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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

Herring and High Schools

Posted by on 19 Apr 2011 | Tagged as: book, events, southeast alaska, subsistence, wilderness kids

A handful of eelgrass brings a mass of herring roe from the Sitka beaches

Five towns, five presentations, four movie showings, two ferry rides, two long drives, four jets, three pat-downs by airport security, wrangling two carseats into six different vehicles, and sleeping in five different houses… When I first accepted the invitation by the Sitka Library to come for the Sitka Reads event, I just thought it sounded like fun. As our departure approached, and I realized the logistics we’d strung together with two kids in tow, I started to wonder what on earth we were thinking.

But perhaps we’ve been blessed with easy children. We’ve certainly been blessed with wonderful hosts and friends who let us borrow cars and houses and toys, and fed us along the way. And maybe we are just nuts. Whatever it was, it was a good urban adventure. (See the slideshow!)

Guest Speakers, Guest Yellers, Guest Nursers

A well-constructed trail in Sitka provides an adventure for a 2 year old

“Open your eyes mama! Open your eyes!”

Katmai grew louder and more insistent with each uttering, running towards me over the carpeted floor of the Sitka high school library. In the midst of a reading I glanced over at him, widening my eyes dramatically. It worked to quiet him, but only for a moment. Midway through the second presentation in a row, the pile of blocks and toys at my feet were losing their allure. I wasn’t sure if him talking to me was better or worse than when he ran the crowd, stopping to strike up conversation with random students. Cute? Yes. Distracting? Definitely.

Tucked away in a cozy perch, Lituya enjoys the forest scenery

Hig whisked him away into the hallway again, and I continued the presentation. Later, I nursed Lituya while answering questions, sure that our family must be the strangest guest speakers these kids had ever had.

Sometimes we took turns whisking Katmai out of the room, while Lituya napped in the wrap on Hig’s chest. Sometimes we recruited willing volunteers to play with him in the back of the room. It was a relief to go to the movie showings, when we didn’t need to be in the room at all.

During questions, Katmai climbed on the chairs, or ran the aisles to find every child in the crowd. He sat on my lap and signed books with me, placing his distinctive scribble on top of the packrafter on the dedication page. Lituya lay kicking and smiling on a table, attracting a series of grandmothers to coo back at her. After one movie showing that stretched until 11:30PM, I answered questions and chatted with the audience, while nursing the infant and calming the over-tired two year old.

Most adventurers are guys. And most people, whether they’re acting as adventurers, authors, or nonprofit directors, don’t operate as a family team. Sometimes there are no children. And when there are, there’s always someone in the background, some spouse back at some house watching the kids.

Not for us. We are different. We are chaos. For better or worse, we come as a family.

(One bizarre coincidence: When we were presenting to one 7 person class at Mt. Edgecumbe, 2 of the kids had seen us give a talk in their village schools while we were on the trip!)

The Herring Arrive

Photo showing herring eggs laid on the beaches of Sitka in mid-April, 2011.

Flying into Sitka, every bay and island was lined with a mysterious border of frothing white. Foamy white herring spawn rose and fell in the swell, and where the spawn and eggs lay just beneath the water, the ocean glowed a strange bluish green. The beaches, thick with herring roe, turned a golden amber that perfectly matched the color of Katmai’s hair.

Eelgrass on rocks became the waving fronds of a herring egg carpet. Skeins of eggs on kelp washed in with the tide, forming a thick mat on the shore. A thick layer of loose eggs filled the gaps between the rocks. Everywhere we stepped, eggs crunched and popped under our boots.

Photo showing herring eggs laid on the beaches of Sitka in mid-April, 2011.

I ran my teeth along a strand of eelgrass, scraping the raw eggs into my mouth. They were salty, crunchy, and ridiculously abundant. Katmai took to them eagerly, as he has to nearly all food from the sea. At dinner, we were served sushi-like squares of boiled roe – a thin ribbon of green kelp sandwiched between the layers of eggs.

Humpback whales surfaced in a sea of white foam, before diving down for the fish beneath. This was spring in Sitka, all the more dramatic after leaving snow-squalls in Juneau. Plants were budding, grass was greening, and the herring eggs were there for the picking.

Everyone seemed excited by the event of free abundance. We see the same excitement here in Seldovia for salmon and berries. We saw it in the arctic for whales. We’ve seen it in communities across the state. There’s something magical when the natural world provides you with food, something that ties people more closely to the land. For me, seeing the herring run was both amazing and sad.

Spawning herring along the beach turn the water milky and covered in foam.

In Russian, Seldovia (Seldovaya) means ‘herring bay’. Once, we might have seen the same thing at home. Not just a few fish in the lagoon, but an event of abundance – for humans and everything else in the food chain. But the herring here were decimated long ago, victims of overfishing and poor waste control by the processors. And they haven’t come back.

In Sitka, herring are still plentiful. But we heard that they used to run all up and down the coast of the island. There used to be a run in Auke Bay near Juneau. It was a story we heard all through the inside passage when we journeyed through there in 2007 – of all the places that herring were once abundant, only a few remain.

Most herring fisheries (like the one in Sitka) kill the fish to get the eggs. But unlike salmon, herring don’t normally die when they spawn. Is overfishing the cause of their disappearance? Or are other factors involved? And unlike salmon, we heard few stories of herring restoration efforts. What would it take to bring them back?

Forest creature in diapers

This gray whale washed ashore in Sitka, and we saw it under tow headed to a beach where it could be autopsied.

The bud is ready to erupt into spikey spring greens.

Fishing boats fill one of Sitka’s five harbors

Turning the lens on ourselves

Posted by on 05 Apr 2011 | Tagged as: Energy, events, Issues, Uncategorized

In and around the yurt

As Ground Truth Trekking, we spend a lot of time thinking about issues much bigger than ourselves. Large proposals to extract metals or coal, the true costs of this resource extraction, problems with storing waste forever, the impacts of a changing climate… But as people, we use resources, we burn fuels, and we contribute to climate change. What about our own lives? Given that we’re about to give a presentation for an initiative that seeks to reduce household carbon footprints, it seemed like a good time to figure out our own.

Carbon Footprint

Why look at carbon footprint? We have impacts in all sorts of ways, from our use of water to our consumption of metals. But climate change is a present, growing, and increasingly worrisome problem, fueled by our use of fossil fuels. Many people believe we need to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 levels at a point less than where they are now to head off potentially catastrophic consequences for people.

Once a glacier that stretched far down the fjord McCarty glacier has retreated many miles since it was first mapped.

Carbon footprint calculators are fashionable these days, and can be found nearly everywhere. And they all give different results. Some include food, some don’t. Some include stuff you buy, some don’t. They all ask their questions in a slightly different way – air miles or hours? monthly spending or specific stuff you own? And it’s not clear what to include. Do Hig’s fieldwork flights count, or should they be shunted over into “work” (which is generally not counted in any of the calculators)?

I played around with them – adding some numbers from one calculator (one that allowed me to enter small airplane flights) to the answers from a more comprehensive one (that included food and goods). I did include Hig’s fieldwork, and anything else I could think of. Which turned out to give me 16.8 metric tons of CO2/year for our household of 4 people (counting from April 2010 to April 2011).

What does 16.8 tons mean? It’s equivalent to 1900 gallons of gasoline. It’s about 2/5 as much carbon dioxide as the average U.S. household emits (42 tons/yr) but over twice as much as the average world household (8 tons/yr).

Near the edge of Malaspina Glacier, erosion is so rapid that even the bear trails can’t keep up, and forests wash into the sea.

What should the number be? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The target, really, is a level of climate change we’re willing to accept – the limit at which we think things might not be too catastrophic. Any warming (even the warming we already have) will have negative impacts, so this is a value judgment. Many people think that level is a warming of about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Then you have to figure out what the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere needs to stay below to keep us in that “safe zone.” This is a scientific question, dependent on climate models. The current scientific thinking is that this is somewhere close to 350 ppm (we’re at 391 ppm now). So, how do we get there? If you want to get to a stable or equilibrium concentration, you can’t emit any more CO2 than the planet (forests, oceans, etc…) can absorb each year. And to get an actual reduction in concentration, you have to go further. The ultimate answer is that global emissions probably need to end up pretty close to zero eventually. Or faster than that. There is no “right number”, but as a world, the trend needs to be towards dramatic reduction.

What can we do about it?

toddler gardening

To get that number anywhere near zero, we need technology, infrastructure, policy, and culture to come together to accomplish it. Lifestyle can’t do it alone (one study estimated the footprint of even a homeless American as 8.5 tons of CO2/yr). But the sum of all our individual lifestyles is still a big piece of that solution.

Eat differently. Food footprint is kind of a hard thing to calculate, since it depends so much on specifics. And I have only rough guesses how much we spend or eat per month of different types of food. But the calculator took a stab at it, and told me that our eating emitted 4.5 tons of CO2, or 27% of our total. The main thing we could do to improve this is to eat less dairy products. The methane produced by cows is a huge contributor to climate change, and animal foods are more energy intensive than plant foods, since it takes a lot of plants to feed an animal. Meat would be a big factor as well, but we never buy farmed meat, and usually only eat it when a hunting friend gives us some. Our fish is all wild salmon and halibut caught very close to home, so not a lot of fossil fuels go into that. But I do like my cheese and yogurt and butter…

Katmai was less interested in flightseeing than in the cool headphones.

Don’t leave town. Between Hig’s fieldwork, flights to Anchorage, Kotzebue, and Sitka, drives from Homer to Anchorage, and various other bits and pieces, leaving town makes up 42% of our emissions for the year. And since one of our kids now gets his own seat, and the other will follow in a couple years, emissions per trip will only get bigger.

In fact, leaving town dwarfs a lot of things I think of as more stereotypical footprint reducing habits. One person taking one roundtrip flight from Anchorage to Seattle (3000 air miles) is about 1.4 tons of CO2. My entire household electricity usage for our family of four for a year is about 1.5 tons of CO2. Which suggests to me, that despite everything I’ve heard about “electricity vampires”, whether or not I remember to unplug my laptop or turn off my porch light tonight is far smaller than travel choices.

Travel is by far the thorniest issue for us, as I suspect it is for many people. Expeditions are a huge part of our life and work. Hig’s aerial surveys were done to get important data relevant to earthquake risk at the Pebble Mine. One of the things we’re traveling for this month is to talk about climate change, and our next expedition is directed towards that issue as well. We live near some family, but also have family far away, and would like to see them too.

We already combine trips where we can. Fewer expeditions for longer chunks of time minimizes the flights required, and also the logistical chaos. But how to decide if a trip is worth it? If we visit family less, should we also discourage them from visiting us? Or should we encourage it, since it’s usually only one or two people flying, instead of 4?

What about driving, household energy use, etc?

In a land of melting glaciers, this lake, and the land around it, are too new to be marked on any maps.

Another person’s list of what they can do may well be very different than mine. A lot of the low-hanging fruits are things we’ve already done (which is the reason our footprint is smaller than average). We’ve replaced our lightbulbs with compact fluorescent ones, and since we live in a one-room 450 square foot yurt, we never need more than 3 lightbulbs on anyway. Living in a small space, we don’t use much electricity. We heat the yurt with wood (since it’s not a fossil fuel, sustainably harvested wood is carbon-neutral). We work at home, eliminating the commute problem, walk most of where we want to go, don’t own a car, live somewhere where there’s not really anywhere to drive, and carpool about 12 miles a week to get groceries and do errands.

Fall storms hit this coast with less protection from sea ice, leading to rapid erosion.

Why should we bother doing anything about it?

Because climate change is going to be a big problem for a lot of humanity. Droughts, floods, extinctions, erosion, storms, etc… Our whole civilization, from where we place our cities to where we grow our crops, is adapted to the climate as it used to be. Rapid change and unpredictability is going to be much more negative than positive. Here in Alaska, and in polar regions around the globe, it’s warming faster. Impacts on arctic communities are already significant. Rather than just being poster children for the problem, Alaskans should be leaders in solving it.

P.S. Come to our slideshow talk Wednesday in Anchorage, and reduce your own carbon footprint.

Spring Happenings

Posted by on 29 Mar 2011 | Tagged as: book, events, video

April 6-15, 2011; This spring, Hig, Katmai, Lituya, and I will be bouncing around Alaska for a series of events in Anchorage, Cordova, Juneau, and Sitka.

Adventures in a Warming Alaska: Time for a Low-Carbon Diet (April 6, 6PM in Anchorage)

The poster child for climate change is a polar bear stranded on a tiny iceberg, floating in a sea of blue. Or maybe a crowd of walruses on a shoreline, lacking ice to swim to. Or an arctic village washing into the sea…

Alaska, along with the rest of the north, is an early victim of climate change. Warming is happening faster here. Our glaciers and sea ice are melting. Our coasts are eroding. Our permafrost is thawing. Our cold adapted species, from salmon to walruses, are at risk. Across much of the state, climate change is no longer an abstract future problem. It’s a real, current issue.

We don’t as often see the north as the solution to climate change. But who better to lead the effort than the people who are seeing the impacts first hand? And with a small population in control of a great deal of both fossil and renewable energy resources, Alaska is in a good position to do it.

Sea lions on the outer coast, a ways north of Sitka

Taking one step in that direction, Alaska Center for the Environment is starting a new initiative in Anchorage, trying to get 200 households to commit to reducing their own carbon footprint by 5000 pounds in a year, for a total of 1 million pounds.

What does that mean? In total, it’s as much as 50 thousand gallons of gas, 2.5 railcars of coal, or the energy use of 38.5 homes. Climate change is far too big a problem to be solved at the individual level alone. Just being an American, you emit nearly double the world average, through your share of public infrastructure, services, government, and the military. But it’s a start.

Sitka Reads (April 11 6PM movie, April 12, 7PM book slideshow)

In early December, the Copper River Delta was a vast swath of ice floes and slush.

What if everyone in a city read the same book? And what if it was my book? That’s the concept of the Sitka Reads program put on by the Sitka Library – they choose a different author each time and invite them to Sitka for the event. I’m excited to have been chosen! Sitka was a bit too far out on the outer coast for us to stop through on our way to the Aleutians, so this will be our first time visiting.

Whether or not folks have read the book beforehand, the events promise to be fun. I’ll be doing a book reading/slideshow event from A Long Trek Home and a showing of Journey on the Wild Coast as well as visiting the local high schools. The local bookstore is selling the book for 20% off.

Cordova (April 8, 6:30PM movie, April 9, 12PM presentation)

Heading to Sitka, we’re hittiing the spots along the way. Cordova is one of our favorite towns, and we’re happy to have a chance for a brief visit. We’ll be showing the movie and doing a presentation that includes a book reading the following day.

Juneau (April 9, 7PM and 9PM, movie)

The movie plays again in the hometown of our director, Greg Chaney. Everyone loved it the first time, this time see it with Hig and I there for questions!

Ice road paralleling Iditarod trail and Skwentna river.


In other notes, the “Where the Heck is Donlin?” expedition is on hold, paused until spring due to a bad knee, when it will resume as a packrafting trip. So far, the Donlin crew have explored the proposed pipeline route along the Iditarod trail, and the new ice road by the Kiska mining exploration company. If you’re in the area, Donlin is hosting a public meeting in Skwentna April 2 from 1:00-4:00 PM at Skwentna roadhouse about the proposed Donlin pipeline.

Laughing at Ourselves – on the Big Screen

Posted by on 13 Dec 2010 | Tagged as: events, video

Our movie got into Best of Fest in the Anchorage film festival! Which means it’s being shown again, Wednesday Dec 15, at 8PM at the Beartooth. Another chance for anyone in Anchorage who missed it the first time! (no online tickets this time, but they’re available at the Beartooth box office.

It’s hard to know what to think about a movie of yourself. The giant faces on the screen were us. The story was our story. Details far beyond the footage multiplied in my mind, until I had to stop and remind myself to watch the movie on the screen – not the memories in my mind. Things that we forgot were funny make the whole crowd laugh (I guess Hig doesn’t have a future as a hairdresser), and I relaxed enough to laugh with them.

For us, we put ourselves out there – all our embarrassing moments writ large (at least all the ones we actually filmed). But I think it was even more nerve-wracking for Greg Chaney, the director. We wondered what people would think of us, but we are who we are, and after years of wandering into random towns and villages as bizarrely-clothed adventurers, we’re not very self conscious anymore. Greg was the one who edited the movie together, agonizing over decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. He wondered about what people would think of his vision, and his choices. When you’re so close to something, you can’t even tell whether it’s “good” or not. So we let the audiences decide for us.

There were over 230 people at our Homer showing

The movie has been shown a grand total of 3 times now, twice at the Anchorage Film Festival, and once in Homer (thank you again Islands and Ocean!) – every time to a packed house and an excited crowd. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a large enough venue yet! People were turned away every time (which I’m both excited about and sorry for), and the folks who got in have given us great reviews. Thank you so much!

The premier wasn’t in a big theater, but they fit a lot of people in.

How to See It

Well, we’re eventually going to have DVDs for sale (and you can sign up here to be on the list if you want to know when it comes out). Meanwhile, we’re looking for more film festivals to submit it to, and are interested in more informal screenings as well (open to the public, but not associated with a film festival) – if you have an idea or want to set up a screening, please email us ( And a bit of shameless begging: It costs money to get the movie to where folks can see it (festival fees, etc…). Donating a few bucks will help us get it out there!

P.S. the movie now has a Facebook Page. Updates will be there as well.

Journey on the Wild Coast – The Movie!

Posted by on 15 Nov 2010 | Tagged as: events, trip reports, video

Set fire to your frozen shoes. Cut your own hair with a pocket knife. Chop raw garlic with your teeth. And join us for the movie premier of our year-long journey along the North Pacific Coast, debuting this December at the Anchorage International Film Festival.

World Premier:  The movie will be shown on December 6, 2010.  7:45 PM, followed by a showing the next day, Dec 7 at 7:00 PM.  At the Out North Theatre in Anchorage.  Be there!  Greg will be there, and Hig and I plan to be there unless I’m having a baby at the time.

Homer Showing: 7PM, Friday Dec 10, at Islands and Ocean.

After a year and a half where it did nothing but languish on our hard drives, Greg Chaney has breathed life into the footage we took on the journey, crafting it into a full-length documentary. We’re very excited about it (even the parts where we do dumb and embarrassing things on screen), and would love to get folks’ help in spreading the word.

If you’re in Anchorage, or know people who are, pass this around and help us pack the house at the premier! Email me ( or Hig ( if you’re interested in hanging a couple posters or helping us get the word out. Posters to download are at the bottom of the movie page

If you’re not in Anchorage, don’t despair. In the short term, we’re planning to set up showings in Seldovia and Homer after the festival. And we’re looking to take it to other festivals in other places as well. Want a DVD copy? Sign up here to get an email reminder when it’s available.  Of course, you’re always supposed to read the book first, right?

We’ll post the latest here, on  Ground Truth Trekking’s Facebook Page and via Twitter.

Ground Truth Driving?

Posted by on 20 Apr 2010 | Tagged as: book, events, Issues, trip reports, video

California freeways

4,171 miles by boot, raft, and ski. Followed by 4,256 miles by rental car, talking about a journey by boot, raft, and ski.

On foot, a journey of over 4,000 miles is a feat to be proud of, and an adventure to be remembered for a lifetime. But in a car? It’s more likely to illicit yawns than gasps.

Practically every American has done a serious car trip at some point. Roads are carefully built to accommodate their human users… they’re not the place to look for the unexpected or the undiscovered. But neither of us have ever owned a car, and we avoid driving when possible, so there was a lot about this trip that was new for us.

I hang with Trucks

In picking out a rental car, we shopped around a fair bit. The hybrid thing seemed cool, but we soon found that the hybrids were neither affordable, nor available for as long a rental as we were seeking. And besides, a nice compact has nearly as good of highway mileage. So we drove off in a Nissan Versa loaded down with a few hundred pounds of books, people, and luggage. We rented from Avis because they did best at clearly presenting gas mileage on their website.

Erin hates driving, and is better at entertaining Katmai, so the division of labor was clear. I drove, while Erin exchanged toys, taught signs, sang songs, and made faces in the back seat.

semi on I-80

So that means I likely spent over 70 hours driving. That’s a lot of time to think about driving safety and efficiency. What deceleration curve as you approach a red light would maximize your kinetic energy when the light turns green? In the dark, are you safer to follow a few seconds behind a car, or to slow down and have empty road ahead? Is your car more efficient if you slow down as you climb hills and accelerate as you descend them, or is it better to be on cruise control? In this case I’m pretty sure slowing on the climb is more efficient, since it prevents a gear-down and rev in the automatic transmission.

Then there’s the question of drafting. I try to be pretty cautious so I wasn’t about to go sit right on the bumper of a semi. But having been along the side of the highway when semis pass, I know they leave a wake that extends a long way… many seconds at least. So even tailing at a DMV recommended 2-3 seconds, I’m guessing there’s a significant benefit in reduced air drag. Also, a fast truck can provide pretty good pacing for a car… typically steady on the flat, slowing on the climbs, and accelerating on the descents.

A bumper sticker for compacts, best printed larger than normal bumper stickers so that it makes the car look small. Vector graphics versions: Adobe Illustrator CS4 or SVG.

Katmai in the carseat

A glimpse at being car people

As kids Erin and I had each rattled around the back of a car on a couple of family car trips, but they were never our trips. So this was our first real car adventure. The US highway system is amazing. As an Alaskan, I was always aware that the rest of the US was pretty small. But I didn’t appreciate how the highways shrink the landscape further. With no preparation at all, anyone can just hop in a car and be halfway between the oceans in a couple days. It’s incredible.

And people drive so fast. Most of American culture seems pretty safe. Building codes, FDA approval, a well-socialized populace, and over-protective parents protect us from many of the usual deadly uncertainties of life. But on the road, the rules are different. If someone breaks a little rule, dozes for a few seconds, or lets their attention drift… Catastrophe. The injury-death statistics bear this out, mostly. Except for some reason the 35-54 year olds keep accidentally poisoning themselves?

Wyoming wind farm

We drove around with our lives in chaotic piles on the seats and in the trunk – the floor of the car caked with mud from the dirt roads of the Wyoming coal fields, and discarded bits of baby snacks. Thousands of miles. No catastrophes. But when we finally returned it (vacuumed), the car had a new windshield (replaced in Colorado after a rock hit it outside Sacramento), and a hubcap decorated with a silver paint pen to disguise a scrape from a curb.

American countryside

On Stage

Dragging our computer, hiking gear, and bag of toys into each new venue, we never knew what to expect. Sometimes the back room of an REI with bikes hanging from the ceiling, sometimes the corner of a bookstore with shelves pushed out of the way, sometimes a conference room with an official stage and microphones… Sometimes 5 people, sometimes 105, usually more like 25-50. After dozens of times giving our presentation it was simply easy – comfortable. In a month, we did 16 events. All traces of nervousness gone, we could enjoy the crowd, with only Katmai to keep us on our toes.

snowy Wyoming

How to give an hour-long presentation with a 1 year old in tow? We’d never seen anyone else try. In the middle of a sentence interrupted by a squawk from below, Erin would reach into the bulging bag of toys in search of a distraction. Each toy bought us a another 5 minutes, as the bag slowly emptied, balls, books, and stuffed animals strewn across the stage. Katmai pointed out every animal with eager pointing and signing – making sure that everyone in the audience knew there was a bear on the screen. Often I would take him out for a walk during the readings. Sometimes he flirted with the crowd, passing his ball to the folks in the front. Sometimes he insisted on nursing on stage. Driving home, he nearly always fell asleep.

empty road

Off Stage

Driving to what home? In the course of a month, we stayed in a motel only twice, both times to break up our drive through Wyoming. Everywhere we talked, we stayed in someone’s home. Sometimes with friends, sometimes with family, sometimes with people we’d only known online. One month, 18 houses. So even though we kept moving, we always had a home.

water treatment facility at the Berkeley pit


This was a work trip. Nearly everywhere we went, people gave us glowing recommendations of nearby destinations, and lacking the time and energy to be tourists, we nearly always refused. But some attractions are truly timeless. We didn’t visit Alcatraz, or the Salt Lake Temple, and we didn’t detour into Yellowstone. But we stopped in Butte, Montana, to see the Berkeley Pit.

In Butte they charge $2 for a tourist attraction that will provide income for their great100 grandchildren. Thousands of years from now when the Alcatraz buildings are just a forested lump, and the granite of the Salt Lake Temple has crumbled and cracked with time, an unassuming little facility on the edge of Berkeley Pit will still be working away, treating the acidic and metal-laden water before it can pollute the surrounding groundwater. If you think it’s unlikely that a mechanical facility full of complex pumps controlling precise chemical reactions would outlast a granite block, then you clearly have no faith in the EPA superfund program.

A Long Trek Home drives the western US

Posted by on 15 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: book, events

Leaving the land of blowing snow, we have entered the realm of flowers, leaves, and visible ground. It’s spring in Seattle, and we’re here kicking off another book tour! We had an event on Bainbridge Island yesterday, and we’ll soon be picking up a rental car and heading South – next stop Olympia, WA

View A Long Trek Home – Spring 2010 book tour in a larger map

Ironically enough, for a book in which we spent an entire year without taking any form of motorized transport, we’ll be doing this tour in a great big driving loop around the western US (walking seemed a little slow for our purposes this time). We’ll be hitting cities in Washington, northern California, Utah, Colorado, and Montana (see map above). Do you live in one of these places? Do you know someone who lives in one of these places? I assure you that we have an awesome slideshow, and any help getting the word out is greatly appreciated!

You can click on the pips on the map, or see the schedule on the Book page – where you can get specific dates and times, and download posters to stick up in your town. (And if you’re not in one of these places, you can order signed books there as well, or get unsigned ones from Amazon). You can also get event details on A Long Trek Home’s Facebook Page.

I’m already nervous about whether it was a crazy idea to take a 13 month old on a month-long road trip. Please help spread the word and help us make this worth it!

Here’s a teaser in the form of a brief excerpt from the beginning of winter, in one of the journey’s more difficult sections. It seems more appropriate to Seldovia’s blowing snow than Seattle’s calm sun, but here you go…

“Wind wears on you. At times, it felt as though the world would never stop
howling—its shrieks penetrating every last corner of my thoughts. By the
third storm in a week, all I wanted was to turn off my ears—to curl up and
hide. Rain blew, sheeting across the pools of ice that lay in the low spots
between each dune. Even when we were standing still, the wind blew us
forward. We slid and spun, unable to stop without falling down or waiting
to hit a spot of sand.

We called it Desolate Bar. Wind howled, rain spattered, and nothing
but a small patch of dunes rose above the flat sand and the water of the
Copper River Delta. Five miles away, we could see a dim outline of trees
on a distant shore. In between, there were only channels, tide flats, and
ocean—flat and grey to the edge of the earth. Aside from the beach grass,
we were the only living species on our island of sand and ice—miniscule
specks in an enormous landscape. It felt as though we were standing in the
middle of the ocean. The storm raged around us, churning the delta into
a frothing chop we couldn’t hope to paddle. We couldn’t go anywhere. It
was a forsaken world.”

And here’s the blurb from the back of the book, A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski:

From the Puget Sound to the Bering Sea

Four thousand miles along the edge of the Pacific

A world reduced to just two small packs and the next 100 yards…

In June 2007, Erin McKittrick and her husband, Hig, left Seattle for the Aleutian Islands, traveling solely by human power through some of the most rugged terrain in the world. This book tells the story of their unprecedented trek along the northwest coast and their encounters with pelting rains, ferocious winds, blizzards, and bears, as well as with the tiny communities that dot this wild region.

An epic wilderness adventure, their journey is also one of learning and discovery. Erin and Hig set out with a desire to better understand the interplay between human communities, ecosystems, and natural resources along their route. They pass through clear cuts, mining areas, and streams with declining wilds salmon populations. By taking each mile step by step, they intimately explore the coastal regions of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. By hiking, cross-country skiing, and packrafting, they see the wilderness in its larger context and gain a unique, on-the-ground perspective.

Whether discussing politics with off-the-grid back-to-the-landers, spooking a grizzly from the underbursh, repairing gear with dental floss, or catching a still-warm pizza falling from the sky, Erin and Hig experience a rich and varied coast, a world facing destructive change, but with hope for a sustainable future.

Big Earthquakes

Posted by on 03 Mar 2010 | Tagged as: events, geology, maps, video

I got my PhD studying tsunamis and working with other scientists who study tsunamis. One thing that almost every scientist studying tsunamis has in common is that they’ve never actually seen one.

For several of my former colleagues, this changed when the tsunami from Chile spread throughout the Pacific. Andy recorded 7 distinct waves using a ruler he’d just purchased at Home Depot in Santa Cruz harbor. Jody (my former advisor) and Tanya watched ice shift in tsunami waves in the frozen harbor of Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka (Russia). Jody has been studying tsunamis since the 80s. In an email she told us all, “I am SURE I eyewitnessed a tsunami, for the first time in my life!”

Tanya watching the tsunami in frozen Avacha Bay.

Tsunami scientist Tanya Pinegina watches gentle tsunami waves in the ice in Avacha Bay, Petropavlovsk, Russia.

Photo by Jody Bourgeois

All I can say is that I may have seen a tsunami, albeit a really small one. On a beach here in Seldovia I watched the dropping tide. Did it drop a little faster during the last 5 minutes? Has it slowed now? The tide gauge in town definitely saw something… a wave several inches tall with a period of 10 minutes or so (link here, many gauges on this page, including a more easily seen example of a tsunami recorded by a tide gauge in King Cove a few hundred miles southwest of Seldovia).

I also set up my camera. I took a timelapse video, accelerating reality by 300x. I’ve watched this video many times now, and I think I can see slight variations in how fast the tide drops down the beach near the center of the image. Then again, maybe not… you can judge for yourself. (The boat in the distance probably isn’t being moved by the tsunami, as the period of its motion is only 1-2 minutes, as opposed to about 10 minutes.)

Chile tsunami timelapse in Seldovia, Alaska from Bretwood Higman on Vimeo.

The Santa Cruz harbor had a much more obvious tsunami, and there’s a small amount of video of the devastating tsunami in Chile.

What are the chances? Global occurrence of large earthquakes

The earthquake in Chile was a really big one. It’s amongst the largest ever measured, with the energy of a billion tons of TNT, enough to change the rotation of the earth. Decades pass without a single earthquake this large anywhere on the planet.

Does it seem like there are a lot of big earthquakes lately? Two recent deadly events, one in Haiti and one in Chile, have gotten a number people wondering if that is more than a coincidence.

In the case of Haiti and Chile, it almost certainly is just a coincidence. The earthquake in Haiti was a giant in terms of human tragedy, but as far as seismic energy, it was quite small in comparison to many earthquakes that have happened around the world lately. The USGS catalog records 16 earthquakes as large, or larger than the one in Haiti in the last year. The Haiti earthquake was large enough to increase the danger of other earthquakes on the same fault, but not large enough to influence tectonics a quarter of the way around the world in Chile.

However, the largest earthquakes – those over magnitude 8 – do seem to cluster in time. The three largest earthquakes in the 20th century, all magnitude 9 or more, occurred in 1952, 1960, and 1964. (Some catalogs list the 1957 Andreanof Islands earthquake as a 9.1, making four over 9 in that time range, but the USGS rates this one an 8.6.) After 1965, there were only two magnitude 8.3 earthquakes, and none higher until after the turn of the millennium. The statisticians have taken a look (Bufe and Perkins, 2005), and they don’t think that’s random. I plotted the data below, and you can judge for yourself.

Graph of the largest earthquakes in the instrumental record.

We’ve been measuring earthquakes since 1900, and the recurrence of the largest ones doesn’t seem random. There’s a clump of large earthquakes in the ’50s and ’60s, and then a lull through the turn of the Millenia. Things have been more active again in the past decade.

Click the graphic for a larger version, as well as data and vector graphic file.

And the past decade has been a big one for earthquakes. There have been five earthquakes above 8.3, including the 2004 magnitude 9.1 earthquake in the northeastern Indian Ocean. Each increase of 0.2 in magnitude corresponds to a doubling in energy released, so the 2004 magnitude 9.1 released as much energy as 16 magnitude 8.3 earthquakes.

What does this mean? We only have a short instrumental record (since 1900) and there’s a lot of variability, so it’s impossible to know whether we have another magnitude 9 just around the corner. But it seems likely that the period of tectonic quiescence starting in 1965 and ending with the gradual increase in seismicity in the late 90s is gone. It’s no time to dally on the science, both old-fashioned paleoseismic studies, and maybe some new methods that can help warn of impending earthquakes. And it’s no time to skimp on education and good infrastructure that can save lives during an earthquake. Likely the biggest difference that led to far fewer people killed in Chile than in Haiti was better building standards.

Why do the biggest earthquakes come in clusters?

At this point we don’t really know.

For an earthquake on a fault to happen, there have to be two things in place: The fault has to be under stress so it can provide energy for an earthquake, and some point has to fail, triggering the fault to move and that energy to be released. Stress increases over time and eventual failure is inevitable, but exactly when it happens is dependent on that trigger, which can be very subtle. The point where failure begins is the hypocenter (directly beneath the epicenter on the surface of the earth) and the entire portion of the fault that moves is the rupture area.

One way to think of it is to imagine the fault as a large building. Perhaps it is an apartment building in Istanbul, and as new floors are illegally added the stress on the structure increases. This unstable structure has a lot of energy in it, all in the form of cement and other materials suspended high in the air by weak architecture. But when it finally collapses, that collapse starts somewhere. Perhaps a pillar designed for two stories and holding five collapses because someone uses it to tie up their dog. Now the nearby pillars and walls must suddenly bear more of the weight, and they collapse as well. The failure spreads from the original “epicenter” pillar, and consumes the entire building, analogous to the earthquake’s rupture area.

So was it the dog that caused the building to collapse, or the extra stories? I’d say the cause was the additional stress, while the trigger was the dog. Earthquakes are the same way… caused by gradually building stress, but triggered when some point gives way.

Bufe and Perkins, 2005, discuss how an earthquake in one area of the world might lead to another far away and years later. Their first possible explanation focuses on triggering, while the others suggest that stress might increase on distantly separated faults at the same time:

  • Perhaps the vibrations from a distant earthquake increase the pressure of water trapped in pores in rock, and that pressure leads to a gradual weakening of the rock, initiating an earthquake.
  • Maybe a slow pressure wave moves through the lower crust after a large earthquake, and this wave causes stress to increase on other faults that then fail.
  • Perhaps large “silent” earthquakes, rarely detected because the deformation they cause is so slow, drive the system by running along plate boundaries and triggering their more violent kin.
  • It could be that the changes in where and how much ice is in glaciers changes the stress on faults and leads to times of quiescence or greater activity.
  • Or my favorite: Maybe the largest earthquakes change the stress on tectonic plates. As this stress moves around the planet it triggers more large quakes, until the crust has settled into a lower state of stress.

A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski

Posted by on 03 Aug 2009 | Tagged as: book, events, home, trip reports

A Long Trek Home

I’m not just writing a book. I have written a book.

Hig and I recently saw a movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about a man who had been entirely paralyzed except for one eye, and still managed to write an entire book that he dictated by blinking – one letter at a time. I tried to remind myself of this during the hours I spent pecking out words one-handed, trying to combine book-editing with baby nursing. Now that Katmai is a bit older, he can hold himself in place, allowing me to type this blog two-handed.

Nursing and typing

When we finished our journey, I had a bean-sized baby in my body, and the seed of a book in my mind. The first draft was due at the same time as Katmai. And it seemed as if both of my “babies” developed in parallel. At the beginning, progress was slow – the physical baby so small as to not even be a bump, while the book was not much more than a jumbled set of notes from my nightly journals. Towards the end, both were gigantic, and imminent. I sat in the hotel room in Homer, laptop on the far side of my enormous belly, hurriedly finishing the book as I waited for Katmai to arrive. I sent off that draft the day before his due date. He was born four days later. I was lucky he didn’t come early.

Chapter 1: Civilization
Chapter 1: Civilization
Chapter 9: Ice
Chapter 9: Ice

Chapter 15: Awakening
Chapter 15: Awakening

I pushed the book out of my mind, waiting for the editors at Mountaineers Books to get back to me, focusing on setting up life with this new little person. Until it landed back on my lap, a few months later. I had a bit less than three weeks to edit an entire book. So back in May, while everyone in Seldovia was digging in their gardens and enjoying the wonderful spate of hot sunny weather, I was stuck at my computer – editing. I would occasionally click over to Amazon – noting that it was already possible to buy the book that I was currently editing. It was a good reminder that the whole thing was in fact really happening, and that I’d better keep focused if I wanted what was in that book to be any good!

It seemed like it would never be done. After the editing phase, there was a proofing phase. Hig labored over the route maps. We picked out photos for each chapter. And then there were more questions, more things to check and reword…

Fall Map
Fall Route Map

But at each stage, it seemed more and more official. Instead of a plain word document, it was now a pdf, laid out like a real book, with pictures and maps, and chapters. I was so close…

And now I’m done. The book comes out in October, and Hig and I will be doing a small book tour in October/November, through Homer, Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, and maybe a few other places along the way. Stay tuned for details! I’ll be selling signed copies here at Ground Truth Trekking when it’s out (and I’ll probably post a sample chapter), so sign up to get a reminder email if you want to know when the book comes out or when I might be through your town!

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