Couple embarks on year-long raft trip

Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2007

KETCHIKAN - They landed at Mountain Point on Sunday evening after about 1,000 miles of bush-whacking, beach-walking and pack-rafting up the Pacific coast from Seattle.

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Less than 48 hours later, Bretwood "Hig" Higman and Erin McKittrick strapped their minimalist gear - much of it home-made or customized - onto two 5-pound Alpacka rafts, hopped in and paddled out of Thomas Basin.

Just 3,000 miles to go.

The couple plans to reach the Aleutian Islands in March, traveling essentially non-stop and without the aid of motorized vehicles or vessels.

Why?

Adventure, of course. But their other big goals are to learn about environmental issues and educate people.

"The idea there is ... get out there and have an interesting adventure, and then deliver information," Higman said.

Higman, 30, and McKittrick, 27, grew up in Seldovia and Seattle, respectively. They met in college in 1999 and married in 2003.

Higman just finished work on a doctorate in geology (the geologic record of tsunamis), and McKittrick has a master's degree in molecular and cellular biology.

They were seasoned trekkers well before leaving Seattle northbound on June 9.

They've logged more than 3,000 miles in Southcentral and Southwest Alaska, most recently a 450-mile loop in the Bristol Bay watersheds downstream of the proposed Pebble Mine site in 2005.

That trip brought together their love of expedition travel with their growing interest in learning and raising awareness about environmental issues. As a result, they formed the Ground Truth Trekking organization in 2006 as a "vehicle" for their environmental projects.

The Seattle-Unimak Island expedition is the next step.

"Something like the Pebble Mine, ultimately, is just one thing," McKittrick said. "But when you look more into it, all of these issues are complicated and they're all intertwined. You have the mining, you have the forestry, you have the fisheries, you have global warming."

Context is difficult because many people often don't know what's going on beyond their immediate location and issues, she said. The trek is an effort to gain a broad perspective first-hand.

"We want to have this really great adventure and to really try and both learn and teach others along the way about these issues we think are really important," McKittrick said.

She's planning to write a book after the journey is complete. For now, they're maintaining a detailed blog (www.aktrekking.com) that includes text, photos and video.

After departing Seattle, Higman and McKittrick took an indirect route to Ketchikan.

There was a side trip to Prince Royal Island in British Columbia, and explorations of the Quall and Ecstall rivers that flow into the Skeena River.

Before arriving here, they figured that they'd bush-whacked through forest and thick brush about for about 20 of the 80 traveling days, and spent about 10 days hiking on roads and trails.

There was a day of beach-walking, and about 10 days of pack-rafting on rivers and lakes. The rest was ocean-paddling in the pack-rafts.

Made in Alaska, the Alpacka rafts are small, light, stable, slow, and just about perfect for this type of travel, said McKittrick and Higman, who've used Alpacka rafts since 2003 and now are sponsored by the company.

Paddled from kayak-like sitting position, the rafts travel at about 2 mph in average conditions.

"They're the fastest boat you can carry over the mountains, but they're not the fastest boat in the water," she said.

For the casual bystander, putting out to sea in 5.5-foot raft might be difficult to fathom. Even more astounding might be the seeming absence of gear strapped to the rafts for such a journey.

Higson and McKittrick are gear aficionados, actually, having developed a quirky set of lightweight, durable equipment and clothing that either have withstood or been developed from heavy use on earlier trips.

They've designed and made their own raingear and thermal layers, for example. They've also got shelter and sleeping gear that they've custom-rigged through experience.

And perhaps their niftiest dual-use of gear is the inflatable Thermarest sleeping pads they've reshaped to work as lifejackets, too.

As minimalist as the gear might be, it's brought them as far as Ketchikan.

They said they've enjoyed the trip thus far, although there has been a hitch or two.

Some places where they'd been expecting to restock food supplies haven't had much available.

"It often can be easier to find Internet access than groceries in some of these places," McKittrick said. "I'm looking for Internet access, too, which is great. But groceries are (of) a little more primary importance."

Arriving in Ketchikan was a return to somewhat familiar water for McKittrick, who'd kayaked around Revillagigedo Island in 2004. Otherwise, the rest of Southeast Alaska is new territory for them.

They departed Ketchikan on Tuesday afternoon, accompanied on this leg of the trip by Bob Christensen of Gustavus.

Their plan was to head up Thorne Arm and cross overland to Behm Canal. They said they'll cross Behm Canal and go into the Chikamin and Unuk Rivers.

"Then actually a little detour into Canada and out the Iskut and Stikine (rivers)," said McKittrick.

Later on, they plan a side trip back to the proposed Pebble Mine area near Bristol Bay, she said.

Their next town stop will be in Wrangell. They're basically traveling straight through to Unimak Island, with short stops in towns and cities along the way.

They're definitely not trying to set any speed records, but want to maintain an efficient schedule to get past Yakutat and the Gulf of Alaska before December.

They're hoping to spend 10 days in Anchorage, and to collect their skis in Valdez for the serious winter-travel portion of the trip. If all goes well, they'll arrive at False Pass at Unimak Island, the first island in the Aleutian chain, in March.



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