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Alaskan family gears up for two-month wilderness expedition

Baby and toddler join the trek to document climate change on Malaspina Glacier

Posted: September 9, 2011 - 12:02am
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A frosty November morning on the lowlands near Malaspina Glacier in 2007.  Photo courtesy of Erin McKittrick, Brentwood Higman and Ground Truth Trekking
Photo courtesy of Erin McKittrick, Brentwood Higman and Ground Truth Trekking
A frosty November morning on the lowlands near Malaspina Glacier in 2007.

Alaska’s landscape can be rough, its weather unforgiving and journeying across it a feat for most. Now, toss in a baby and a toddler.

It’s fair to say the adventure just got much more interesting.

Trekkers Erin McKittrick and Bretwood (Hig) Higman, of Seldovia, are gearing up for a two-month expedition on one of North America’s largest glaciers this fall — and they’re bringing their children — Lituya, 8 months, and Katmai, 2 1/2.

McKittrick and Higman are experienced wilderness travellers and their experiences range from pack-rafting from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands to on-foot expeditions in the Arctic. Their yearlong journey through and beyond Alaska’s panhandle is chronicled in McKittrick’s book “A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski.”

Their latest adventure echoes their mission of boots-on-the-ground environmental reconnaissance and they call the plan “Life on Ice.” It will involve human-powered travel between a series of base camps on the ice of Malaspina Glacier and across the terrain surrounding this glacier, which is roughly 40 miles wide and 25 miles long. The family will tour the stormy ocean coast and explore the impacts of climate change on the shrinking glacier.

The pair first experienced the Malaspina Glacier when they moved northward during their 2007 trek. It is located on the remote Gulf of Alaska Coast, about 250 miles northwest of Juneau.

“It’s just an amazing place,” Higman said. “There are forests growing on the ice, super-cooled ice springs, sea lions on the coast, bears, amazing fall storms ... And the glacier is shrinking so quickly that it’s a great spot to see the power of climate change.”

“It’s an opportunity to watch everything in fast forward,” McKittrick said.

But why bring the kids on such an adventure? McKittrick and Higman believe sharing such an experience with their children will open their eyes to things that would otherwise go overlooked.

“It’s kind of fun to hang out with someone who will get excited about a flock of seagulls,” McKittrick said. “And two whole months to explore outside with your parents — what could a kid like more?”

Katmai has already traveled more than 500 miles by foot and raft with his parents, but this will be Lituya’s first journey.

“Our experience in the Arctic (in which we took Katmai), it affirms the idea of bringing the kids along. (He) had a great time,” Higman said. “Plus, they’re part of the family.”

Weather permitting, the pair will begin the journey on Thursday, Sept. 15 and end roughly two months later on Nov. 15, Higman said. They will begin their journey at a base camp situated on the shores of Malaspina Lake and work their way around the large tongue of the glacier on foot and pack-raft, turning northward and finally ending on the shores of Oily Lake. Higman said the total journey will traverse roughly 100 miles. But, he said, the overall mileage could add up to more. The family plans to set up base camps at predetermined locations along the route and embark on exploratory day trips.

When it comes to safety, the family has taken as many precautions as they can.

“We’re actually really cautious people, and we work really hard to anticipate risks,” McKittrick said.

For this trip, they will bring an electrified fence and pepper spray to discourage bears, a woodstove to warm up wet kids, and a large shelter, in addition to their standard equipment and ultralight rafts. But gear can only go so far, the family will also rely heavily on Higman and McKittrick’s decade of experience dealing with grizzly bears, wilderness navigation, wild storms and dangerous rivers.

Officially, Higman holds a doctorate in geology, while McKittrick has a master’s degree in biology.

With Southeast Alaska’s most pleasant weather already a memory, why head into the wilderness in the fall?

“You get some amazing experiences,” Higman said. “The weather is quite dynamic, which results in waterfalls that are incredible. (There are all) sorts of interesting hydraulics during big rainstorms. (And,) as photographers, the light is just a lot better this time of year.”

The family will post updates on their adventure from their wilderness outpost, sharing stories on their website and blog at www.GroundTruthTrekking.org. McKittrick also plans to recount the adventure in a book to be published by Mountaineers Books.

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