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.

Octopus

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.

Saws:

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.

Clothing:

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.

Bags:

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.

Tools:

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.

Technology:

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.

Summary:

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.

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

Posted by on 14 Feb 2014 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Heart of Alaska, wilderness kids

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 fifth birthday (today), Lituya’s third (last month), and my fifth year as a wilderness parent. (Read First Year in the Woods, Second Year in the Woods, Third Year in the Woods, and Fourth Year in the Woods).

Climbing the alders

“This is my horsie, and I need to ride him a little more,” my daughter informed me, bouncing up and down on an alder branch as I shook the tree, the tips of her boots just brushing the snow. Somewhere beyond us, I listened to the crunch of small snowshoes, disappearing down the hill, across the tiny creek, and then up the other side.

“Mom! I need to pee!” my son yelled from somewhere out of sight in the forest.

“Can you handle that yourself?!” I yelled back.

“Yeah!”

The crunching sounds paused for a minute. Meanwhile, I’d coaxed Lituya down off that particular alder branch, and she was busy climbing up another–on track to catch up with her brother maybe sometime next week. How could I hurry her along!?

Lituya explores mud covered rocks along Turnagain Arm

Piles of moose droppings like this proved very fascinating to Katmai and Lituya.

I began to open my mouth into an impatient ultimatum. Then I shut it again. Katmai had asked me which patch of forest we were heading to, and then he’d snowshoed right to it. He would be fine playing until we got there.

Last year’s time in the woods was all about passion–passing on an obsession with big adventure to Katmai, while working to help Lituya love the cold and slippery world beyond our walls. This year has been about competence and habit, growing into a life where the outdoors is simply a given.

After all, we spent more than a quarter of the year outside. We left home at the end of March, to walk and paddle 800 miles around Alaska’s Cook Inlet. We were gone for three and a half months. We navigated blizzards and mudflats, cliffs and bears, fish camps and busy streets. My son hiked hundreds of miles. Meanwhile, I wiped his bottom, tied his shoes, and carried his sister.

Wind-driven cold snow coats a tide flat on Kachemak Bay.

Habit

Repetition builds a habit. Habits build a life. Staring out my window at the volcanoes on the other side of Cook Inlet, I can hardly believe we walked there. In the view, it seems so large and grand. In my memory, it’s a series of snapshots–some harrowing, some mundane, some magical. Just a hundred little days outside.

A warm day and Katmai kept dropping layers until he was shirtless, and this inspired trail running.

For the kids, it was as normal as anything. Wake up, eat breakfast, play as mom and dad pack, then start traveling along the coastline. Sometimes on foot (or on mom’s back for Lituya), and sometimes in the raft. Later you play, eat, and travel some more. You throw rocks, draw in the sand, watch beluga whales, and jump off logs. You repeat this pattern until camp time, then ‘help’ with the tent stakes and firewood.

Readying for a surf launch on the Iniskin Peninsula

And of course it wasn’t normal. You were a mammoth, stomping through snow in the coldest ice age. You screamed at a blizzard and retreated into the forest, huddling by the stove while mom and dad saved you the last of the food, rationing until some better day to travel. Hand-in-hand with dad, you jumped from ice floe to ice floe across a slough in a massive mudflat. Landing in surf, you were dunked in the ocean. You watched the bears fish. You climbed a mountain.

Tent bound in a Kamishak Bay storm

Back at home, my kids don’t wake up begging to go outside (at least not in February). Or begging not to (except for the usual grumble and dawdle over snowpants and coats and mittens and boots). I don’t think it’s occurred to them that the plan would ever change. We go out pretty much every day, in snow or rain or sun, for an hour, or two, or three. To the woods, to the beach, to a snow-covered lake. It’s not exciting, exactly. Just part of how things are.

shaking loose a perched snowman

Competence

We’ve built them a habit. And habits build competence. Lituya has spent around a sixth of her life on expeditions. Katmai, around an eighth. For me, the equivalent would be four to five years of wilderness life (more than twice than the two years I’ve actually spent on expeditions).

And that doesn’t even count our everyday excursions.

Winter play at the beach

“Come on Lituya, we’re almost home!” She shoots me a pouty look, then continues inching up the last steep hill, each crunch of a little red boot marked by an over-long pause.

She climbs, she sings, she plays “mama and baby” animals at every available opportunity. And she gets there. She is slow–often painfully slow. Barely a month into being three, this is the first winter she hasn’t been carried. The youngest walker on every hike, she’s always out with kids a year or two older than her–and always closer than you’d think to catching up.

Ahead of us, Katmai breaks through the snow crust–plunging thigh-deep into a gap between the bushes. “I’m stuck! And I lost my boot!”

Lituya climbing a stump

Both comments were cheerily upbeat, mere announcements of his reality than cries for help. He wriggled himself out, fished his boot back out, put it on, and walked the rest of the way home. Laughing at her brother, Lituya forgot she was supposed to be pouting, and followed along behind him.

Three and five is still very small. But not too small to be competent outdoors people. Soon enough, I hope they’ll be leading me.

Katmai moves through the obstacles in the forest

Katmai wades in the mud on the Susitna Flats

Katmai “fishing” in the waves

Lituya eating beach greens

Lituya emerges from a cave on Duck Island near Chisik Island

Katmai balances on a log to cross one of Redoubt Bay’s many sloughs

The Transition to Walking — the transformation of a toddler to an independent hiker

Posted by on 02 Dec 2013 | Tagged as: wilderness kids

Lituya on Spencer's Butte

Read my guest post today on MommyHiker.com on the transition to walking (aka, getting the nearly three year old to hike instead of being carried). Excerpt below:

“…The pace was crawling.

The rest of our hiking group quickly left us behind. My nearly-5 year old zoomed ahead with his dad and aunt. The other parents hurried to the top with their own young children in a backpack, shortcutting their way to the playing and rock-climbing that could happen at the top.

I understand. The temptation to carry her is overwhelming. It would be so much simpler, so much easier, so much faster. And of course, when she was little, I did just that.

But now she’s almost three. And it’s time to transition to walking…” Read More

Talking about a Climate Change Adventure

Posted by on 12 Nov 2013 | Tagged as: book, events, global warming, Issues

Erin and Hig presenting in Homer to 150 people.

On our latest journey, my mouth has been doing a lot more work than my legs. Our speed has been disconcertingly fast, the traffic has been disconcertingly thick, and when I get a chance to step beyond the van or car or ferry, the pavement beneath my feet has been disoncertingly hard. But that’s OK. Because this journey is about connecting with people–old friends and new.

In the excited milling about that comes after every one of our slideshows, I hear a few new stories: From an 80 year old man who hiked across Malaspina Glacier in 1952, coming across the Duke of Abruzzi’s iron bedstand high in the icy passes. From a scientist who once spent three days on an Alaskan island with 80 pounds of smoked salmon and no other gear, high in a tree while bears circled below. And from dozens, and hundreds, of others.

A fire for warmth on a cold evening car-camping.

And they hear us. Over the past two months since Small Feet, Big Land came out, I’ve been talking to hundreds of people. By the time we’re done, it’ll probably be a thousand, each of whom has spent an hour or so in front of a screen flashing pictures of Alaska, surrounded by a packraft, tent, and scattered hiking gear, listening to us talk about the pull of adventure, about traversing the wilderness at a child’s pace, and about melting glaciers and eroding villages.

The stories of climate change’s impacts in Alaska are a big piece of our presentation. Amid the storms that batter and flood our flimsy tent are the storms that erode entire villages, and entire glaciers. They’re there because we can’t escape them. Because everywhere we’ve walked in Alaska, over a dozen years and 8,000 miles, is being reshaped by climate change.

On our way from Juneau to Sitka, we posed on the back deck of the Taku, as we wound through Peril Straits.

From the man who’d last seen the glacier in 1952, our pictures weren’t even recognizable–rocks and trees covering what he’d rememberd as smooth white ice.

At first, I was hesitant to say any of this. First in the writing, and then in designing the talk. I knew people would enjoy the stories and adventure and the cute muddy children, but were we expecting too much of people to listen to us talk about coal mine proposals and coastal erosion and melting permafrost too?

“Coming out of your talk, I was just beaming… Everyone was just beaming.”

This quote, from a host at one of our presentations, stands in stark contrast to an online comment on a newspaper book review: “Sounds really depressing.” Because in sound bite form, it’s easy to believe that anything that mentions climate change must be depressing.

The kids pose in just their diapers on an unusually warm day, standing on the graveled ice of Malaspina Glacier, Mt. St. Elias in the background.

Katmai follows the ice wall, heading into a cave.

But our audiences don’t seem depressed. They’ve thanked us for addressing climate change. Probably as often as they’ve thanked us for the inspiration. And I remember that the problem usually comes in expecting too little of people, not too much. Looking to the media, it’s easy to believe that humanity is hopeless. Looking to actual people, they generally surprise me with their awesomeness.

Climate change is often framed as something political. But in all of my book, and all of our talks, I’ve never once felt the need to mention the name of any politician or party. We’re just out there presenting reality–muddy, dramatic, harsh, crumbling, wild, gorgeous reality.

And we give them stories they can laugh at. When they scrape back their chairs and rise up at the end of our slideshow, the buzz of conversation and questions feels alive–not depressing. And as a ground truth trekker, I feel a little bit vindicated. Maybe people appreciate reality, after all.

P.S. We have events coming up in Olympia, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Berkeley, and Corte Madera

Multigenerational Backpacking — Where the Bears Meet the Sea.

Posted by on 04 Nov 2013 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Heart of Alaska, southcentral alaska, trip reports, wilderness kids

Three generation adventure

(Cook Inlet Expedition: Chisik Island to Cape Douglas)

Two and a half months into our Cook Inlet expedition, the red floatplane lifted off from Spring Point Lake, leaving my mother behind. Now we had three generations traveling together, through a landscape becoming more remote with every step.

Paddling fog and sea stacks

Water beaded up on the remains of the sunblock that greased Lituya’s face, raindrops rolling down her cheeks as she napped in the raft. We’d asked Niki (my mother) to bring sunblock, sun hats, and sunglassess–virtually ensuring that the weather would turn.

On the rugged coast of the Iniskin Peninsula, we were looking for a campsite. Nothing looked good. And everything looked gorgeous. The cliffs were cobblestone roads to the sky–rounded boulders protruding from a matrix of dark grey concrete, rising straight up into the clouds. Waterfalls sheeted over them, spreading into a million strands of white around the dark lumps, rushing down across the entrances of caves. The caves lined the coast like secret tunnels, carved between layers of tilted rock. Seals hid in their openings, and lounged on the green-slicked shelves of low tide. If this coast was anywhere else, it would be written up in glowing terms in every kayak guide, complete with a list of the scant few beaches it might be possible to camp on.

Sea arch from above on the Iniskin Peninsula

But no one was there. And we just had to hope there were beaches to camp on.

The villages and fish camps and oil rigs were gone. The coast was growing sparse with people and thick with bears. Mudflats and tidal currents were pushed aside by steep cliffs, harsher weather, and pounding surf.

Readying for a surf launch on the Iniskin Peninsula

Surf.

How could 10 yards be such an obstacle? Even in the gooeyist mudflats or the most tangled alder thickets, ten times that goes by in the time it takes to utter a single paragraph of complaints. But a band of surf could stop us for hours, or days, or simply send us on our way doused in cold ocean waves.

A packraft can bounce through more than most people imagine. But it can’t cut through anything, and getting it off the beach across a line of breaking surf is an exercise in luck, timing, and often futility. Kids only multiply the complication. How to set a kid in the boat, jump in, arrange everyone so paddling is possible, then escape into deep water before the next set of big waves?

Surf roiling against the base of the sea arch

We tried everything, finally settling on a complicated system where three boats launched a total of five times. I would launch across the surf in the smallest wave I could find, take a minute to get situated, then paddle back in as quickly as I could in the next small set. Meanwhile, Hig would be standing on a boulder or in the waves, kid held out in front of him, ready to drop the child in my boat when I arrived. The trick was to escape again, quickly, before the next wave came. Niki would repeat the process with the second kid. Finally, Hig would go out alone. Sometimes we would switch roles. Sometimes we would capsize in the attempt–once each on the course of the journey. More often, waves would swamp the boat on the way out or in. Sometimes, we couldn’t make it out at all.

Katmai “fishing” in the waves

That wasn’t entirely a bad thing. Hig and I spent our tenth anniversary watching the surf, camped on a gravel bench beneath the vaulting ceiling of a cavernous sea arch. It was as long as a football field, as high as a three-story building, and so wide a daring pilot could easily fly a plane straight through to the other side.

Outside the arch, messy waves hit messy waves, until the ocean became a hungry mouth of white-tipped teeth. Sea spray blew across our spit. We gathered logs, burned them, and then gathered some more, dancing around the shifting stream of smoke. The sea arch kept the rain off, but as we huddled against the damp chill of Kamishak Bay, the summer solstice celebration felt more like a winter solstice bonfire.

It was only the adults doing the huddling. Katmai ran down to the edge of the water, standing patiently as white foam sloshed around his ankles, dipping his driftwood ‘fishing rod’ in the waves and sprinting back up the beach to deliver a silver salmon or an octopus to some interested grownup. Lituya picked up pebbles as ‘medicine,’ curing us all of imaginary ailments.

Iniskin Peninsula cave

The cathedral was dramatic, spacious, and almost entirely intertidal–only a narrow shelf of gravel above the latest swash line. We were pretty sure we’d puzzled the tides correctly. But as the midnight high approached, I listened as rolling cobbles crept closer and closer, hoping our calculations were correct.

Next to me, Lituya was a writhing black cocoon–entirely hidden her sleepng bag. Occasionally, a tiny hand would protrude from the narrow opening, expelling a fist-sized cobble or grabbing a new one from the tent floor. Writing in my journal nearby, I wondered how many rocks she had inside there by now, and when she might finally fall asleep. We hadn’t set up the bear fence. Any bear would have to swim miles of cliffy coast at high tide, swim under a sea arch, and visit our tiny patch of beach remaining. He’d almost deserve the food.

Brown bear on the beach

We’d managed to avoid the bears until mid-June–the cold spring and late greening of the tide flats keeping them high above our coastal route. But we’d picked up our last resupply at a bear viewing lodge. On this remote stretch of lower west Cook Inlet, bear viewing operations were almost the only human signs left.

Soon enough, we were seeing bears everywhere. Occupying every level of the ecosystem from detritus-feeder through top predator, bears seemed to BE the entire ecosystem. Used to living shoulder to shoulder with eachother, they seemed unconcerned with our passing. And with three adults, three cannisters of pepper spray, two flares, and an electric fence, we were more than protected on the open beaches.

Niki and waterfall

We had three adults for a month, sharing our expedition with Niki. And it was hard on all of us. I like having company. But though we’ve often invited others to join us on expeditions, we’ve less often had takers, and our unpredictable and sometimes unforgiving schedule hasn’t helped entice them.

But with children, we move at the speed of a nomadic family. We are so much slower now. Closer to an ancient kind of normal. Maybe more approachable.

Tent bound in a Kamishak Bay storm

Yet what we do can still be so very hard. Sometimes, I get so wrapped up in asserting that our way is possible for anyone that I blithely skate across all the difficulties, dismissing them in a couple of offhand comments. It is true that children do well in the outdoors. It is also true that a month of travel down the remote coast of lower west Cook Inlet is not just “taking the kids outdoors.” Kamishak Bay is a stormy, unprotected, and unforgiving coastline. We spent one whole day hunkered in our 8 foot pyramid in a storm, and several others that we might have wished we’d been hunkered down. We paddled for hours and hours on end, when light faded but landing sites were nowhere to be seen. We crossed surf. We capsized in surf. We ran our food down to just popcorn, each “stuck day” paired with a day we had to paddle the packrafts for 15 miles or more. The kids didn’t have to worry about most of this. But the adults couldn’t forget it–and with Hig and I occupied with helping out the kids, we couldn’t smooth the way for my mother. It’s a testament to her toughness and adventurousness that Niki still talked to us at the end of this. Even enjoyed herself.

Aerial view of Seldovia, returning from Cook Inlet

We ended this expedition, 800 miles from its beginning, even more simply than it began. One hop in a float plane, and 3.5 months were erased in a half an hour, dropping in the Seldovia Harbor, almost at our doorstep.

I walked into the yurt, ready to go through my evening ritual of unpacking every object we owned and arranging each one according to a pattern of practicality. Then I looked at the overwhelming number of objects around me–and did nothing at all.

Not quite beating the tide — wading around a cliff in Kamishak Bay

Bears run past the packrafts

Katmai playing in beach greens

Nearing the end – walking towards Mt. Douglas

Lituya eating beach greens

Looking out from a campsite near Iliamna Bay

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