foolish thing they've ever heard," she said. "It's all relative. It comes back to your experience and your gear."

In her book, Aist relates a story about a friend pulling up to a beach in the Aleutians in his kayak, clad head to toe in the latest synthetics.

"An hour or so later, another boat joined him -- a traditional kayak made of skins. An Aleut gentleman got out, pulled his boat up the beach a bit farther, and then poked his head into the cockpit and called out some names.

"Moments later, his wife and child climbed out of the bow, and together they set up camp. For eons, families have routinely boated, camped, hunted and hiked all of the country. It wasn't always a special adventure; it was just life, and no one thought twice about it until very modern history."

Nowadays, Aist half laments, "Taking a walking in the woods requires someone like me to write a book about it."

Perhaps McKittrick will, too, when the couple returns to Seldovia, where they live in a Mongolian yurt, high on a spruce-covered mountainside.

There they live without running water, shower, bath or a working toilet -- but with broadband Internet access.

The couple discovered yurts when they returned from their 4,000-mile trek. Unlike the Mongolian ones, which are covered with wool felt, the approximately $14,000 tent that is home is encased in Duro-Last roofing vinyl and backed with heavy-duty Tyvek insulation.

"Part of it was just logistical," Higman told the New York Times, explaining their decision to buy the tent. "A yurt can be set up in eight hours." It was also in their price range, suited their minimalist approach to life and, perhaps most important, evoked the wilderness experience they cherish.

"The walls move when it blows hard," he said. "It's a little bit more out there in the elements."

But in elements is where McKittrick and Higman feel at home -- whether alone or with the family.


Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

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