Bering Sea Coast trip — part 1 — as seen in the ADN

Posted by on 12 May 2015 | Tagged as: Expeditions

Obviously, I haven’t been updating this in awhile. However, I did send an update to the ADN on the first leg of the expedition, and those of you who didn’t see it there (non-Alaskans particularly) can see it here! More to come when we’re back in civilizaion (probably ending up in Deering in about 3 weeks)

TELLER — Bryan Weyauvanna stepped off his snowmachine, gulped the last of his thermos of coffee, and gestured at one of the mountains behind Cape Woolley, pastel pink in the setting sun.

“That mountain? It’s 3870 on the map, but in my language, it’s Singatook. And when you see a cloud up there, that means it’s going to be windy.”

Trekking from Mt. Iliamna to Anchorage
We had been skiing on the frozen Bering Sea for a week already, and were not quite halfway between Nome and Teller. It took Dallas Seavey’s team of canine athletes less than nine days to make the 1,000-mile journey of the Iditarod. It took us about three days to get beyond earshot of Nome’s Iditarod siren, which blared an alert for each new musher trotting into town.

My 4- and 6-year-old children had climbed to the top of nearly every pressure ridge along the way, making monsters and castles out of the jumbled blocks of blue and white. We are not athletes.

From Nome to Kotzebue
Our family was making what we expected to be a 500-mile journey from Nome to Kotzebue in two months. We didn’t bring dogs. Instead, we planned to be the dogs — pulling gear and sometimes children at a speed that’s basically a crawl.

We might travel eight miles in a day. Or we won’t. We’ll ski the whole way, or we’ll strip the runners off the packrafts — walking and paddling as the land thaws beneath our feet. We’ll visit half a dozen villages along the way: Teller, Brevig Mission, Wales, Shishmaref, Deering and Candle. We’ll be farther west than I’ve ever been and in colder weather than our kids have ever been.

We were only about 6 miles farther along when Bryan and his friend George caught up to us the next day, clambering down the tilted steel ladder that led to our underground bunker. We were camped out in the cavernous steel belly of a shipwrecked boat near the 17-mile-long Feather River, its rusted body almost entirely drifted over with snow. Hiding from the wind.

Read More:

Sixth Year in the Woods (Musings of a Wilderness Parent)

Posted by on 16 Feb 2015 | Tagged as: wilderness kids

I did it!

It’s become a yearly tradition that when my oldest child’s birthday rolls around, I write a post reflecting on our year in the great outdoors. So this is in honor of Katmai’s sixth birthday (Saturday), Lituya’s fourth (last month), and my sixth year as a wilderness parent. (Read First Year in the Woods, Second Year in the Woods, Third Year in the Woods, Fourth Year in the Woods, and Fifth Year in the Woods).

Swishhh-CRUNCH, swishhh-CRUNCH, swishhh-CRUNCH… My son’s boots slid and thumped along the creek’s thick fringe of ice, where the sound of his asymmetric hobble mingled with the gargling water, the crackling fire, and the strains of Disney’s “Let it Go” coming from my daughter.

My husband pointed the video camera at him:

Getting less grumpy

“How is it hiking with a broken leg?”


When pressed, he admitted that the full-leg cast does make it harder to get down, and get up again. But not hard enough, apparently, to prevent him from plopping down in the snow every few minutes to sketch blurry images in powder with the thumb of his mitten.

Frost pooled on the valley floor, building crystalline leaves on every twig. They shattered under our boots. Melted onto our tongues. The kids shook the branches, sending pillows of frost crashing onto eachother’s faces, making “snow tinkles” in their hair. And the spots of gleaming sun made us all forget the moments of grumpy cold that had come earlier that same morning, as I’d shared out the last of our chemical handwarmers between them.

Hig tugged the packraft-sled he’d created over yet another stick, in the trail that really didn’t have enough snow for it. And I counted myself grateful to be in sort of family where everyone thinks winter camping is a good idea, deterred by neither cold, snow, tiny children, nor a broken leg.

Full Moon Camping

After a rain squall, Katmai enjoys our fire-with-a-view.

Of course we went. We go camping every month, usually around the full moon. The kids know this, the way they know we hike every Friday, play outside every day, and take off into deeper wilderness on the unpredictable whims of their parents. But they’re six and four. They don’t remember that these monthly trips are a tradition we started only a year ago.

It was a slick of watery ice forming around the March bonfire, and our ski tracks beneath the full moon. It was stumbling out of the tent in rubber boots down to spring’s low tides April, May, June, July… Octopus and sea stars, and soaked-through mittens. And as spring crept towards summer, there were even a few trips where the mittens stayed in the pack. There were friends, crowded onto a tiny tombolo island. Kids leading eachother to the tippy tops of the boulders, and adults sharing coffee around the fire. A full tide creeping in to the very edge of the tent, lapping against the gravel in a sleepy 3AM calm.

Blueberries in oatmeal at the top of a mountain. Picking our way through the bushes in the dark. Rolling down the tundra. Watching the stars.

Moonlit low-tiding when the summer turned to fall. Rain falling on the ripples that glowed with sparks of luminescence. Long dark nights of campfire conversation. New Year’s fireworks exploding over the town below.

I’ve never seen a kid bored at a campsite.

And finally, on the twelfth month, broken-leg hobbling down that frosted trail.

Delusional Thinking

And if it sounds so idyllic, that’s because I’m skimming right past the whining and the coaxing. The complaints of cold and water-filled boots, the post-darkness bushwhack to a camp, the grumpy kid pushed along only by the liberal application of chocolate, the fight over the only ripe salmonberry, or clutching a pissed-off three year old halfway up a scramble we never should have started.

That’s OK. Because they do it too. They often dawdle their way into snow pants and boots, but the kids are both decisively, enthusiastically, and infallibly eager to come with us.

moonlit low-tiding

When we’re having a rough patch, I remind myself of this. That the wonderful memories easily trump the moments of discomfort. That those wet toes will warm up again, that we’ll eventually reach the top of the mountain, and that everyone will be so excited for the next time.

Going Nowhere

After a year in which we walked around Cook Inlet, this was a year made up of dozens of tiny circles and wiggling lines – trips we could plan in a morning with the food in our cupboards and a simple checklist of gear. Now – a few weeks out from another major expedition, as boxes of gear are arriving in the mail – I miss that simplicity already.

Once, we boated and drove 200 miles from here – to spend two weeks exploring the coal-rich hills of the Matanuska Valley. But that was the exception. We spent the rest of the year a handful of miles from home, maybe 5, maybe 25. We often went by bike, or packraft. We didn’t stop at those 12 monthly backpacking trips. We went whenever we could. We brought friends. We brought buckets and shovels and berry containers and only once brought a map.

Hide and seek along the trail can be great fun, and keep the kids leapfrogging along.


But even a simple year is full of firsts. Lituya’s first time (and second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth) hiking up to the alpine under her own power. That triumphant grin. A year where she’s carried herself, all the way, every time.

Katmai learned how to paddle a packraft on his own, and we set him loose in calm embayments, reaching new islands under his own wavering paddle strokes. On hikes, he encourages his sister now “Lituya, I know how to get past devil’s club! You just push right through it and let it poke you!”

And I can once again pull my own weight. For years I carried kids, while Hig carried most of the gear. For years, my time was overwhelmed with caring for babies and small kids, and Hig did most of the camp chores. Now, when we reach a campsite they run off to play together, and I can get started on the tent.


I’m a better parent in the woods. More patient. More engaged. Less distracted by the trappings of ordinary life. It’s easy to see how I can go out there and show the kids tidepool creatures, or teach them wild plants. But I also have more time to play “Ice Castle” with Lituya, or carefully listen to Katmai’s synthesis of imaginary molecules.

Things come together, by a creek in the woods. We trade multiplication problems, sing songs, and slide, giggling, on patches of ice. Sometimes, we do all those things in the very same moment. The months of expeditions we have planned this year (2 on the Seward Peninsula, 2 in the Aleutians) are months of togetherness that most families never get to have.

Our Next Expedition–Bering Straits Spring (Skiing from Nome to Kotzebue)

Posted by on 10 Nov 2014 | Tagged as: Expeditions, northern alaska, trip preparation, wilderness kids

Lituya flopped in the snow

Skis. Sleds. Sea Ice. Blizzards. Breakup. Packrafts.

One 6-year-old. One 4-year-old.

Two months.

500 miles from Nome to Kotzebue.

And  lot of stuff we
haven’t figured out yet.

Continuing where the Iditarod leaves off:

On March 14, 2015, we’re going to fly to Nome, find a spot to set up the tent, and spend a few days figuring out if all the stuff we lugged up there will actually work. At some point, the teams of dogs and mushers will show up, exhausted from their great journey.

And that’s where we begin our 500 mile journey.

We won’t bring dogs. Instead, we plan to be the dogs—pulling gear and a pair of children at a speed that’s more “crawl” than “race.”

proposed route

Wild Speculations:

We’ll set off on skis, tracing the edge of the Seward Peninsula. We’ll follow the sea ice or the rolling hills, on snow machine trails or not. Our kids will follow along on their own tiny skis, or homemade kick sleds, or flop their tired little bodies onto our already-heavy loads. We’ll burn driftwood in our collapsible titanum stove–if we can find driftwood. We’ll travel eight miles in a day. Or we won’t. We’ll ski the whole
way, or we’ll strip the runners off the packrafts—walking and paddling as the land thaws beneath our feet. We’ll visit half a dozen villages along the way: Teller, Brevig Mission, Wales, Shishmaref, Deering, and Candle. We’ll be farther west than I’ve ever been, and in colder weather than our kids have ever been.

Some of these unknowns will be ironed out in the months of planning before we leave. Some we won’t know until we’re there. And the rest are questions we don’t even know to ask yet.

We’ll have an adventure.

You’re Crazy:

For wanting to do this? Probably.

For thinking we can? Probably not.

People have been traveling with their kids across this landscape for thousands of years. Hig and I have been wandering across Alaska for 15 years, and have been bringing the kids since they were infants. Our children are already veterans of three major expeditions, from the April blizzards on Kachemak Bay to the November snows on Malaspina Glacier. Most recently–walking and paddling 800 miles around Cook Inlet.


Do you even have to ask anymore? We’re going because it’s time to go. Our family rhythm includes a hike day per week, a campout per month, and a multi-month expedition every two years. And while we expect our past experience will help us out here, every expedition is new, and tantalizingly different.

We’re going because we’re curious. Curiosity has dragged us many thousands of miles across Alaska. And left us with a map full of yawning blank spots—great green-brown swaths of temptation. A lifetime’s worth of places I haven’t explored.

What is it like to stand on the frozen Bering Straits? On the spit at Shishmaref village? At the rim of an ancient volcanic crater? What can we learn about the ancient history, the rush of gold-seekers, and the questions facing the peninsula’s future? Who will we meet? What will we see?

We’ll find out soon enough.

Help us Out:

Do you live on the Seward Peninsula? Do you know someone who does? Do you know about the conditions, the trails, or any remote cabins between the villages? We’d love to gather information from anyone we can. Even more importantly, we’d love to visit and get to know people along the way. Email at or reach us on Facebook.

In addiiton to knowledge, we could use some money. We do things as cheaply as we can, but no expedition is free. Donations to help defray the costs of gear and logistics are greatly appreciated.

Ground Truth Trekking is a 501c3 nonprofit, so all donations are tax-deductible.


The Magic of a Camping Checklist

Posted by on 13 Oct 2014 | Tagged as: home, trip preparation, wilderness kids

Don’t forget the lighter

“Did you pack the tent?”

“Wait, did anyone grab extra socks for the kids?”

“Are we sure we’re not forgetting anything?”

This is how every backpacking trip used to begin. We volleyed stressed out questions back and forth from opposite ends of the room, a whirlwind of searching surrounding the pile in the middle of the floor. But it didn’t have to be that way.

This year, I’ve discovered the most wonderful piece of camping technology. A checklist. You know, a piece of paper (or in our case a Google Doc), that one can mark with an X each time a thing is complete.

Erin and Hig’s Camping Checklist — Click to Open

Sometimes you need a bucket, too

But why would we ever need such a thing? We who have camped so many hundreds in the wilderness that of course we know what to bring. Trust me, we needed it. You need it too.

I certainly could brainstorm a list of everything we might need off the top of my head. But that’s actually a significant amount of work. It’s stressful to constantly think about what I might be forgetting, and what I’ve already put in the pack. And it creates ample opportunity to actually forget things, or to forget them via miscommunication about which one of the adults was responsible for grabbing the thing in question. (Good argument potential here, as well).

Now, I open the Google doc on my computer (Hig opens it on his own). Each of us looks at the next unchecked item, goes to fetch it, adds an X (or decides that the item is unnecessary for this particular camping trip, and marks it with a dash). This nicely takes all the thinking out of the equation, and with it, nearly all the stress. My checklist even reminds me to feed the cat and water the houseplants before I go. And I haven’t ended up on a beach trip without my tide book since.

When we decided to go camping every full moon, we were forced to come up with a way to make it easier. And as dead simple as it is, I thought it was worth sharing. Even old adventurers can learn new tricks.

Or even the fishing gear

This checklist is not for our months-long expeditions (which require much more careful thought, weight analysis of all the gear, and weighing the food). I’d never ever bring something like a bucket or hot dogs on a longer trip. And we’d never bring everything on this list, even on an overnighter (think you might need a down coat and a swimsuit on the same day? an electric bear fence in the dead of winter?). But having it all there, I can quickly check off anything that seems silly without worrying about forgetting stuff.

Erin and Hig’s Camping Checklist

In the Big Classroom

Posted by on 06 Aug 2014 | Tagged as: home, trip reports, wilderness kids

Friends on a pass

Mud pies at camp

I paused, legs wide straddled, thumbs hooked through pack straps, my back arched just so against the aching weight of a six hour shuffle.

“Hey fairy-girl! Are you coming?”

“I’m coming! Wait mama. Waiiit!” Lituya ducked out from behind the trunk of a cottonwood, sprinkling a handful of grass seeds on the ground. She came in a rapid patter of little sneakers, and a high-pitched musical narration.

“I’m Tuuu-la the fai-ry! Fly-ing, and making snoooow!”

She shook a wand of cottonwood seeds as she ran. I scuffed my feet in the swirl of fluff from the trees lining the old gravel mining road, waiting for the line that marks Red Mountain. A narrow gully slices it out–alder-green on one side, a dusty orange rubble the color of Lituya’s hair on the other. Red Mountain! What a name to slap onto this barren spire thrust from the depths of the earth. This poisonous rock of serpentine soil. This magical valley where a clear blue creek sweeps between castles of rock and there’s just enough brush to gorge yourself on blueberries tucked into the alders without tangling your feet.

Kids playing in Red Mountain Valley

Lituya and I were behind, as usual, and we picked our way through the ruts the four-wheelers had made through the willows, their curling diversions linking up what remains of the old road. Perhaps that was why I was so eager to step across that marvelously sharp boundary between green and orange–because I could finally put down that pack.

Hig wasn’t here today, so I brought it all with me. The tent and the pot, the floss-stitched knees of the rainpants that walked a thousand miles, and the fish hook that pierced my finger when I was reaching in for a lighter because the bag is packed for anything–not just this mountain. And I might have left the kitchen sink behind, but I brought my notebook, my friends, and my family.

Red Mountain was always special, which is why people always did drive there, even 20 miles out as far as the road would ever go. But everything seems more special when it’s hard won. Not just for the grownups remembering when we drove right up here. The kids explore a campsite–any campsite–with more joyful enthusiasm than for anything else in the world.

Maidenhair Fern — Adiantum aleuticum

I assumed that’s what they were doing, anyway. They disappeared from sight (the two five-year-olds and the three-year-old) after the triumphant summit of a towering boulder castle. They wouldn’t be back until the hot dogs were ready.

We had a few days. To hike up to the pass and photograph wildflowers. For Katmai to discover the maidenhair ferns, and talk with me about serpentine soils, and competition, and why this little plant grows nowhere else he’s been. To pick blueberries for oatmeal, make sandy mud pies in an extra cookpot, play “monster-snatch” in a grassy hole, and get very very wet in the creek. And on the way back down, to share the very last sucker with a friend–two licks each before you hand it off–watching it dissolve.

Getting very wet at Windy River

“What’s dissolve?”
Katmai answered before I could: “It’s when something breaks up into little tiny pieces and then those pieces become part of the water they’re in and you can’t see them anymore.”

It’s August now, and the berries are ripe, and the fireweed are bloooming. And there’s time for one last camping trip before the summer people leave–and we don’t get ready for school. Which is something I’ve kept a little quiet about, in a tiny town where people fret over the 36 kids rattling around in an over-large school building, filled with wonderful and dedicated people that are better at being indoors than I am.

We founded Ground Truth Trekking years before we ever had kids. Because Hig and I kept going on adventures. And without even meaning to, we learned–from people, from glaciers, from clearcuts, from sparrows, from cities, from fishing boats, from all the things we discussed for hours and just had to look up, from eachother… Ground Truth Trekking was our way to share that with the world. I didn’t think of it as an educational philosophy. But it is, of course.

Monster snatch game

Explore, learn, share. Build a life with as much time and space for this as possible. And that freedom that we’ve worked so hard to protect belongs to our children as well–even the one that’s old enough for kindergarten.

So I’ll buy our supplies–a new pair of rainpants and odorproof bags and maybe that sneaker with a half-gone sole will make one more journey–and revisit our checklist, and ready my family for September’s two-week hike in the Matanuska Valley. And we’ll be ready for Friday hikes, and winter camping, and all the low tides. We’ll be ready to study the orbit of Mercury, and play Go Fish, and make pie. We’ll be ready with scissors and tape and raincoats and skis and shelves overstuffed with books. We’ll be ready to take off in March or April, maybe to see the end of the Iditarod, to walk to Shishmaref, to circumnavigate Unalaska… Maybe to walk–and learn–another thousand miles before the year is done.

Siberian Aster — Eurybia sibirica

Remains of the Red Mountain mining operation

A Scuttling Slimy Kind of Love — tidepooling with kids

Posted by on 21 Jul 2014 | Tagged as: home, wilderness kids

A rock without an inch of rock

Lituya low-tiding

I scanned the column of green numbers on the July page of the tide book: Sunday the 13th, 9:52AM, -5.4 feet

-5.4! A number for boots skating through a knee-deep tangle of kelp blades. For rocks so covered in life that there’s not an inch of rock left on them. For all that scuttling color and slimy blobbyness.

I know of course, that intertidal creatures are my own addiction. They’ve had a special place in my heart since 10th grade marine science class, where I memorized their scientific names from a thick stack of hand-illustrated 3×5 notecards. Strongylocentrotus drobachiensis. Tonicella lineata. Pisaster ocraceous. Hemigrapsus nudus. A few still pop to mind, nearly twenty years later–are still relevant even, 1500 miles away along the same convoluted Pacific coast.

Burrowing Green Anemone. Anthopleura artemisia.

But I can say I do it for the kids. I gulped a few hot sips from my thermos bottle of coffee then hooked it over a finger that held a shovel, on an arm that held an empty bucket, and held Lituya’s hand as we slithered our boots carefully over the ropes and sheets of seaweed that draped the cobbles, in the ankle-deep water pouring out through the spit, to a sand flat just barely beginning to be revealed.

Drinking coffee while low-tiding is basically the point of this whole new-found tradition of camping out around every full moon. In the half of the year that stretches between the spring and fall equinoxes, the lowest tides of the month are always paired with the full moon, and are always, in my neck of the woods, somewhere around 9 or 10 in the morning. I’ve drawn misshapen circles and squiggly orbit lines on the white board, and never quite managed to explain quite why it works out that way. But I know when to head to the sea.

Leave all our heaps of clothes and sleeping bags in the tent and we can stroll down the beach to beat the morning’s tide by an hour, easy. And that’s even after a breakfast of squashed peanut butter sandwiches and a fight with the five year old over whether he had to wear his rainpants (he won).

Heart Crab. Phyllolithodes papillosus

“An anemone!” Lituya squealed. “Can I touch it!”

“Yes, of course.”

“Look! It’s circle got smaller! Why is it scared of me?”

I stopped my hurried splash past all the commonest things–the true stars and burrowing anemones and hairy tritons–to crouch down with her, feeling the tacky pull of tentacles and tube feet, running our fingers over the sandy worm cases on the cobbles and their little tubes poking out of the flats. Gooey, sandy, slimy, sharp, rough, hairy, sticky, spongy, slippery, wiggly, spiny, soft, and wet… Low tide is for touching.

Low tide has a sound. A hissing squealing whistling popping–of water disappearing, of barnacles closing, of limpets and snails suctioning their moist bodies down against the rocks. Katmai and I watched finger-length fish dart by dressed in kelpy red-brown and sand-speckled gray. Then a small giant octopus streaked past our feet like a dark red rocket, crawling when the water got too shallow. We caught it for a moment in our white bucket, watching it turn paler and paler as if trying to become the bucket itself. Then we let it go.


We let them all go. The octopus, the dime-sized sea urchins, the flapping gunnel fish and gliding nudibranchs and the seven common kinds of crabs we know.

Low-tiding isn’t a useful obsession, as I like to claim for the dozens of gallons of berries I pick, or the buckets and bowls full of salad from the garden. We came back this time with a heap of nori to dry for snacks. Sometimes with clams. More often with pictures, or nothing at all.

I’ve forgotten most of those latin names. I don’t know as much about each creature as a naturalist. I can’t catch a gunnel fish like a Seldovia child.

Sunflower star. Pycnopodia helianthoides

But I love the lowest tides. A treasure hunt for the colorful, slimy, and strange–for all the things that hide beneath the rocks and scuttle into damp dark crevices. Even the abbreviated nature of it–a mesmerizing exploration of a few square feet, followed by a mad scrambling dash when the water rises to the tops of my XtraTufs and chases me up the beach almost before I know it’s coming (and maybe over the tops, if I’ve left myself out on a sand flat). The letting-go ritual, where the kids sit near the water’s edge, with the water lapping at their cuffs and boots and they don’t even notice, reaching into the bucket and throwing everything back. We can see this much of the sea for only a few hours a month–precious and special in its rarity.

When the sunflower stars glide around my feet, first curling and uncurling one arm, then another, their delicate tube feet tapping the seaweed in a rapid searching crawl–it’s like watching my children playing together when they don’t know I’m peeking. A glimpse into the magic of a world that doesn’t include me.

Fat-Bike To The Arctic – Gear Review

Posted by on 29 Apr 2014 | Tagged as: Expeditions, gear

We have returned home from our fat-bike expedition to the arctic and it seems almost like a dream. If not for the photos I might not believe it actually happened.  We traversed mountain ranges, crossed sea and river ice and experienced temperatures that ranged from 40º to -25º all while following a thin white path that stretched from Anchorage all the way to the arctic community of Kotzebue. Our luck and good fortune were beyond comprehension and the people we encountered without equal.

Every expedition and trip reveals new insight about technique and equipment and we always hope to incorporate that wisdom on the next trip. ‘Fat-bike to the Arctic’ stood on the shoulders of our experimentation over the years and vicarious lessons from others.

Herein I will attempt to outline and review the equipment we used on our 1,000 + mile, winter fat-bike trip to the arctic of Alaska.

Fat Bike: Carver O’Beast

One of the many trail conversations we had involved the importance of locomotion. Typically, we think about the hierarchy of human necessity being; food, shelter and water – but – transportation also belongs on this list. Every terrain on earth has its “appropriate” vehicle. The modern fat-bike is a remarkably well-suited form of locomotion for the Alaska wilderness and long, winter cycling trips are more practical than ever before.

Kim and I both rode Carver O’Beast, titanium fat-bikes and they performed amazingly well. The geometry of this bike is a nice balance between aggressive and comfortable.   Many people who embark on these kinds of trips set out with a daily mileage goal. Instead of miles, Kim and I use time and as the daylight increased we added more time to our daily rides. By the end of the trip we were in the saddle for 11 and 12 hours a day. Being comfortable and efficient are crucial when you ride that many hours, every day, for 5 weeks.

Beyond a nice geometry, the O’Beast has a few features that are worth mentioning. Firstly, the top tube of the bike has a swale to it. This is a good feature for winter cycling on a snow trail. It often happens that the trail becomes soft or you encounter snowdrifts and are forced to dismount quickly. When you put your foot down, the snow compresses under your foot and you are standing below the grade of your bike. Without the swale of the top tube, the likelihood of “racking” yourself is very probable and would be a regular occurrence. Because of the bent top tube we never had this problem.

Tire and wheel size has increased over the years since Surly first unveiled the 3.7 inch wide Endomorph tire and the 65mm wide Large Marge wheel. Now, 5-inch tires and 100mm rims are available but not every fat-bike frame can accommodate the increased width. The Carver O’Beast can and for this kind of trip, as wide as possible is best.

On this trip we employed both mans greatest discovery and mans greatest invention: fire and the wheel. Over the eons the wheel has seen many improvements but for fat-bikes the pinnacle of perfection has been reached. The Surly Clown Shoe rim is the right tool for the job.

We both rode the 18-inch frame and even with the swale top tube we were able to carry 5 days of food in our home-made frame bags, in the front triangle of the frame, as well as the folding saw in my case and the titanium stove in Kim’s. The frame also has rack mounts, which we both used for a rear rack.

Titanium frames are typically more expensive than steel or aluminum bikes but the weight savings, comfort and reliability are, for some, worth the extra expense. Carver’s titanium bicycles are remarkably less expensive than other titanium bike manufacturers.

In summery, we love our bikes and strongly recommend the brand. The company is small(ish) and the customer service, top notch.

Shelter and stove: Mountain Laurel Mid and Titanium Goat Stove

Before we embarked, Kim and I spent time testing our Mountain Laurel, floor-less, mid shelter with the Titanium Goat wood-burning barrel stove but this arrangement was still largely theoretical.  After 5 weeks of near daily use, we are beyond theory and into the realm of the actual. We opted to rely solely on the wood stove for our water making and food cooking and left our MSR Whisperlite with friends to send if we decided we needed it. Using the wood stove to make water and cook on takes longer than a gas stove but our routine with the stove proved to be a nearly ideal arrangement.

In the evening we would both work together to erect the shelter. This chore consisted of strapping together two collapsible ski poles, handle to handle, with the tips on the end. We used two Voile straps, which are stretchy and very secure. (More about Voile straps later.) Then we would harvest four stakes from whatever was available. Typically, this was willow, spruce or birch branches. Then, Kim would hold the center pole within the shelter, while I set the stakes. Once the shelter was erected, we would either cut snow blocks or scoop loose snow around the perimeter “skirt” that I had sewn onto the shelter.

With the shelter secured, we each set out on our individual chores, which alternated daily. One of us would assemble the collapsible bow saw and harvest enough wood for the evening and morning. Relying on the wood stove establishes parameters as to where we decided to establish a camp. We preferred to be in spruce forests, as dead spruce is the best fuel for the stove. That said, dead and dry willow or alder works very well too. The only fuel we tried to avoid was birch. Even when birch is well cured, it still contains moisture and does not burn hot enough. A typical strategy was to cut down long pieces and chuck them near the shelter. Once a healthy pile had been gathered we would make ourselves comfortable and cut the wood into sub-22 inch lengths. Lastly, we would bring the wood inside the shelter and stack it into a pile.

Simultaneously, the other person would lay out the inside of the shelter with sleeping pads and begin setting up the stove. The collapsible, two-pound, titanium woodstove takes a little practice to set up efficiently. Thankfully, our trip began with unseasonably warm temperatures. By the time we experienced our first evening of -20º we were well organized and stove assembly was a painless task.   I always bring a paperback book on trips. This time it was ‘Homage to Catalonia’, by George Orwell. Every page that has been read becomes the evening fire starter. As soon as the fire was lit we would fill the pot and mug with snow, add a little water from the thermos and begin the task of making hot drinks, dinner and water for the evening and next day. Rarely, if ever, was there a time, when the fire was going, that one or two vessels was not on the stove. Once dinner had been consumed and water made we would crawl into our bags and let the fire go out.

In the morning, whoever had been to one to make dinner (‘cookie’) woke early, relit the stove, started coffee, water and breakfast. This lead-time on the morning fire was perfect for many reasons: drying the shelter of frost and moisture from the sleeping bags was resolved and by the time coffee and breakfast was ready, gear and clothing were warm and dry. Even in -20º, we were able to comfortably do our inside chores glove free, in our long underwear.

We eventually learned some handy tricks involving the stove that made life better. By placing spruce boughs under the stove and piling snow around, we were able to keep the stove from melting down into the snow. Willow branches also worked. When disassembling the stove in the morning, we dumped the ashes and embers in a pile outside. Before we were ready to ride, we would warm our hands for one last time on the embers before smothering them. Starting the day with warm hands is a remarkable treat.

There are very few downsides to the wood stove but it’s worth mentioning them and hopefully they will be resolved before our next trip. The most negative aspect of the woodstove, in a sil-nylon shelter is obvious – embers. Most of the embers that made it out of the stovepipe either burn out or were blown away before they came in contact with the nylon but after 5-weeks of use, there are more than a handful of little holes. Whenever we slept in a cabin, I would bring the shelter inside and sew up the holes. Most were smaller than a pinhead but a few were pinky diameter. I would like to experiment with a spark arrester, which could be a piece of fluffed steel wool. Maintaining a good draw is very important so this method would require experimentation. The other drawback to the stove is that the actual barrel is made of very thin titanium. Over the course of the trip, this material became malformed from setting the pots atop it. Titanium Goat has another stove design that turns this concept 90º, with the thicker, non-bendable titanium on the top and bottom and the thinner sheet metal on the walls. However, our barrel stove was remarkable and improvements, in this case, would be nice but not necessary.


We carried two saws and one 21-inch replacement bow saw blade, which we never needed. The primary woodcutting saw was a Coghlan’s, folding bow saw. Our other saw was a T handled, stainless steel Gerber, with finer teeth. For us, these two saws complimented each other and we used them both, most days.

The Coghlan folding saw is a lightweight, aluminum “bow saw” with two pivot points and a very simple and secure tensioning apparatus. Once the saw is assembled the blade is very taut and thus, it cuts extremely well. On a few nights we opted to sleep in shelter cabins. Trail ethics dictate that you leave the shelter better than when you came, so we always tried to replenish more wood than we burnt. Within most cabins, hanging on a nail, are conventional bow saws with longer blades than ours. Because the tension on these saw blades is not taut, we almost always preferred ours.

The T handled saw had multiple purposes, but mostly it lived inside the shelter and was used to shorten pieces of wood, as needed. We also used it as a snow saw to cut blocks for anchoring the shelter when the snow was compact and would bring a few blocks inside for water making. Both of these saws are light, compact and effective. Since there are pivot points on the folding saw, I carried some replacement hardware and I did replace one pin with a bolt and a locking nut.

I see no reason to improve or change anything about the saws for future trips.

Airlite Snowshoes:

Because of our strange winter, here in Homer, we were never able to give our Airlite Snowshoes a proper test before we left. During our trip we experienced only one storm. Thankfully, not much snow accumulated and we were always able to ride. However, having the snowshoes is insurance and we never debated sending them home.

Because of our stove, we always needed to camp near wood. One evening on the Yukon River we were ready to camp but the trail ran straight down the middle of the massively wide river. Finally we decided to march at right angles off the trail, to the bank and camp. Kim decided to try the snowshoes for the ¼-mile bike push and I tried the Alpacka ‘sled’, without snowshoes.

Unpacking the snowshoes, blowing-up and pumping, with a bike pump, takes around 5 minutes. Once Kim was strapped in, she began pushing and was able to fine-tune her gait to avoid collision with the bike and said it felt very natural. The floatation these snowshoes provide is substantial. The snowpack in this instance was dust on breakable crust with rotten and bottomless snow underneath – terrible walking snow. She stayed on top and was able to reach the shore without strain.

Again, because of our no snow winter we never tried our Alpacka ‘sleds’ before embarking. Even though they are much less heavy than a packraft we sent them home after that evening on the river. It may be that in certain kinds of snow the ‘sled’ would work better, but in cold, dry snow the ‘sled’ offered tremendous resistance. It felt like I was dragging a 4×8 sheet of plywood over sand.

We are back to the drawing board for a lightweight and compact, emergency sled that can haul bike and gear. Since pushing the bike with the Airlite Snowshoes proved to be successful we discussed the new strategy: if riding becomes impossible – push, if pushing becomes impossible – inflate snowshoes and push, if pushing with snowshoes becomes impossible and the situation becomes dire – abandon bike, drag a dry-bag with sleeping bag and food, and snowshoe to safety. Thankfully we never had to make these kinds of choices but it is important to consider options – options that don’t include being rescued by others.

Sleeping Gear:

Up to now, we have always used a vapor barrier within our sleeping bags to prevent our sweat from corrupting the down and becoming heavy and eventually lousy with ice buildup. Sleeping in a non-permeable sack or rain gear within the sleeping bag is clammy and no fun.  Before our fat-bike to the arctic trip, vapor barriers were the only solution – until we started using the wood stove.

We both use -20º down sleeping bags and two pads – one close-cell foam and one inflatable, air mattress. Our shelter is floorless, so we first lay down the close-cell pad and then the air mattress atop it. This configuration is warm and comfortable and since the foam lies on the snow it never accumulates moisture. When we felt ambitious or the resources were available, we would cut spruce boughs and lay them down under the pads. For the most part, we have found this to be an unnecessary step.

I used a ¾ Therma-Rest, Z pad and a full length Therma-Rest, Neo-Air. Kim used a full length Ridge Rest and a ¾ Neo Air. Having at least one full-length pad is important because this ensures your sleeping bag is completely off the snow.


Body types and metabolism vary widely – this is very apparent between Kim and I. Often I am sweating and removing layers while she is adding another and cracking a hand warmer. Knowing specifically what clothing to bring is something everyone has to discover for themselves and trial and error is the only answer. However, there are some basic ideas that we both adhere to.

Layering is the primary strategy. Being ready to remove layers before you become too hot or adding them when getting cold should become instinctual. I have found that the outer shell can be very thin and light as long as it’s windproof. Raingear, for me, is way too heavy and I eventually sweat. I use Patagonia Houdini top and bottom and find them to be near perfect. They protect from wind and breathe very well. I like them to be oversized so I can add as many layers underneath as necessary.

Modern hi-tech fabrics are amazing and getting better all the time but traditional Alaskan clothing also has its place on our trips. We both use fur mittens, fur saddle covers and ruffs. When the wind is blowing and it’s really cold nothing works as well as fur. I used wolverine for the ruff on my windbreaker, seal mittens and beaver saddle cover. Kim used wolf for her ruff, beaver mittens, a sheepskin saddle cover and a rabbit fur hat. A remarkable feature of fur is that moisture freezes onto it but rather than permeate, it breaks off and is as good as new without excessive care.

Proper footwear is tremendously important for winter cyclists. The basic idea we employ begins with a thin, wool liner sock, knee high vapor barrier sock, thick wool sock, insulated boot and a waterproof mukluk. This system keeps moisture out of the insulation from both outside, e.g. overflow and from within, e.g. sweat.

One very important consideration when fitting boots is that they are not tight fitting. Frostbite is often the result of poor circulation and tight boots are to be avoided at all costs.


My $20 thrift store sewing machine has proved to be one of the most valuable tools I own. Before embarking on our trip, the kitchen table was transformed into a sweatshop as I labored over clothing modifications, new mittens, hats and bags for the bike. For our bikes I sewed frame bags that fit within the main triangle of the frame. I sewed them to be as wide as possible without colliding with knees, while riding.

Before we left, we sent 9 food drops along our route that each contained roughly 5 days worth of food. Fitting the bulk of that food into the frame bag was the goal. We also use ‘feed bags’ on our handlebars for our daytime snacks. Beyond needing a little more capacity, the ‘feed bags’ are great in their ease of access for eating on the go.

We each used one rear rack and had one dry-bag strapped atop of it. Mine contained clothing and the shelter. Under the rack, I strapped the snowshoes and on the side I carried the small tool kit. On the handlebar, I used a harness system, of my own design, which carried a double end dry bag that I made from waterproof flooring of an old tent. This dry bag contained my sleeping bag, down parka, down vest and insulated over pants. Openings on both ends of the dry bag is useful, as I would pack the sleeping bag in the middle and would stuff down over garments on both ends. If I needed one or both layers, the dry bag was still centered and well secured to the harness. On the outside of the harness I sewed wide Velcro straps that held my Z-Rest sleeping pad and another small pouch that carried sunglasses and goggles.

Beyond these bags I carried a ‘gas tank’ bag on the top of my top tube and another small bag below my saddle, on the frame. These bags carried the sewing kit, small parts, twine and odds and ends for field repairs.


Pairing down the tool kit consists of trying to anticipate what might actually happen or go wrong while underway and being reasonably prepared for a flat tire, loose bolts, ripped tent, punctured sleeping pad, etc. etc… You can never be fully prepared for everything that might go wrong but with a few multi-tools and some ingenuity many issues on the trail can be solved.

Beyond spare twine, webbing, buckles and Velcro we also carried a couple spare Voile straps. These straps were in use on our bikes to securely lash snowshoes and snowshoe crampons to the rear rack as well as lashing the ski poles together each night for the center pole of the shelter. The straps also became useful for me when my oversized water bottle cage broke. Without the cage I had no good way of carrying my 64oz thermos. By padding the sharp metal of the broken cage, with a chunk of sleeping pad foam and lashing it back onto the frame with the Voile strap I was able to continue using the cage. These straps have been well proven in temperatures as low as -40º and are both useful and versatile.

Changing tire pressure on a winter bike trip is like changing gears – you do it often depending on conditions. Carrying a decent pump that moves a reasonable volume of air is important. When adding air, I would count how many pumps and after a couple weeks out was in a fine tune with my PSI.

First Aid:

Similar to the tool kit, you can never carry enough First Aid to field all scenarios but you can cover many of the likely solutions in a compact package. For us, analgesics, Band-Aids, skin cream, talcum powder, sunscreen, burn cream, tampax (for big gashes) and an ace bandage are the bulk of our little red kit and thankfully we needed to use it sparingly.

Taking care of skin is a daily chore when the air is dry and windy and the sun reflects off the snow. We used SPF 30 several times a day and in the evening applied Bag Balm. Saddle rash was resolved by using diaper ointment. (Go ahead – laugh.) Talcum powder is useful to help dry feet that have been in vapor barrier socks all day.

‘Prevention is the best medicine’ in general but especially on a long, remote trips. Listening to your body, good nutrition, rest, hydration and early detection of potential problems are important to successful fat-bike expeditions.


Almost every community in rural Alaska has central utilities. As a result, recharging batteries is reasonable. Our technology is fairly sparse but, for us, very important. We carried a DeLorme InReach tracking device, headlamps and cameras.

The InReach tracking device ‘pings’ our location at a set interval and delivers the data to a website with a map. People who want to follow your progress can visit the webpage and see your path and current location. The device allows you to text up to 40 messages a month and ultimately it can be used to send an SOS. Being able to text is a great feature. My thoughts about rescue are to never require one. However, accidents do happen. If you ever were in a dire situation and needed help, texting someone who could call the local SAR would be so much better than hitting the SOS button and having the Air National Guard called out. But if your life depends on it – do it.

We both carried DSLR cameras, one lens apiece, several spare batteries loads of memory and chargers. Photography is very important to me and the weight of a full frame camera is not a burden. If Bradford Washburn could lug around a Fairchild F6, I can carry a Canon 5D. There is a chance that I will never cover that terrain again and I would hate to miss an opportunity to capture a great image. We both carry our cameras in dry bags, on our bodies.

The cameras typically perform well in the cold but it is important when bringing the camera inside to keep it in the dry bag while it warms. Taking it out prematurely will result fogging the glass and sensor. The same is true when going back out. I often leave the camera outside if I am only going in for a while.


Every trip reveals insights, thoughts and ideas to incorporate into the next adventure and even though we felt adequately prepared for this trip there is always room for improvement. Listening to others and sharing advice is a way to save yourself making unnecessary mistakes but experimentation requires a willingness to fail. There is an art to wilderness travel and each discipline comes with its own palette. Winter fat-biking is still a young pursuit, not full of bibles and stuffy codes. Adventure by bike is a noble and elegant way to experience the world. I hope this gear review is helpful.

Full Moon Camping — Creating a Tradition

Posted by on 23 Apr 2014 | Tagged as: trip reports, wilderness kids

Last week, we paddled across the bay for a simple one-night camping trip. The month before, we did the same. This is, I hope, the start of a new monthly tradition.

Lituya flopped in the snow

March — Month One

Snowshoes stomp mazes and paths on the lake.

The little one flops down and asks for a break.

The fluffy white snow is the winter’s last dump,

and sometimes the kid’s a recalcitrant lump.

We’re pulling a sled full of boots, poles and skis,

shoving and tugging it through twisted trees.

Alders are awful, but they are the best

for climbing, big jumps–an imagined bird’s nest.

Up in the branches with dangling legs,

“Can’t come down yet – I’m still warming my eggs!”

Sunset on snowy trees

Moods are improved with some roasted hot dogs

Not much above zero–still sleeping like logs.

Morningtime everyone skis down the hill.

Nothing is perfect, but we’re sure that we will

do it again.

Hermit crab on gooey eggs

April — Month Two

Breaking out boats for the start of the Spring.

Paddling makes it so easy to bring

shovels and buckets and heavy wet fruit,

socks when the water goes over your boots.

Slippery gunnels evading our grabs,

filling a bucket with scuttering crabs.

dam against the tide

Plucking the sand dollars buried in shallows.

Back to the fire for sticky marshmallows.

Tossing on driftwood and roasting a clam,

while Dad shovels sand on his tide-stopping dam.

Creating a game from his own childhood days,

hoping our kids join in as he plays.

Paddle back home as the girl falls asleep,

talking about how we’re eager to keep

this new tradition.

Grass swords

sea star and crab

Why would we — people who have hiked thousands upon thousands of miles, often for months on end — need to create a schedule for going camping? Because, even for us, it takes planning and momentum to get out the door. For a major expedition, the commitment, the schedule, the start date — all of it serves to fight inertia, build momentum, and get us actually out there. On a smaller scale, family commitments and little traditions can do the same thing.

I first got the idea for a weekly hiking day from Damien and Renee (who are currently hiking the AT with their kids). And, though it looks different for us than it did for them, those Friday hikes have turned into a community event that has drawn in other families, that gets us out there even in blizzards, and that my kids happily anticipate every week. So why not for camping, too?

The full moon comes around about once a month, which seems like a good frequency for simple camping trips (aside from larger trips and expeditions). In summer, it lines up nicely with good low tides (actually a day or two later is best, we take it kind of loosely). In the winter darkness, we’ll at least have the moon. And it lets me feel vaguely werewolf-like.

Learning to Ski

Posted by on 01 Mar 2014 | Tagged as: home, wilderness kids

Lituya on skis

“Remember the pizza!” I yelled to Lituya. “Do the pizza if you need to slow down!” She slid down the road another few feet, then spread her legs out until the string between her ski tips caught–pulling her skis into a nice snowplow position. She drifted into the berm and stood there, screeching for me to lift her back into the middle of the road.

“Pizza” is a snowplow, and “French Fries” the parallel position. I picked up the terminology from my friend–our local volunteer ski instructor. He was a little farther up the road, slowly towing a group of four year olds across a flatter spot with a loop of rope off the back of the truck.

kid ski on a snowy road

“Turn before you hit your sister!” I yelled to Katmai. “Pizza” and “French Fries” is the entire extent of my personal ski-instruction knowledge, so I wasn’t sure quite how to tell him to turn. But he figured it out in any case. A little later in the afternoon I was completely surprised to see him carving big S turns all the way down the road by our house–a skill he must have just plucked from the air. Then he turned into the berm, shot over the lip of it, and landed upside down with dangling skis. I ran over to pick him up, before running down the road to catch another little skier.

In some things I’m an expert. Packrafting in the ocean. Multi-month wilderness expeditions.

So when I lead local kids on hikes, I feel more than qualified, brimming with general and local knowledge, passing on a passion I’ve had for decades. At kid ski day, I am passing on passionate ignorance. I lift kids into the truck, click clunky little boots into bindings, pass out poles, lift up fallen children, and cheer on the small crowd of preschoolers as they zip down a snowy road.

It’s amazing to see them learn.

skiing up high – photo Valisa Higman

We live in a steep and mountainous place that is usually snowy for around half the year. I’ve always snowshoed it. I’ve tromped around through the bushes and forests, built snowmen and forts with the kids. But more and more, I’m coming to believe that learning to ski is the best way to enjoy the winter.

On my porch, I have a set of borrowed telemark boots at least two sizes too big. I have borrowed skis, borrowed poles, borrowed skins… Unfortunately, I can’t borrow the skills to go with them.

I cross country skiied as a kid. But this is a world of up and down. So I usually head off for one of the handful of cut swaths that are our only ski runs in this low snow year (the alders never got laid down), and get in over my head. Sometimes I find myself staring down the gullet of something far too steep, side slipping my way down with careful kick turns. Other times, I zip down a trail pounded hard by the snowmachines, skiing into the bushes as my only way to slow down. Or I find myself plowing ahead in soggy melted snow, utterly incapable of turning the skis. And there are times when none of this happens. When even I feel a little bit graceful.

Katmai on skis

skis on a hilltop, skier off checking out the wolverine tracks

All the times are fun. High in the mountains with friends, or in my backyard alone. With two little kids, I spend so much time helping them learn and discover new things, that I’d forgotten what it was like to be a beginner myself. To be at the stage where you’re running up against the limits of your skills at every turn. And where you can see yourself improving exponentially at every one of them.

Afternoon Epic — (hiking with kids, and the value of slightly unwise choices)

Posted by on 25 Feb 2014 | Tagged as: home, trip reports, wilderness kids

Two little boys explore a snowy beach

In a notch in a boulder, looking out at the snow

“Whoosh… thump thump thump, THUMP.” The stand of narrow spruce trees let loose another shower of snow. I squirmed between them, brushed a handful of snow off the back of my neck, and picked my way over the last few devil’s club and alders–back to where the trio of kids was eating their snack.

“OK kids…”

Flopped next to the sled that held their tiny discarded snowshoes, they had pulled off mittens in favor of fistfuls of crackers and brownies, looking decidedly unenergetic. The kids were 3, 4, and 5 years old, and had spent the past hour alternately dawdling and whining their way down the unplowed road to the trailhead we had finally reached. It was 3PM.

“…I checked out the trail, and…”

This is where a sensible mom would have said “…it’s too far.” Or too tangled. Or too snowy. Or too late in the day. She would have lifted the kids spirits with a fun game that could be played on a snowy road or in the nearby patch of woods, getting a jump start on the trek back to the vehicle. But I am not that mom.

Lituya hiking the snowy beach

“…there’s only a few tangled spots. I think if you guys have a lot of energy from your snack, and want to be strong hikers, we can make it to the beach! But only if you have a good attitude and keep moving.”

Katmai climbs through the notch in the boulder at Barabara Beach

My fellow hike leader joined in with her own hopeful enthusiasm. “See, if you listen, you can even hear the waves! And maybe at the beach we can roast our hotdogs in the fire. But if we go, we have to keep your feet moving the whole time on the trail, OK?”

Katmai immediately insisted on going, and his 4 year old friend was close behind him. Lituya shot me a glance with one of her excellent pouty faces, still sniffling from a cold.

“Lituya, I can carry you,” I conceded. My usual rule was that a 3 year old is too big for that. But my desire to actually make it to the beach trumped any desire to train up my littlest hiker.

I plowed on, Lituya clutched awkwardly against my chest as I ducked beneath the overhanging branches, my snowshoes packing a trail for the kids behind me.

“It’s like an avalanche!” one of the boys exclaimed as we sat down to slide the last steep hill, plowing the wet snow into lumpy piles with the seats of our snowpants.

And there was the ocean. Snow blurred the air.  It erased the far shore of the bay, and turned the one visible boat into a distant ghost. It frosted the top of every beach cobble and driftwood log. It drifted into our tracks.

Beach explorations are a little different in winter

The kids wriggled back and forth through the narrow slot that cuts a tunnel in one of the largest boulders. Then they ran back to the campfire over the snowy rocks.
“I haven’t found ANY fossils!”

Fire on the beach–a key part of winter kid hikes

They hadn’t found any sea stars either. Or seen any salmon in the creek. In the snowstorm, the beach was stark and monochrome—more dramatic, less playful than on a summer outing. It drew us all closer to the fire, where the kids dangled hotdogs in the flames and ate them half raw, half charred.
I tried not to look at my watch. The kids had earned the destination. And they’d have to earn the way back, sooner than any of us might want.
Usually, I don’t get much exercise on kid hike days. But three year olds are heavy. They become even heavier when asleep, and heavier still when carried like a sack of flour up a steep snowy hill, carefully ducking under waist-level branches. The bigger boys were on their own.

“I don’t want to walk anymore!” the 4 year old sulked.

Starting a hot dog roasting fire on a snowy beach

“OK, so do you want to sleep here in the snow?”

Sometimes, it’s nice to have the difficult truth on my side. It’s easier to win the argument when there really is no other option.

It was all uphill to get back. It was number games and distraction and holding hands in the snow.

Back at the truck, I apologized for my misguided route idea — for misjudging our speed and of the depth of the snow. My fellow leader shrugged it off. “I think it has to work out that way sometimes. It’s good to have an adventure.”

The kids will remember that they could do it after all. They’ll remember the snow on the waves and the icy caves. They’ll have a story to tell. We all need an occasional afternoon epic.

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