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Book excerpt: 'Little Feet, Big Land'

Three musk oxen encountered near the Chukchi Sea. "We circled to photograph and they stood up, but did not retreat until we were headed out," adventurers Erin McKittrick and Hig Higman say. "Apparently part of their survival strategy is to minimize energy consumption by not fleeing."
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Toddler Katmai strolls along a narrow spit at edge of a lagoon along the Chukchi Sea during the trek he made with his parents.
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"Small Feet, Big Land"
Courtesy of author
Katmai liked the idea of warming his hands by the fire, often insisting, “Mom too! Dada too!”
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Author Erin McKittrick and son Katmai on their trek along the Chukchi Sea
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Gigantic ore warehouses at Red Dog port on the Chukchi Sea
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Editor's note: In 2007-2008, Brentwood "Hig" Higman and Erin McKittrick packed, paddled and schussed from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands. The adventure, mostly following the Pacific coastline, was documented in McKittrick's book, "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski."

Since then the couple from Seldovia have had a son, Katmai, and daughter, Lituya. Which hasn't kept them from pursuing what McKittrick calls "our inexplicable passion" to head into raw wilderness for long periods of time and "experience the world at human speed."

But now they experience it at toddler speed, children in backpacks or walking beside their parents. This kind of family extreme hiking is the subject of McKittrick's new book, "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska" (Mountaineers Books, $18.95).

In it she records the practicalities and magic of bushwhacking with babies. The following excerpt, reprinted with permission of the author and publisher, is taken from a chapter about the family's hike along the Chukchi Sea. Unlike many of their journeys, in which they never see any other transient travelers ("Alaska's much too big for that," McKittrick observes below), on this trip they enjoy the hospitality of villagers who reside in the area.

Arctic Life

The Storm's Shadow had lifted to reveal a stripe of sand with whale bones scattered to a distant horizon. Four-wheeler tracks drew their lines on that sand, between crumbling permafrost bluffs and the surf of the Chukchi Sea. At the top of the bluffs, bright red and orange cloudberries speckled the tundra. I bobbed up and down like a bird, shoes squelching in the muck, grabbing the berries as Katmai clamored for them. We were approaching the village of Point Hope in the northwest corner of Alaska, around two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Stooped figures in the distance, a handful of women stood next to their four-wheelers, filling plastic buckets with cloudberries. The raspberry's tundra cousin, each multilobed berry stands on its own three-inch-tall stalk, pointing at the sky from a blanket of sphagnum moss and swamp. Their slightly fermented sweetness melts in hand and mouth, or piles into delicious goo with the cookie fragments at the bottom of a ziplock bag. I fell a few paces behind Hig, suddenly shy as we approached the first of the strangers.

"You must be the folks from Seldovia!" the woman declared, standing up from where she was stooped among the berries. "I'm Aggie. I heard you were coming." Her friends walked over to join our conversation, carrying their own buckets of berries. We knew no one in Point Hope. But a few days ago, a group of hunters had passed us in a skiff, sparking a few moments of shouted conversation. That was enough.

Learning that we'd never eaten muktuk (bowhead whale blubber), Aggie pulled out a container full of the rubbery black and white morsels, thrusting it toward us: "This is from the best part of the flipper." The muktuk was soon followed by smoked salmon, bottles of juice, salmon sandwiches, and a packet of fruit snacks. I chewed a piece of muktuk, gingerly at first, passing another piece over my shoulder to Katmai. It was better than I expected -- reminiscent of coconut. As we chatted, I relaxed out of my shyness, once again appreciating the joy in the connection -- the reason I look forward to every town as much as the wilderness between them.

Our adventures never collide with other adventurers, striding across the wilderness toward their own arbitrary goals. They certainly never collide with the tiny population of modern adventuring families. Alaska's too big for that. Yet here in the villages, journeys like ours are only a generation or two in the past, when people navigated without the help of maps, ate without the help of grocery stores, and carried no satellite-linked electronic panic buttons. When they walked with babies and kids and grandmothers and all of their worldly possessions. When they walked because they needed to get somewhere.

Maybe all our planning and concern was an artifact of modernity. Even a hundred years ago our "expeditions" -- lacking modern technology -- would be vastly more difficult than they are today. And they would be simply a part of an ordinary life. No one walks now. Their goals are less arbitrary than ours -- usually hunting or gathering -- and much more efficiently met by the four-wheelers, skiffs, and snow machines that have made travel so much faster. But everybody has a story about their grandfather walking over the same hills we'd traveled.

The women cooed over Katmai. He stared at them warily from my back, fussing shyly if they got too close, eating the food they'd broken out especially for him, oscillating between fascination and exhaustion. When Hig and I decided to have a child, we knew that unlike our expeditions, this was a journey that billions had taken before us. A one-and-a-half-year-old is a universal; a natural conversation starter; a point of connection. I first stepped into a Native village as a new college graduate, visiting Alaska for a summer of adventure.

Now I was a pregnant mother of a toddler, visiting from another little village a few hundred miles to the south. We talked about kids. We talked about our own berry harvest back home. We were a family, traveling at a family's speed. As we move farther from the world of single-white-male adventurers, we find that people seem to see us differently. Before, we'd been just one more set of crazy young white kids collecting an experience of the "Last Frontier." As adventurers-with-kid, though, we were probably more unusual than we'd ever been. For adventurers.

But here, at Point Hope, we were only more normal. We were a family, who lived close to our own extended family. We were rural. Alaskan. Non-native, and brand-new to the Arctic, we were still nowhere close to local, but we'd moved much closer to their world.

•••

Point Hope was first named Tikigaq -- the index finger -- for the long, narrow spit it sits on. With a lagoon behind and the Chukchi Sea before it, this low-lying spine of sand and tundra points straight into the ocean. Ancient house pits uncovered by archaeologists show us that people have lived here for at least twenty-six hundred years. The new town is only a few decades old, moved to escape the encroaching sea, backing up against the lagoon that lines the landward shore. Dense clumps of small wooden houses sit on a lifeless pad of gravel, a mile or two inland from the old sod huts. Laid out in a modern grid, four-wheeler shortcuts and footpaths are slowly giving the town a more organic shape. A modern sewer system hides beneath the gravel. Powerlines crisscross town, running freezers that are gradually replacing the last permafrost ice cellars. Warming soil renders them unreliable anyway.

This was the closest they could get to living in the sea. Cartoon drawings of bowhead whales decorate buildings, and jawbones decorate the graves of whalers past. Visiting with an elder, we sat on wooden chairs beside a small square table, in a wood-paneled room covered with family photographs. Elijah rummaged in his fridge, bringing out plates of muktuk and raw whale meat, explaining the best way to eat them while spinning stories of his childhood -- as a nomadic reindeer herder in a sod hut. He watched Katmai devour thin rubbery slices of blubber, eyes lit up in his crinkled face at the sight of that enjoyment, describing his crusade to ensure that whaling could survive in Point Hope.

Five hundred years after the Point Hopers began to hunt Arctic bowheads, commercial whalers moved in on them. By 1914, they numbered fewer than a tenth of their former abundance, and the New England whalers, who had sailed thousands of miles to reach this sea from the picked-over whaling grounds of the Atlantic, disappeared with them. The Eskimos remained. In the 1970s, concerned about low population numbers, the International Whaling Commission sought to ban the subsistence harvest of bowheads in Alaska. The villagers responded with a commission of their own, forming the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in 1977, made up of representatives from eleven Arctic villages.

"I talked in my Native language about whaling and what it means to me to all those senators," Elijah reminisced. "And they listened." Today, the Eskimo Whaling Commission manages the harvest in a joint program with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Between them, the villages take around forty whales a year, using a combination of modern technology and ancient skills.

"More mup-nup!" Katmai crowed.

Elijah turned to Katmai, smiling. "Your Eskimo name is Olugharock. And you have to come back here and be a whale hunter someday." I wrote the name down as best I could, but Elijah couldn't spell it for me. He had never learned the white man's way of writing his native language.

•••

The small store in Point Hope sells mainly candy and soda. At the school picnic we attended, people ate from paper plates piled with hot dogs and chips. But the school mascot is the Harpooners. We followed four-wheeler tracks out of town as we'd followed them in, on a smooth sand beach that felt almost hot in the rare sunny calm. After a couple hours' walk, we ran into a pair of children playing on the beach. A boy and a girl, maybe nine or ten years old, practiced their archery and threw harpoons at a pile of scrap wood. They invited us white folks to give it a try. I missed entirely. Hig did a little better. The kids did best.

"I'm going to kill a whale!" the boy proclaimed confidently.

"Me too!" the girl jumped in. "When I grow up, I'm going to be a hunter, and I'm going to hunt seals and whales and caribou and bears!"

"My uncle shot a bear right there," the boy gestured nearby, clearly proud.

It seemed at the same time endearingly cute and eerily bloodthirsty. And in the Arctic, practical. In the farm-unfriendly climate of the far north, people have always fed themselves on the animals and on the wealth of the sea.

Additional author events are being planned for the lower 48.

 



By ERIN McKITTRICK