Parents trying to navigate an airport terminal with two toddlers in diapers might wonder whether it would be easier to tote the tykes along on a wilderness expedition.
As it turns out, it just might be. Erin McKittrick thinks it is, and she’s done both.
“An airport is restrictive,” the 33-year-old Seattle native said. “It’s deadline-centered and rule-filled. It’s not a very easy place to be with toddlers. A beach or a mountain hillside or a stream is much easier.”
McKittrick and her husband, Bretwood Higman, live in a yurt in Seldovia, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. They regularly set off into the wilderness with their 4-year-old son, Katmai, and 2-year-old daughter, Lituya.
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Currently, they’re on an urban adventure — a 21/2-month trip from Alaska to California in a camper van to share their adventures and promote McKittrick’s new book. “Small Feet, Big Land” tells the stories of the family’s wilderness adventures, including trips to the Malaspina Glacier and the Northwest Arctic.
They will speak Wednesday in Olympia and Thursday in Tacoma.
In the Alaskan wilds, McKittrick and Higman hauled traditional expedition gear and chartered airplanes to cache food along routes that would take more than two months to cover. They packed pepper spray and an electric fence to discourage bears from getting too close. They loaded the kids on their backs (although the children occasionally walked) and they set out.
McKittrick and Higman once took a year to trek, paddle and ski 4,000 miles from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands and have no problem covering 20 miles or more per day. But bushwhacking with small children cuts that pace in half.
“People sometimes ask if we miss going fast,” McKittrick said. “We don’t miss it. At half the speed you see more … and it helps force you to play.”
We recently reached McKittrick via cellphone in Petersburg, Alaska, where she and her family were preparing for a ferry ride to Ketchikan.
Question: How did you decide to take toddlers on adventures most adults wouldn’t do?
Answer: We were not willing to be stuck inside, and we thought it would be great to start when they were little. … Wilderness adventure has always been a part of our lives. At first we had no idea if you can take a kid on something like the Malaspina Glacier. But, really, they are very portable, and it was a lot better than we thought.
Q: My kids think walking to school in the rain is torture. How do your kids handle the presumably harsher climate of an Arctic adventure?
A: They don’t complain when it rains; it’s the adults who grumble. They will whine, like any other kid, if they feel cold. But they don’t have these preconceived ideas that rain is bad or dirt is bad or hiking is hard. Kids are more adaptable than adults. They think whatever you do is normal.
Q: If you had waited until they were older to start these adventures, do you think you would have been tempted to keep putting them off?
A: I don’t know if it would be for us (parents), but if you wait for too long, you might end up with griping teenagers who want to stay home and play video games.
Q: Were you ever in any harrowing situations with your kids?
A: We try very hard not to be. There is a lot less risk in the wild than what you run into in the city. I’m more terrified of parking lots. Cars are way faster and way more common than bears. But there are risks, and the biggest is cold water. If we take them out in a pack raft, we wouldn’t go out in as big of waves as we would if it was just us. And we wouldn’t be as far away from shore.
… It’s important to point out that what we do is very normal. For thousands of years, pregnant women and kids traveled in wild places. Just in the past few decades we’ve forgotten that it’s normal.
Q: Have you had any negative feedback?
A: I don’t tend to get that. Maybe people are too scared to ask, but I do get second-hand stuff like your question. Some people probably do think we shouldn’t do this with our children. But people are bad at analyzing risk. We underestimate the risk of things that are familiar, like cars and air pollution, and overestimate the risk of things that are unfamiliar, like bears. We are all subject to that fallacy, myself included.
Q: Do you see character traits in your children that you credit to the way they are living?
A: They are very adaptable. We are on this book tour, and I might tell them, “We are taking a midnight ferry tonight and then we are staying in this person’s house,” and they just go with the flow. They are very comfortable in a lot of situations.
Q: What adventures wouldn’t you try with your children?
A: A lot of little things. … We put off doing big winter trips with potential frostbite weather until they are old enough … to tell us how cold they are. More difficult routes that require scrambling that can be dangerous even for adults, we don’t choose to do.
Q: In your book, you wrote about eating whale blubber. When my kids were that young, I couldn’t get them to eat chicken unless it was heavily processed and shaped like dinosaurs. How did you pull that off?
A: Katmai loved it. He was 11/2, probably before the age where kids start getting picky. But he gobbled it up. I needed more convincing. But it’s not bad.
Q: What does whale blubber taste like?
A: Like coconut. It’s pretty fatty.
Q: Your website says the goal of your nonprofit, Ground Truth Trekking, is to “educate and engage the public on Alaska’s natural resource issues.” How do your adventures help promote this conversation?
A: We are going out to learn. We are learning about the issues as we see the melting permafrost, talking to elders and seeing rapidly melting glaciers and see areas for potential coal mines. You look at all those climate change models, and most go through 2100. I do the math and I think my daughter is going to probably be alive then. A lot of people who are alive now are going to be alive when that graph ends. This really is about their future.
Q: What’s next and will the kids be joining you?
A: We’ll do smaller trips this summer since we just did a longer trip (an 800-mile trek around Cook Inlet). And we’ll keep going with the kids. We love them, and even if it was practical, I can’t imagine leaving them with somebody else for months on end.
Small Feet, Big Land
What: A presentation by Seattle native Erin McKittrick and her husband, Bretwood Higman, about their Alaskan wilderness expeditions with two toddlers in tow.
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m., Timberland Library, 313 Eighth Ave. SE, Olympia; Thursday, 7 p.m., King’s Books, 218 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma.
The Book: “Small Feet, Big Land” by Erin McKittrick, The Mountaineers Books, 2013, 224 pages, $18.95 ($15.95 e-book).
On the web: Read an excerpt at thenewstribune.com/ outdoors.
More information: groundtruthtrekking.org.
Craig Hill: 253-307-5373 Craig.firstname.lastname@example.org thenewstribune.com/adventure theolympian.com/adventure @AdventureGuys