When the violent storms of fall come marching across the Gulf of Alaska to pound desolate coast, it's hard to avoid thoughts of the family Higman-McKittrick out there all alone in their tiny nylon shelter. Mama Erin McKittrick acknowledged the difficulties ahead as she and husband Bretwood Higman prepared to leave Anchorage for the Malaspina Glacier in September with two infants -- 2 1/2-year-old Katmai and 8-month-old Lituya -- in tow.
"It changes what can go wrong," she said. "It changes what the responses are. The calculations of risk are different."
For Erin and Bretwood themselves, adventuring is sort of old hat. In June 2007, knowing precious little about long-distance wilderness travel, they launched an epic, year-long expedition from Seattle up the Pacific coast to Alaska's Prince William Sound and then west to the Aleutian Islands. By the time they were done "ground-truth trekking," as they call it, in June 2008, they had covered 4,000 miles and learned a whole lot about life and travel in the wild lands.
Out of the adventure came a book, "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski"; a movie, "Journey on the Wild Coast", and a way of life. The young couple, Erin, then 28, and 30-year-old Bretwood -- "Hig" to almost everyone -- settled into life in a yurt in Seldovia, a community of about 150 near the southwest tip of the still wild Kenai Peninsula about 135 miles from Alaska's largest city. There they began cobbling together a life as writers, film makers and environmental activists.
Strange as it might sound, "Ground Truth Trekking" became their business. Their website describes the nonprofit company this way:
Ground Truth Trekking is based on the belief that expeditions to see what's on the ground help us learn about important issues. We combine that "ground truth" with "researched truth," using our scientific backgrounds along with our adventures to come up with something we hope will further the conversation about these issues in an entertaining and informative way.
Hig and Erin are smart people. He has a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Washington. She earned a master's in molecular biology. Both were career-tracked to be scientists, until they took the turn toward becoming new-age, high-tech, back-to-the-earthers. "Broadband, Yes. Toilet, No" is how a headline in the Home and Garden section of the New York Times succinctly described them in 2009.
"In the center of their yurt is a small, constantly burning wood stove,'' writer Sarah Maslin Nir observed. "In Seldovia, which can see up to 17 feet of snow in a season, even the biggest blaze offers slight warmth. It’s often freezing inside when they wake up in the morning. They feed logs into the stove every 15 to 30 minutes; the winter ritual of chopping, hauling and splitting firewood is constant and arduous."
The story sparked some predictable reactions from that huge slice of the world Alaskans simply call "Outside." "People thought even living in a yurt is child abuse,'' Erin said. But that was the least of it. One blogger, noting the contrast between their love of technology and back-to-the-earth lifestyle, labeled them "The Most Irritating New York Times Couple Ever."
Adrian Chen's complaint was that the Times had found yet more Americans able to make a living working way outside the 9-to-5 job box. This he clearly did not view as a victory of capitalism. "These yurt-dwelling neo-back-to-the-landers might take the self-satisfied cake," Chen wrote.
Normal Alaskans or 'Swiss Family Robinson'?
In person, Erin and Hig don't seem the least bit self-satisfied. They seem, in fact, almost boringly normal. Seated around a table at the Middle Way Cafe in comfortably urban Anchorage, the Higman-McKittrick gang displays no hint of its Swiss Family Robinson inclinations. Katmai dismantles his sandwich, decides which parts he wants to eat, and plays with the rest like any other toddler. Erin tries to deal with him while keeping a careful watch on Lituya, who is thankfully dozing. Harried father Hig lingers only long enough to politely answer a few questions and show off the nifty, compact, titanium woodstove designed to heat the family tent on the next big adventure.
Heat, Erin and Hig have learned, is one of life's great luxuries. Cave men, of course, discovered this almost 800,000 years ago, and it was accepted and understood in Alaska for at least 10,000 years up through the era of prospectors. When the infamous "Sourdough Expedition" went to the north peak of Mount McKinley in 1910, the Fairbanks miners set up a series of camps along the Muldrow Glacier in silk tents heated with woodstoves that required them to make regular trips back down the glacier to gather wood.
Fire went out of favor in America in the 1960s and '70s, however, as the population drifted from rural to urban, and living in the wild or on the edge of the wild gave way to a new form of recreation called "backpacking." Given that many of the early backpackers were tied to the fledgling Earth Day environmental movement, fires disappeared amid fears backpacking pyromaniacs might cause the deforestation of campgrounds. Hydrocarbon-fueled camping stoves soon became de rigueur.
Camp stoves remain a great idea in the country’s most popular campgrounds, but in the wilds of Alaska -- with far more dead trees and driftwood than people -- wood is a more sensible choice both logistically and environmentally. Wood is a fuel that need not be carried; it can be found. And burned in a stove in a tent with the moisture that is a natural byproduct of combustion vented to the outside, it provides dry heat.
"It will be nice to have heat," Erin admitted. Nice for her, nice for Hig and even nicer for the kids who, as all parents learn, are happy playing in the wet until the playing stops, and they realize they are wet and cold and uncomfortable. At that point, life boils down to basics. Happiness, Erin observed, becomes as simple as being "warm, dry and fed." These are things most Americans today take for granted. They are things for which Hig and Erin needed to plan to make their latest adventure work.
Malaspina Glacier: A dramatic landscape and changing climate
The couple has been to the Malaspina Glacier before. They know how hostile and foreboding the land can be. It is the very reason they wanted to go back. Hig calls it a "moonscape." Erin's version is "one of the most dramatic places" on earth. It is an environment caught in the throes of climate change. The glacier is retreating rapidly and erratically.
New lands are emerging. Run-off from the glacier is carving away lands. Wind and rain and the freeze-thaw cycle are battering the surrounding mountains. This world today may be almost as dynamic as the primordial earth is believed to have been."
In 24 hours, you can just get totally slammed," Hig said. "The ice (crossing) is going to be super exposed."
And there technology enters the picture again. The couple is counting on a satellite phone and a weather forecaster friend in Anchorage to advise them prior to glacier crossings. Neither Erin nor Hig wants to get caught on the open expanse of a glacier with the kids in tow. Like generations of parents before them, the safety and needs of the children are dictating a lot of what happens on this trip.
So why go?
"I always have trouble articulating why we want to go here," Hig admitted. The simple answer might be another question: Why not? "I think learning new things is what kind of keeps us headed out there," Erin said. "We don't have any idea of what is going to happen. I don't think we ever run out of surprises. There are always new things we learn."
The modern-day descendants of ancient explorers, Hig and Erin yearn for the voyage of discovery. The Malaspina Glacier valley is a place awaiting discovery, Hig said, where what one sees on a Google Map satellite photo today is likely to have changed tomorrow.
"We kind of got a glimpse of the edge of this last time," he said. "There are forests falling down. There are ice holes ... the maps are out-of-date." Photographs of the area taken in 2006 are radically different than those taken in 2004. "They completely change between the two," Hig said. Climate change isn't just shifting temperatures; it is creating a new frontier.
Erin and Hig sound compelled to go see it for themselves, no matter the complications of parenthood.
"Last summer, we pretty much decided on this idea," Erin said. "It took a lot of planning," Hig said. Gear had to be modified. Food drops had to be put into place. Strange new logistical problems had to be overcome.
"This might be the first expedition where the whole thing was sponsored by a diaper company," Erin said. The diapers, she added, are disposable and fully biodegradable. They represent another of those strange contradictions that seem to run through the lives of Erin and Hig.
Connections and contradictions
The environmental ethic of the day is to "Take Nothing but Photographs; Leave Nothing but Footprints." But Hig and Erin, with their wood fires that require fuel of some sort, will be taking more than photographs; and with those diapers, they will be leaving more than footprints behind. All of which begs some sort of philosophical questions: If something is taken, but the scene remains unchanged, is anything really gone? If something is left, but there is no sign of it to be found, was it every really there?
Hig and Erin concede their blending of the very old and the very new does pose questions. They confess they couldn't live without the Internet, but they get along fine without running water or a flush toilet. Even in Seldovia, most homes have these amenities, but Hig and Erin say they don't need them. An outhouse is fine; they said; and hauling water not that much more of a chore than chopping wood. Both connect people intimately to the world around them, they add.
It could even be argued the Internet is more in sync with this idea than out of sync. The Internet connects people in the most remote places to a whole new worlds. Erin and Hig, in fact, had hoped to take the world along on their latest adventure at "Life on Ice." This proved more difficult than they had hoped.
The couple originally planned to connect an iPad to a satellite "Spot communicator" so they could provide regular blog posts about the discoveries made on their new journey, but they discovered the Spot is limited to 41-character messages. "And then it just plain didn't work," Hig said. Using a satellite phone to Twitter, which limits people to 140 characters, is already too limiting, he said. "We were trying to be too far ahead of our time," Erin added.
They are, however, happy for the technology they do have. "We do have the sat phone," Erin said. "The sat phone is sort of the backup for everything." Technology is their friend: The sat phone, the titanium stove, the Alpacka rafts made from a lightweight but durable fabric unknown a decade ago; the diapers, the Dermizax waterproof-breathable outerwear the couple claims is even better than Gore-Tex. Even the waterproof paper on which Hig wrote his first blog post to be delivered by airplane to civilization from land the Internet does not so easily reach.
What others might see as contradictory in their existence, Hig and Erin see as complimentary. "I think that is sort of our life," Erin said. "I don't see high-tech and out-in-the-wilderness as being opposed. I just think it's a cultural stereotype. There's this idea that woods people are supposed to be ignorant.
"Some of them are. They shiver in unheated tents on the edge of a glacier. But the smart ones fire up the wood stove, knowing they might never find a place that feels as snug and warm as the inside of a wood-heated tent when the winds and rains of a hostile Alaska coast are ranting in storm."
Sleep tight gang.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com