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Paddling 800 miles around Alaska's Cook Inlet with 2 children in tow

Craig Medred
Wind-driven cold snow coats a tide flat on Kachemak Bay.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
Landfall in Homer: A calm evening in Kachemak Bay.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
The sun sets next to Redoubt Volcano.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
Tidal currents carried us up Turnagain arm.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
Filling a water sample on Portage Creek in Turnagain Arm for a carbon study.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
A warm day and Katmai kept dropping layers until he was shirtless, and this inspired trail running.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
Erin McKittrick and Bretwood "Hig" Higman walking into a chilly headwind. The couple, with their two young children Katmai and Lituya, are spending four months walking around Cook Inlet.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
Lituya climbs over a rocky point. She is trekking around Cook Inlet with her brother Katmai and parents Erin McKittrick and Bretwood "Hig" Higman.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
Ice falls graced the cliffs of Dogfish Bay, near the start of their journey.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
A beach made mostly of barnacle and other shell fragments forms on Grass Island in Eldredge Passage.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
A tidepool near Nanwalek, at the start of their journey.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
The kids look out at the ocean on one of our many climbs over headlands between Dogfish Bay and Nanwalek.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
A small sea cave provided protection from the wind for a fire.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking
A wintry day on the coast.
Courtesy Ground Truth Trekking

The Higmans -- Hig, Erin and the two small children -- paddled into Anchorage last week in their tiny inflatable boats via Turnagain Arm, and they made it alive. This would not be newsworthy except for the fact that so many in the state's largest city consider the Arm so dangerous. 

As a result, Turnagain Arm has become a body of water largely reserved for advocates of extremes sports -- windsurfers, kite boarders, and those kayakers and surfers brave enough to ride the bore tides that sometimes roll a big wave of water east up Turnagain Arm from Cook Inlet.

The Higmans -- Brentwood or Hig as he is usually known, wife Erin McKittrick, 4-year-old Katmai and 2-year-old Lituya -- are none of those things. Hig is a PhD-toting geologist who once studied the Arm's bore tides to see what they might teach us all about how tsunamis work. Erin is, or was, a molecular biologist. They live across Kachemak Bay from Homer. 

And the kids are, well, kids, which makes them among the most adaptable animals on the planet. The Higman kids have lived a life of adventure without really knowing it because in their world, with parents who regularly pull off epic treks, adventure is the norm.

They spent the fall and winter of 2011 camped out with mom and dad in a lightweight nylon tent near the Malaspina Glacier along the deserted Gulf of Alaska coast. Only the latest in high-tech gear separated that outing from all-out survival test.

Not phonied up reality TV competitions

A woodstove made of titanium was light enough the Higmans could drag it along with them on their muscle-powered journey to the Malaspina. The Higmans are old-school adventurers who understand the real challenge of wilderness travel is not to suffer, but to avoid suffering.

Their journeys are not phonied up competitions filmed for National Geographic's "Ultimate Survival Alaska," the latest in so-called "reality TV."  Their journals are real Alaska Survival.

"The important thing to us in the exploration, not the athleticism,'' Erin said. 

She admitted to some regrets that at the start of May the couple had shipped that titanium woodstove home to Seldovia on the Kenai Peninsula. They didn't think they'd need it anymore, and then the snow started falling on their 800-mile journey around the Inlet and the cold returned.

They pushed on, suffering a little more than they might have liked, but knowing the days ahead were sure to get warmer. Or so they thought. Temperatures were still near freezing on the day she and Lituya hiked along Anchorage's busy Lake Otis Boulevard with Hig and Katmai.

Lituya was in a wrap on her mother's chest in front of her over-stuff fanny pack. Hig labored under a much-patched, overloaded backpack carrying the family’s two inflatable rafts, tent, sleeping quilt and other camping gear.

Bigger danger: traffic

He kept a careful eye on Katmai and often held his hand. The fast and never-ending stream of cars made the boulevard more dangerous that most things the youngster was likely to encounter in the wild. 

On their feet, the Higman adults wore the rattiest pair of Inov-8 trail running shoes one is likely to see. Fortunately, there were no toes sticking out of the holes worn in the uppers, but the shoes were getting close to where that would be the case without some serious darning.

"You've got to learn to darn,'' Hig said, noting all the things one can fix with some 100-pound test Spectra fishing line. Spectra is made from ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene spun into threads with a strength-to-weight ratio eight to 15 times greater than steel. 

Darning is an old, old sewing technique for repairing worn fabric. It used to be taught in school when schools still had "home economics'' classes, and Americans were prone to mend their socks instead of simply throwing them out and buying new ones. Some of the eco-savvy have launched bids to bring back darning.

The Higmans are decidedly eco-savvy, but darning is not one of their causes. The environment is:

"Alaska has become a focal point in the discussion about how we should react to the threat of climate change. The state is already experiencing several conspicuous effects of climate change that can be clearly seen and measured.  These include glacial retreat, thawing permafrost, ocean acidification, sea ice retreat, shorter ice road seasons, and coastal erosion. In addition, changes can be observed in the timing of seasons, the composition of different ecosystems, the behavior and abundance of game animals, and in forest fire risk,'' says their website "Ground Truth Trekking.org.

Some of those points are debatable. The desire of the Higmans to further a discussion about what sort of world the people of today want to leave for the children of tomorrow, however, is not.

800-mile Cook Inlet circuit

They went through Anchorage on an 800-mile circuit around Cook Inlet in their inimitable style to try to catalog not only what the region looks like today but to get a feel for what people think it will look like tomorrow.

Cook Inlet is the place where The Last Frontier most noticeably collides with The Last Great Wilderness. Near the Inlet's eastern end sits Anchorage, the largest city in the 49th state, the largest community on the Pacific Rim north of Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s the focal point for entry into and exit from Alaska.

But Anchorage is some ways only a speck of urbana near the bottom of a long funnel of wilderness jutting into Alaska from the North Pacific ocean. The 400,000-acre Kachemak Bay State Park and Wilderness almost butts up against the 1.9-million acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge which meets the 6.9-million-acre Chugach National Forest along Turnagain Arm only to be joined by the 500,000-acre Chugach State Park which sweeps around behind Anchorage to nearly touch the 29,000-acre Palmer Hayflats State Game Refuge, a tiny wilderness reserve by Alaska standards.

And this is only on the east side of the Inlet. The protected public lands continue down the west side of the Inlet as well: The Goose Bay State Game Refuge, the Susitna Flats State Game Refuge, the Trading Bay State Game Refuge, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and finally, near the southwest end of the Inlet, Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Outline all the land withdrawals in that way, and it almost starts to sound as though Cook Inlet is little more than one big park, a sort of Disney Wild North. But it is anything but. Commercial fisheries of industrial scale flourish in its waters. Oil and gas flow from the more than a dozen oil platforms in the Inlet. Strip mining of coal deposits has been under discussion for more than a decade. An entire road system unknown to most Alaskans starts just west of the unbridged Susitna River, where logging once flourished.

The Cook Inlet region, Hig has observed, is a landscape that’s home to endangered beluga whales and abundant grizzly bears, with wilderness so wild it is almost beyond the comprehension of most Americans, and a city so much like the rest in the nation it could be pulled up and plopped down anywhere. 

Envision Cook Inlet in 50 years

The Higmans' hike along Lake Otis toward the heart of the city ended with a discussion of how to take a photograph of the family there on a cloudy day without it looking like Anywhere, America. With the Chugach Mountains hiding in the clouds, the surrounding residential area looks like anything on the outskirts of any U.S. city.

And it was there that Erin said to Hig: "Ask Craig your question.''

It is the question they have been asking people they meet everywhere on this journey. What will the Cook Inlet region look like in 50 to 100 years? So far, they said, the answers seem split along two distinct lines:

1.) An economic wasteland.

2.) Overrun with people.

Those two answers sort of define where Alaska is at today. On the one hand, there are those who worry that when the oil runs out at Prudhoe Bay -- and it is running out -- Alaska will fade as quickly and as surely as it did after the Gold Rush days of the early 1900s.

Parts of the state never bounced back from that. The Inland Empire, a vast swath of the Interior that included the now-ghost-town of Iditarod, was once the most populous region in the state. Almost no one lives there now. 

No one expects anything that drastic to happen to Anchorage, but the community has seen busts before. When oil prices tanked in the mid-1980s, so did Anchorage. The job market dried up. People left. Banks foreclosed on hundreds of homes and business. Many of their owners let the banks have them. About a dozen financial institutions went under. Mini-malls sat empty all over the city.

But that is not the long-term trend. No matter what one says about the boom-and-bust cycle of the Alaska economy -- and there has been one -- the reality is this:

At the height of the gold rush in 1910, the U.S. Census counted only about 64,000 people scattered across the state. A century later, the population of Anchorage alone was four and a half times greater. The statewide population, meanwhile, stood at more than 730,000.

For some, there are already too many people. Ask a Cook Inlet setnetter in Kenai unhappy about all those new fellow citizens who trek south from Anchorage on a summer day to catch one of his, or her, fish, or query a resident of Flathorn Lake on the Susitna delta faced with winter snowmobilers roaring through his yard.

Particularly for Hig, the question of what will be is intriguing. He thinks like a geologist on the scale of centuries and eons. It is an interesting to ponder the future, but the reality is the here and now.

And in the here and now, the Higmans seem to be having a good time going where no others have gone before. Or at least not any white folk. There are no records of them traveling around the Inlet in small boats with small infants in pursuit of that grand old idea called exploration. 

As for the Chugachimiut Eskimos who were here before them, and the Tanaina Indians who pushed them out of the Inlet, it is probably a different story. Both were coastal peoples who saw the waters as pathways.

Dealing with Cook Inlet mud

When you have to move the whole family around, it is a lot easier to travel by boat, as the Higmans can testify. Unless, of course, you have to deal with the vast mudflats of Chickaloon Bay on the Kenai just across the Arm from Anchorage's Potter Marsh and the worst of the mud -- liquefied mud.

"Liquefaction is quicksand,'' Erin writes. "It’s quickly deposited silt, filling up a channel in the course of a tide, so unstable that it will turn to leg-sucking goo with a footstep. Someone died in it once, decades ago. Others have been rescued. It’s more easily avoided than many people realize, by staying on the high and dry edges. It’s more easily escaped than many people realize also, by floating your legs out rather than working them deeper in. We carried packrafts — inflated — which makes getting out of liquefied silt into a task as simple as leaning on the boat. 

"But, like many aspects of the wilderness, liquefying silt takes thought to deal with safely.''

She has tips on how to do that, and how to deal with some other Arm dangers here.

The idea is not to make light of the danger, but to demonstrate that this is an environment sometimes unvisited because of irrational fears.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com