While some of us boast about an arduous 7-mile hike along a well-traveled trail, Erin McKittrick and her husband, Hig, have trekked more than 7,000 miles of Alaska’s wilderness. By foot and by packraft, they travel around Alaska, both for their love of adventuring, but also on behalf of their nonprofit, Ground Truth Trekking. The goal of the organization is to research and explore how climate change is affecting the land and bring awareness to others about it. In McKittrick’s latest book, Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska, she writes about continuing those treks, but now as parents with two small children in tow. With new challenges at hand, from bears who are curious about the toddler to changing diapers in raining, freezing weather, her stories are daunting and inspiring. McKittrick and her husband show that as parents we can continue to do what we love, and that children are tough as nails. She is currently on tour for Small Feet, Big Land, and took some time to answer questions from Lindsey McGuirk of Village Books. Village Books will welcome McKittrick for a presentation on Friday October 25 at 7:00; for the full tour schedule, please click here.
LM: You live in the remote town of Seldovia, AK and spend much of your timing journeying through even more remote places in the Alaskan wilderness. What does it feel like to you when you return to urban life during your tours and talks?
EM: I feel like cars are scarier than bears. Seriously, a 2-year-old in a crowded parking lot is a far more difficult and dangerous problem than a 2-year-old on a remote Alaskan coastline. It’s also a rather disjointed experience. We travel so quickly between towns in a car, and even on a slow ferry, that it’s hard to get a handle on where I am. It’s a shift from intimate knowledge and well-pondered maps to reading street signs as we cruise past them, relying heavily on turn by turn directions from a smart phone. When I get a chance to poke into the woods a little, I’m blown away by the fact that I’ve jumped several ecosystems and climatic zones in a blink.
LM: That sounds like how I feel going from my home in Bellingham to big cities like San Francisco and New York. One of the things I love so much about where I live is that within a 15 minute bike ride, I can be running on a trail in the woods. Have you done any hiking around Bellingham?
EM: Well, we’ve hiked through Bellingham on our way from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands, a journey chronicled in my first book, A Long Trek Home. But since our focus was getting north and the trails weren’t so conveniently arranged, it was more of an urban and coastal experience. We actually got pulled over in our packrafts by the Coast Guard at Cherry Point for not being quite far enough offshore around the oil tankers.
LM: In your prologue, you say about your journeys with your husband, Hig, “We are not the fastest, highest, farthest, or longest. We are the first in some things only because we choose paths that others have not.” What are some of those firsts?
EM: I’m sure we’re the first people to have walked from Seattle to the Aleutians. We’re the first to have done major ocean crossings in a packraft. We’re the first to walk and packraft around Cook Inlet. And many more. Other than the ocean packrafting, where we really pioneered a new aspect of the sport, most of that is a simple artifact of traveling in a land without trails. Most of the interesting trips in Alaska are firsts, because there’s no reason two expeditions will choose the same route to move across the land.
EM: We haven’t crossed whole oceans in the rafts, but many bays and inlets, up to about 5 miles wide. Mostly on the Pacific Ocean. Everywhere from the Inside Passage to the Aleutian Islands, and also in the Chukchi Sea up in the Northwest Arctic.
LM: One of the most important things to you when you and your husband when you became parents was that you didn’t give up your trekking lifestyles. You have safely traveled many miles through precarious geography and severe weather with your two small children in tow. What sort of responses have you received from parents about your adventuring with a toddler and a baby?
EM: Sometimes parents tell me that we’re an inspiration to them. Or a hopeful example to would-be parents that they might be able to keep loving the outdoors with kids. Some share stories of their own adventures with little ones, while other parents tell us that they have so much trouble even walking to the park and can’t imagine how we managed to pull it off. If folks disapprove, they tend not to say it to our faces. I often remind people that what we do is utterly normal. For thousands of years of history, across all the cultures in the world, families have moved across the landscape. They’ve done it with grandmothers and babies, on foot and in boats, slowly making their way across wild country. It’s only over the past few generations that we’ve forgotten how. And with modern satellite communications, nylon gear, electric bear fences, etc., it’s far safer now than it ever was then.
LM: You touched on two of the things I thought about while reading Small Feet, Big Land. One is that I love that you set such a great example of continuing to do the things you love that you did before becoming a parent. The other is that there were moments while reading your book that I thought, “Oh my god, is that safe to do with a toddler?” and then my next thought would be, “Geez, people used to have to do this all of the time with kids. How is this any different?”
EM: The main thing that’s different is us. Most people today just aren’t very comfortable in the outdoors. And if you’re not comfortable with something yourself, it’s hard to imagine doing it with your children. I think those ancient nomads would be terrified to put their children in cars or airplanes!
LM: That’s very true. You have a great love of Alaska, which is clearly evident in your writing and storytelling. What is one thing you want people to know about the state?
EM: I like to think of us as the adventurous corner of America, where all the misfits from everywhere else end up. Alaska is a frontier culture in many ways. In some of the bad ways, where we don’t always realize that our land and our resources aren’t infinite. And in the good ways too, awash in hospitality, without class distinctions, and full of interesting, resourceful people who defy conventions and stereotypes.
LM: What are a few of your favorite books about adventuring?
LM: If someone wanted to get started in the sort of backpacking that you and your family do, what’s one piece of advice or encouragement you would offer? What’s your best advice for traveling with children?
EM: It’s just as hard for us to get out the door as it is for anyone else. We just stay out longer. I think one of the most important things is not to sabotage children with our own expectations. I see it so often. An adult expects that a kid will get tired, or won’t be able to make it up that hill, or won’t want to go out in the rain, or won’t be able to sleep in a tent. Most of the time, they’re projecting their own discomforts on the kid. And most of the time, that attitude rubs off and those projections come true. If you set out with a cheerful expectation that the kids can walk those miles and do want to climb up that hill and like the rain, usually that comes true also. That’s provided that you approach it also with a good dollop of patience and repeated exposure. I’ve seen this work wonders not just with my own kids, but with other kids that regularly hike with us. That advice is very important on a day to day basis.
On a large-scale planning basis, I think the most important thing is to try and pare down your gear as much as possible. Because if you’re carrying all the stuff for four people, and some of the people as well, you’re going to need all the light packing skills you can muster to make it a more agreeable load. This obviously gets easier when the kids can walk, or if you’re in a friendlier climate than Alaska.
Lindsey McGuirk is the Digital Marketing Coordinator for Village Books, where she handles the store’s online and social media marketing.