By Joseph Robertia
Look at any section marked “Alaskana” in a book store, and there will be no shortage of tales of intrepid explorers hunkering down in blizzards, escaping close calls with wildlife or finding their way through some other Alaska adventure, but just barely.
But few, if any, books include a woman and two children under 5 as the main characters, which is just one of the ways that Erin McKittrick’s new book, “Small Feet, Big Land,” is so distinct from other contemporary Alaska adventure chronicles.
“Our life is about journeying, and this book is about some of the journeys we’ve had,” McKittrick said during a presentation and book signing at the Kenai Community Library on Friday.
The “we” to which she refers is herself and husband, Bretwood “Hig” Higman, their 4-year-old son, Katmai, and 2-year-old daughter, Lituya. She and Higman are characters some may already be familiar with from McKittrick’s first book, “A Long Trek Home,” which detailed the 13-month journey she and her husband took, hiking and paddling 4,000 miles from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands almost solely by human power.
The foursome also, in July, completed a roughly 800-mile trip, walking and pack-rafting around Cook Inlet.
Why? McKittrick explains in the book that this is one of the questions she hears most often. Her response is a simple one, but also not a usual one in this day and age of modern comforts and conveniences.
“Because we are here to discover the world. Because we believe there are things to learn by walking. And because I can’t imagine a different way to be. I’ve never been much of an athlete, and our journeys strive for no records. We are not the fastest, highest, farthest or longest. We are first in some things only because we chose paths others have not. We learn. We explore. Does the world still have a place for explorers?”
In the book, McKittrick shares her family’s travels through remote Arctic villages, investigations of existing and prospective zinc and coal mines, and living for two months atop one of the world’s largest glaciers. Through her writing she adds her perspective on the dramatic effects of climate change she observes in these areas.
Like other books on Alaska, McKittrick’s doesn’t shy away from the adversity of exploring, since being wet, cold, tired and miserable are the hallmarks of most of their expeditions.
It is an idea that McKittrick shares, writing, “There is something to be gained by being uncomfortable. Small discomforts are easily skated over by the force of habit. Putting on wet socks each morning and wearing them through ice-cold streams. Crawling out of a warm sleeping bag into a frigid morning. Walking through tiredness. Walking through darkness. Walking through rain. All the things that are an inevitable part of how we travel through wild country. With dry feet, I would have seen a lot less of the world than I have today.”
But despite admitting there are tough times, she doesn’t make it her central point, a habit she says far too many journalists have made when interviewing her and Higman about their travels and lifestyle of living in a yurt in Seldovia.
“They see us using an outhouse as this horrible thing,” McKittrick said, adding that they leave out, or perhaps miss all together, the point that McKittrick and her family are together day and night, live on the doorstep of wilderness with a million-dollar view in a close-knit community, and they do it debt free and on a schedule nearly entirely of their own making.
McKittrick details in her book a life that would be envied by many Alaskans, not the exported ideal often exaggerated in books or on TV shows. Instead, she focuses on the parts of being Alaskan that are painfully ordinary, yet wholly enjoyable to many who call the 49th state home, such as enjoying and working through all the seasons.
To McKittrick, “Summer in Alaska is chaotic, hurried and overstuffed. The long months of winter dormancy lead up to a short and furious burst of growth and activity — for wildlife and humans alike. After seven months of winter, our expectations were built so high that even the infinite daylight never seemed like enough.”
Alaska, to McKittrick, is more than a place where, “Men are men and women win the Iditarod,” or some other clever T-shirt slogan. It’s a place where, “Nearly everyone we knew could build a cabin, catch fish, hunt game, gather plants, smoke salmon, cook excellent food from scratch, fell a tree, split wood, fix a car, maintain a boat and wire a house,” she writes.
That being said, Alaska is a diverse place with a diverse populace, but there are ties that bind those who call this place home, and that is what appealed to McKittrick when choosing this as her home.
“America’s wildest frontier has always held a special place in the dreams of misfits and adventurous spirits — pulling us to the end of the road and beyond — into a way of life that’s hard to come back from. I stayed, as many do, because I’d rather be Alaskan than anything else,” McKittrick writes. “Where misfits gather, it’s easy to feel more normal. More than anywhere else I’ve lived, in Alaska I feel like I belong.”
To learn more about McKittrick, her adventures and her books, visit her website at http://www.groundtruthtrekking.org.