I write in the dark.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.