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.


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.


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


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


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

Writing Without Walls (an essay on writing, parenthood, and life for NW Book Lovers)

Posted by on 17 Sep 2013 | Tagged as: book, Expeditions, home, wilderness kids

I write in the dark.

Erin and sleeping Lituya in the snow

Cross-posted on NW Book Lovers

I write with a pencil on a stack of Rite-In-The-Rain paper, awkwardly bound by wire. I write in an ugly printed scrawl. Huddled in my sleeping bag, I write to the accompaniment of my husband’s snores, and my childrens’ gentle sleeping breaths. I write to the hiss of blowing snow on nylon walls. I write as my toddler daughter crawls onto my lap to chew the paper. I write as my eyes close, falling asleep in the middle of a sentence. I write with hands dusted grey with glacial silt, and smelling of campfire smoke.

I squish mosquitoes onto the page. My stories share space with their bloody smears, with notes on tides and bush pilots and slashes tallying pounds of food. That notebook and pencil are some of my most precious possessions, in a backpack pared down to only the precious and necessary.

A month of journeying creates about twenty thousand words. I’ve written for 800 hundred expedition nights, and 8000 thousand miles of expedition wandering. All those years of wandering fill a cardboard box to overflowing. They become, laboriously, digital. Eventually, pieces of those stories find their way into the pages of a book.

I have a writing habit, and an adventuring habit. A habit of living on the edge of nowhere. And a habit of doing things that look, at first glance, to be impossible.

They are merely improbable.

Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska

“We left the whistling marmots behind. The wolverines. Fish. Berries. Fields of lupine and the rain-filled craters left by bears digging for their roots. Finally even the last of the alder bushes were behind us. The last ptarmigan droppings. The last moss. And then one last pile of bear scat, far out on a barren moraine. The rainbow of the living world had shrunk to black, gray, and white, pocked with holes of radiant turquoise. We had entered the ice.

“It began with Hig in the tent, stuffing a dry bag to the brim with eight- inch-long sticks, sawed from the dead branches of the last clump of alders we found. With me, gathering every object we owned from its improbable resting place—scattered by the storm’s whirlwind of tent-bound kids. Sleet fell on our roof with a distinctive heavy hiss, coating moss and rocks in patchy white. Miles behind and a few hundred feet above us, there was nothing but snow. It buried the burrows of marmots and the berries Katmai had searched out with such enthusiasm. The inexorable march of autumn was chasing us down to the sea.

“It began with one foot in front of the other, wedging my paper-thin shoe into crevices between moraine cobbles while Lituya napped on my chest. The shoe was only a sheath of fluorescent green mesh, nearly transparent to the blades of rock and chill of ice. It was designed for “barefoot running,” and I imagined a young, shorts-clad woman speeding over a mountain trail, unburdened by tents or babies. I loved the agile, slipper-like feel of the shoes, which added a tiny bit of grace to a system otherwise totally lacking it. But they weren’t built for a hundred miles of broken rock, and by the end of the trip, patches of Hig’s careful weaving nearly engulfed the muddy and faded fabric. In a similar pair of shoes, Hig was manhandling the packraft-bike wheel cart over the lumpy and shifting rocks, searching for smoother ground. My shoulders groaned just a little under the weight of the pack, which I knew would turn into a resounding complaint in a few hours. Neither the shoes, the raft, nor the packs were meant for what we were putting them through. Nothing ever was.

“It was just another camp move.”

—from Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska

Far from the glacier edge, we camped on a patch of mud large enough to partially protect our bed from the icy chill of the glacier. Blue ice all around lit the inside of the tent with a bizarre glow.

On that day, we moved camp a few miles across the rock-strewn ice of Malaspina Glacier, one of North America’s largest. On the days that surrounded it–two months of days without a building or road in sight–we moved a hundred. We carried our home, our food, our boat, and our two young children–through forests that grew on ice, around deep blue crevasses, and over surf-washed boulders.

I carried my notebook. I wrote in the dark, sometimes without even a headlamp, as the ideal of “solar power” ran up against the reality of “Alaska November.”

Before that, I carried my notebook along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, through driving rain and hair-raising bear encounters, eating whale blubber in villages eroding into the sea. We only had one child then–I carried him on my back, opposite my bulging pregnant belly.

Before children, I’d always believed that parents must straddle a wall–kid stuff on one side, adult stuff on the other, and babysitters the only way to cross between them. But there is no wall. I don’t need to write only for parents, because I don’t need to live only as a parent. We journey as a family, to places few adults have ever set foot, collecting experiences that would be amazing for anyone.

At home, I packed the notebooks away in their cardboard box. I don’t need them here. My home is waterproof. Digital friendly.

It is also, in modern America, improbable.

A heavy dump of wet snow brings the accumulation at the yurt up to 4 and a half feet.

“Life in the yurt is life in a single, crowded room. When I work, I sit with my laptop on a table that doubles as a surface for family dinners, starting seedlings, squishing playdough, and sewing gear. Our sink drains into a pipe that empties into the bushes. The faucet does nothing. Wind rattles the flexible walls. Rain drums loudly on our fabric roof, replaced in this season by the shuddering crashes of sliding snow. We heat the space with already dead trees, first chainsawed by Hig, then dragged across the snow in a heavy black sled, crushing the prints left by his snowshoes. Finally, they are split, stacked, and fed into the woodstove at the center of the yurt. A hundred yards up the driveway, Dede lives in a small cabin not much bigger, and similarly lacking amenities. A tiny heated shed just large enough for a bed serves as the guest quarters on the compound. Panda, Dede’s enthusiastic black lab/collie mix, runs freely between the buildings. Our outhouse is a stone’s throw away, across the trail. A stone’s throw in the other direction, our water comes from a ten-foot-deep well.

Chips flew from the ice axe as I widened the hole that had refrozen overnight, lowering a glass jar on a string and dipping water into a bucket, while Katmai watched from the wrap on my back. Brute labor for a simple glass of water. It painted a pioneering picture that I tried to shrug off, explaining that a well casing, a lid, and a pump lay somewhere in our future—somewhere in a long list of tinkering improvements that haunts any homeowner’s dreams.

At our yurt, the lights come on with the flip of a switch. The trail that forms our front yard is also a utilities right-of-way, where powerlines run up the hill to a communications tower nine hundred feet above us. The internet comes on with similar ease, a receiving dish high on a spruce tree enabling everything from research to web meetings to streaming movies. We live in that 450-square-foot room, and we work in it too, doing writing, consulting work, and science, in a bizarre combination of rustic and modern life.”

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

That yurt sits in Seldovia, Alaska, in a village of a few hundred people that no one can drive to. Those still exist, in Alaska. Not in the suspenseful music and rapid scene cuts and amped-up “tough men versus the wild frontier” sense of the reality TV shows. But in a quieter kind of normal, where hauling firewood and catching fish and picking berries still are important, and normal. And where cell phones and airplanes are normal too.

Rural Alaska taught me that, like in parenthood, most of the walls that divide our lives are imaginary. The walls that separate career from hobby, physical from intellectual, technophiles from luddites, modern from old-fashioned… We don’t need any of them.

Small Feet, Big Land is a story of many journeys. Dramatic human-powered journeys to the remote edges of Alaska, and also the journey to parenthood, to a home and community, and to understanding and shaping the future of them all.

Erin Mckittrick is the author of Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska as well as A Long Trek Home. Mckittrick and her husband Hig are among the founders of Ground Truth Trekking, a nonprofit which seeks to educate and engage the public on Alaska’s natural resource issues. Mckittrick will be visiting bookstores in the region through September and October as part of her book tour.

A Necklace of Nets

Posted by on 04 Sep 2013 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Fishing, Heart of Alaska, trip reports, Uncategorized

Katmai pokes the harvest of razor clams

(Redoubt Bay to Chisik Island)
The dog hunted clams. Nose and paws buried in muddy sand, pulling the shells with her teeth. She didn’t eat them, but left them for her owner to pick up and cook, like a truffle-hunting pig.

We hunted them too. Squelching towards the sea across a mile of flats, past glacier-dropped boulders, over the curlicue tracks of crawling isopods. I bent over with Lituya still on my back, elbow deep in the mud, fingers scraping as fast as I could go. The trick was to pinch the tip of the razor clam just right, not quite hard enough to break it, but hard enough to fight against the suction of its attempted escape, digging with my other hand as I slowly drew the clam out of its hole.

Weaving between glacial erratics on the sand and mud flats, searching for clams

Just one more, just one more, until the pot and cup were full and they were piled on the rock beside them, squirting jets of water towars the fascinated kids. Pulling food from the great wild world was exciting. And the muddy chase for a clam was more exciting than the nettles and fiddleheads and petrushki we usually caught.

We ate clams. We ate beach greens and noodles. And whenever we could, we ate fillets of gifted salmon. The clam-digging dog belonged to a family of salmon setnetters–the ninth such household we’d visited on our journey.

Setnetters encircle Cook Inlet, in a necklace of shacks and buoys and enthusiastic families. In winter, we sat on couches with east side setnetters, while they recounted their battles with drifters and dipnetters over disappearing kings. Battles the west side fishermen watched, but were grateful to be separated from. In spring we visited newly opened cabins. In summer, we ate their fish. And anything else they put in front of us.

Gifted salmon (from Cook Inlet setnetters) cooking over a fire

A setnetter processes a bit of the catch

We had cinnamon rolls and coffee at a cabin surrounded by Mount Redoubt’s mudflows, showing off the packrafts. We beachcombed with the clam-digging dog and her owners, pausing for a hot dog roast at the Harriet Point sand flats that they called “Hawaii.”

The necklace had gaps–wide stretches of coastline without buoys or boot tracks. In between the setnet camps, we spent half an hour trying to launch the rafts at the new mouth of the Drift River, knee deep in liquifying sand, plunging and pullging and floating and grounding on the way to an improbably distant ocean. We pulled rafts and kids and gear across a mile of sticky mud as the light dimmed past midnight, around yellow-orange worms which sucked in like uncurling tongues as our feet shook the ground. Hig walked it barefoot. Trying to avoid the clamshells. Unable to avoid the chill of the icy stream. Earlier that day, his shoe had torn so catastrophically that it would no longer hold on his foot.

It was a shoe, sort of, before the Drift River got it. After the Drift River, it was more repair than shoe

Hiding from the heat in a scented cottonwood bower

In between the setnet camps, we crunched through a drift line of wave-rounded pumice. We picnicked beneath cottonwood trees that arched over the beach, the smell of their resinous buds draping us in shady sweetness. The kids splashed and waded in the creeks, happily soaking. We followed lines of huge wolf prints at the top of the beach, and hunted for leaf fossils in the sandstone boulders. We nearly ran out of the sunblock we plastered on our red-headed child. The seemingly endless stretch of sun and heat erased the memory of April blizzards, of days pretending to be mammoths, and puffy clothing that was never quite enough to cut the chill.

All the struggles and all the idyllic days brought us to a Chisik Island setnet camp, where both my kids spent an hour engulfed by the hand-filled washing machine, plucking our swirling clothes from washer to spinner to rinser. I sequenced them carefully, cleanest to dirtiest, loading each armful in in turn. The more I put in, the more the swirling brown water looked like Cook Inlet itself.

A fishing skiff motors past a crowd of wheeling seabirds

We spent more than a day with this family of setnetters, Paula and Jon and their two kids, chatting and boating and baking. We cooked hot dogs on a beach as puffins and gulls launched themselves from the cliff above us. I smoothed a mound of clay being transformed into a pizza oven, and smoothed the fur of the voles tamed by the family’s 12 year old daughter. The whole day was one of our highlights.

Their life was like ours. Difficult and wonderful all rolled up into one transformative experience. An idyllic and struggle-filled family vacation.

Child labor is the best thing that I have to say about the setnetting industry. It was often the best thing they had to say about it themselves. How they’d grown up hauling fish, or how their children had, or sometimes both.

The kids scored snacks from a family of setnetters near the Drift River

It sounded like the stereotype of the way things used to be. Kids growing up “learning the value of hard work,” “contributing to the family,” and “building character.” But there was something very real there. The places were real. Wild and real and subjecting the people in them to real issues, depending on solutions that would work beyond a piece of paper. And the work was real. So many of us spend so much time immersed in environments designed by people, for people, that we may never know what real is. We, and they, try to give our kids something different. And they spoke of all of it so fondly. The fish slime, the waves, the work, the clean break from the rest of the year…

The overwhelming sentiment was one of joy and privilege–feeling lucky to have this life, and worried that the job and culture might disappear.

Bruce, Drift River: “I hope the fish resource will still be here…”

Setnet camp on Chisik Island

Don, Harriet Point: “The reason I came here is the spirit of Alaska–that homesteader mentality. And seeing that degrade… You expect it on the road system, but if it starts disappearing in the rural areas too, then we’ll be just like everywhere else. And I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Paula, Chisik Island: ” I think fossil fuels will change a lot. The prices. If the price keeps going up, eventually it won’t be worth it to send a tender out here anymore, and then there’s no way it would be profitable to run an operation like this out here. But with new technology…? Maybe there’s hope. Maybe someday I’ll be out here cruising around in an electric boat that can haul fish, instead of just people in Los Angeles.”

At the moment, the resource we were most concerned about was diapers. We were paddling all around Tuxedni Channel, searching for a resupply box gone awry, replacing (after our visit to the latest setnetters) moss-stuffed diapers with paper-towel stuffed ones, while we sought out the rest of our supplies–heading towards a world where cliffs and bears guarded every inch of shore, and nearly all human settlements disappeared.

Lituya emerges from a cave on Duck Island near Chisik Island

Puffins launching from a cliff on Duck Island

Leaf fossil in sandstone near Redoubt Point

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

New blades of grass spring through cracks in the mud on the edge of a slough

Erin ties a shoe on the glassy mudflats, covered with only an inch or two of water

Wolf tracks going into a sandstone cave

On the Anticline

Posted by on 12 Aug 2013 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Fossil fuels, Heart of Alaska, Issues, southcentral alaska, trip reports

Oil rigs in Trading Bay

We were standing on the anticline. An invisible fold in the rocks beneath Cook Inlet, cupped upwards to trap the seeping oil, and marked by a line of oil platforms. The oil was hundreds of millions of years old, the rock tens of millions of years old, and the platforms had stood only a few decades. At that spot in Trading Bay, midway between Shirleyville and the Kustatan Peninsula, four platforms obscured eachother in a line, each claiming a territory along the straight ridge of the anticline.

Then we squelched away across the mud, parallelling the shore. Shore was a fairly abstract concept. The solid line our map drew between white and blue–land and sea–was nothing but a gentle gradient from muddy grass, to grassy mud, slippery mud, sandy mud, and the mud beneath the waves.

Track left by the raft sledding across the mud

Lituya displays her new attire of Trading Bay mud

We watched the oil platforms as they slowly started to spread apart in our view, discussing their strange gothic aesthetic, charming variety of shapes, and how perfect they would look cast as fortresses in some post-apocalyptic movie. Monopod was the clear favorite, almost cute with its single ponderous foot and trio of cranes bristling from the top.

Unlike most of Anchorage, the platforms were on our map. The oldest of them have been here since the 1960s–before Prudhoe Bay–when Alaska had only a third as many people as it does today.

My packraft was a sled, tied by a string to my fanny pack, loaded with gear and mud and a napping Lituya. It dragged behind me in a few inches of water, sliding on mud the texture of softened butter, up and down through the narrow sloughs that dissected the flats. My shoes had traction. Katmai’s didn’t, and he perfected his skate-skiing technique as he walked, joyously sliding through the mud.

Ducks in shallow water at trading bay, near oil rigs.

Our life was full of mud. Our mud was full of life. The piles of worm poop the kids pointed out. A film of algae turning the flats gray-green. Endless bird tracks that blurred together across every square inch above the tide. Young arrowgrass shoots a few inches high, bright green beneath the dried stalks that served as Lituya’s toys. Seals left their clawed tracks along steep muddy banks they used as haulouts. We left one tiny wool sock–sucked into the mud off of Lituya’s foot–and (despite me fishing elbow-deep for a good ten minutes) utterly irretreivable.

Human life was mostly confined to either side of the mudflats. Between fish camps and net sites and oil facilities and well-trafficked roads, the West Forelands were nearly suburban–people seeking resources like oil, gas, and salmon. We coveted resources too–dry sand and the box of food we’d sent from Kenai to the Trading Bay Production Facility.

Eating in Hilcorp’s dining room, enjoying the hospitality along the way

Our kids were probably the smallest people ever to set foot in the lunchroom of the oil camp, decorated with complex computer outputs of the facility’s operations, and a trophy from the employees annual silver salmon derby. Katmai and Lituya dripped ice cream onto the tables, while the workers shared stories of their own families on the other side of the Inlet. Most of them had outlasted several owners, and were currently employees of Hilcorp, which was creating a mini oil and gas boom in Cook Inlet by reworking wells that others had abandoned.

Oil runs Alaska. Oil was a theme that flowed through the answers we heard about Alaska’s future.

“Oil came here first. And Kenai was developed on oil. Before that, it was just a wide spot in the road with a couple of homesteads. There weren’t that many people here, and they didn’t do much. Lived off the land and worked on the DEW line.”–Jim, Kenai

Packrafting down a Trading Bay slough, with an oil rig in the misty distance

“Maybe the oil companies will have chosen new leaders for us by then. Or maybe we’ll run out of oil and the Okies and Texans will leave and we’ll be back where we started. When we wrote a good consitiution. There won’t be so many people then. This state was a better place before oil.”–man on the beach, Kasilof

“…Oil is fungible. It’s a global market, with the same price wherever it comes from. So why should we drill ours (ANWR) now for others to sell it? And in my line of work, I’ve seen and cleaned a lot of oil sites. And 10 years ago is so much cleaner than 20 years ago and 50 years ago. How clean will it be in 50 more years?”–David, Kenai

A boat working salmon nets along the shore of the Kustatan Peninsula, near oil rigs.

“I’m not a big fan of the oil companies. I don’t like seeing that rig out there. If there’s an accident… The gas line goes right through here–right next to the house. And it’s been 10 years. And no one in town is hooked up. I remember when they held all those meetings and how everyone was going to have gas. And 10 years later the only buildings hooked up are the school and the post office and the government.”–Gary, Ninilchik

Even the news goes back and forth, with stories about gas shortages in Cook Inlet alternating with stories of new discoveries. No one seems sure about the future of oil and gas in Cook Inlet’s next ten years, much less the next few generations.

We stepped off the road at Trading Bay, back on the beach, where a worker stooped down with a paper cup, collecting pretty pebbles for his fish tank back home.

I wished I could collect them myself, somehow scooping enough pebbles to stretch a path across the tens of miles of Redoubt Bay mud that awaited us.

Kids play in the mudflats as they steam in the sun

Looking along the coast past Shirleyville and western Cook Inlet mountains

Hig and Katmai slide across the Trading Bay mud, packraft in tow with the gear

Hig pulling the raft across a slough in the Trading Bay mudflats

Redoubt Volcano rises over the misty mudflats

Seagulls fly on the Trading Bay flats, oil rig in background

Seaside Marmots

Posted by on 07 Aug 2013 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Heart of Alaska, southcentral alaska

This marmot hung out at our campsite for nearly an hour at Rocky Cove

I’ve heard them called whistle-pigs. Or bear milk duds. Marmots are the piercing whistles that burst out from boulder piles along many an alpine ridge. They are the fuzzy, chubby guinea pig-like rodents, posing on rocky ledges. They are almost unreasonably cute. And we spent our whole trip searching for them.

Jumping away from strict chronology here, this post is on some of the work we were doing with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation along the way, cross-posted on their blog. Stay tuned for the next installment of our journey in a few days

For coastal marmots.

Why did we care?

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure at first.

Hig: “There’s a researcher who’s really excited about us looking for coastal marmots around the inlet. Says our trip is perfect for it.”
Erin: “Is there even any such thing as a coastal marmot?”
Hig: “Well, I know there was one that lived at White Rock Beach when I was a kid, but I always thought he was kind of a fluke.”
Erin, shrugging: “I guess we can keep our eyes out.”

Ice frosted the cliffs of outer Cook Inlet. Blizzards battered us along the rocky shores of southern Kachemak Bay. In the bitter cold of March and April, we forgot about the marmots. If they existed at all, they were surely hibernating.

Hoary marmot pups in their coastal burrow

We forgot about them through the sandy bluffs of the Kenai Peninsula, and the vast marshy mudflats of upper Cook Inlet. And by the time we started seeing the ground squirrels in Ursus Cove, I’d given up on seeing them at all.

The researcher, Link Olson, had gotten in touch with us through Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC). It’s an organization that started up just a few years ago, linking adventurers going to interesting places with scientists who need data from those places.

It’s hard for adventure to make time for science. Hig and I have worn both those hats. And while we observe and learn a tremendous amount on each of our journeys, it’s far more quantitative than qualitative. It’s hard to take careful measurements if you can’t afford the weight of the tools, and need to get around that next point before the tide rises. The goal of getting everyone from A to B in one piece takes priority, and every additional goal (writing, photography, science, video) has to fight for its place. Even on this journey, we had some failure–taking water samples from glacial rivers, in circumstances where we couldn’t get them back to the appropriate lab in time to be analyzed.

A lake dammed off from the ocean near Ursus Cove

The first marmot was sent as an emissary, the morning after I’d finally declared my disbelief in the concept of coastal marmots. I raced across beach greens and logs in my socks, grabbing the camera to photograph it posing on a ledge just above my mother’s tent. It surveyed us from the ledge for most of the morning, then eventually scurried off down the beach, scrambling, swimming, and backtracking as it struggled with the high tide. I’d never seen a marmot swim.

The marmots became like treasure hunting. I always love seeing wildlife. But the idea that someone cared about these marmots specifically–that he was looking to us for proof of their existence in remote spots that others might not get to–made it all the more fun. We didn’t get much. But a few days later, we took the first photos of sea-level marmot pups.

Marmot on Sea Cliff

What will this lead to? Summarizing from Link’s emails: Hoary marmots are generally thought of as being restricted to alpine habitats. But in Alaska, they’re not. How have they managed to occupy such a different habitat? How widespread are these coastal dwellers? And, since alpine ecosystems are the first to be impacted by climate change, what can these coastal marmots teach us about the resilience and adaptability of alpine animals?

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