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'Small Feet, Big Land' details family's wilderness treks across Alaska, with kids in tow

Carey Restino | The Homer Tribune
Erin McKittrick, author of "Small Feet, Big Land", hiking with her children. Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking

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 two small children.

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.” The book recounts the family’s exploration of the Arctic, 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. The family started an epic journey around 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 Islands, 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 their book, starting with an event in Seldovia followed by Homer on Sept. 26, when they will be at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. From there, they will travel throughout Southcentral Alaska, up to Fairbanks, Southeast Alaska and down to the Pacific Northwest in early winter. The book, available through Mountaineers Books, and can be pre-ordered by Sept. 15 at a cost of $14.95 for delivery in late September.

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 of the amazing features of Alaska, 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 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.

The couple returned to the wild in 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 is located.
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 the 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 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.

The couple quickly downplays their bravery at taking on what many parents would consider impossible adventures with little folks to caretake.

“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 who 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 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,” she said.

Carey Restino writes for The Homer Tribune, where this article first appeared. Used with permission.