Couple to walk and paddle from Seattle to Aleutians

Trekking journey is just the beginning of the adventure

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2007

Erin McKittrick and Bretwood "Hig" Higman arrived in Juneau last week on day 124 of their 4,000-mile, human-powered trek.

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Without any means of motorized transportation, McKittrick, 26, and Higman, 30, hopscotched along the Pacific Coast by following game trails in the woods or paddling five-and-a-half foot pack-rafts. The conservationists, who started in Seattle on June 9, are scheduled to accomplish their goal in March 2008 by skiing, rafting, and hiking along Alaska's Gulf Coast in winter. The trek will end on Unimak Island on the Aleutian chain.

The two say their nine-month journey is "for the sake of the wilderness itself and raising awareness of conservation issues by exploring the state of the environment."

McKittrick and Higman married in 2003 after they met at Carleton College in Minnesota. Together they have logged more than 3,000 miles of trekking in Alaska, customizing gear along the way. They constantly observe, discuss, and marvel at the natural beauty and subtle micro-environments of land and sea. They hope this trek is just beginning of what promises to be a lifetime of adventure trekking.

McKittrick and Higman enjoy their ports of call very much and readily accepted an invitation to sit down for an interview with the Juneau Empire over coffee and pastries.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

Empire: How cool has this trip been for you both from an outdoorsman's point of view?

McKittrick: I tell people that it is really neat. We get to see how everything is connected and everything is changing, but I would say that for making recommendations to someone who wants to do a shorter trip, this is like the best scouting trip ever. We could tell people about some really awesome little areas that we would like to come back and see again. We could tell people that they should definitely go to this one area and to never go up this other one because it is like, nothing but devil's club and salmon berry bushes!

Empire: How has the trip been from a scientific point of view?

Higman: My specialty is in geology and so I am interested in how well understood are earthquakes and tsunami hazards in both British Columbia and in Southeast Alaska. The trip has really got me a lot more interested in learning more and doing more to research a number of open questions about this stuff.

McKittrick: We are science geeks, and so as we are out there we are always trying to figure out what is going on in this endlessly fascinating environment. There are a lot of scientific things we think about and talk about in our sort of nerdy discussions about plants and tidal currents and so on.

Higman: We lack a lot of depth the specialists have, but we get to have a good overview of what is going on.

Empire: What is the longest stretch of time you have gone without human contact during the trip?

McKittrick: Probably, at least a week. We have been 19 days between towns, but just a little over a week without seeing anyone.

Higman: Yeah, but those human contacts may happen by briefly talking to someone on a boat, and then there is another long stretch without seeing someone.

Empire: Have you named any of your gear like Tom Hanks named his volleyball "Wilson" in the movie Castaway?

McKittrick: Hmm, that's interesting. We have named some of the gear. Because this backpack was made from several different fabrics from different backpacks, it is named "The Mongrel," and that one over there is "The Bionic Grouper."

Higman: My raft is called "The Eddy-winder" because I am obsessed with finding exactly the fastest current, even if it is just by an eighth of a knot. It is a very interesting pastime and I enjoy it.

Empire: So, do you like traveling by foot or by boat better?

McKittrick: It depends on what you mean by "like." There is efficiency and interest. I like paddling on the ocean, but it is a little more consistent, a little bit more the same, so in general, I love doing more of the land parts because they add more variety and interest, but the ocean is the much more efficient route, and so we kind of mix it up.

Higman: Right. Uh, definitely the oceans and the rivers are absolutely at the top of our hazards list. The danger of high seas, where we can get not only knocked out, but knocked out repeatedly, is what we worry about, and we have not ended up in that situation. Rivers with big sweepers and holes are way above the worries of bears and steep slopes.

McKittrick: There are a lot of places where we have the option to walk. Like last week, there was a situation where we would not even think of getting out in the water. The wind was just howling and water was frothing and so we just walked on a bear trail.

Empire: Have you become ill?

McKittrick: Nope, you can't get sick if you're not around humans.

Empire: Are you foraging?

McKittrick: A little bit, mostly mushrooms around this time of year.

Higman: We don't count on a lot of calorie contribution from it though.

Empire: What are some of the difficulties you face?

Higman: There are logistical difficulties from getting to places and so on.

McKittrick: There was the village that only sold potato chips!

Higman: The one thing that I have thought most about is the psychological challenge ... Preparing one's mind to just be comfortable is really challenging. We have thought a lot about the Yakutat coast when we might be facing lots of days of rain and needing to do like 25 miles and being in the dark for a lot of that time.

McKittrick: The thing about the wilderness is that it just doesn't care. There's times when it just feels like the universe is just mocking you and everything seems like it is against you, and that is just all part of the game. You have to remember that all that does change and that it will be nice again sometime.

Empire: How has the wildlife treated you so far?

McKittrick: We stopped at this huge cedar tree for a photo-op and as Hig backed up next to the tree, I didn't realize there was a pretty good-sized black bear just on the other side of the tree!

Higman: The bear backed off, but sure enough, about 10 minutes later, we see that the bear is following us. This was a real concern because something like 90 percent of black bear attacks are predatory, and they are not stealthy stalkers. So we are being stalked, and we managed to get up into this big cedar stump that stood about 15 feet above the forest floor that was like the turret of a castle. Then the bear moved back and we saw that it was a mother bear with three cubs actually, and that was a great relief because they rarely attack to protect their cubs. We had to wait in there for a while and then she backed off and we came down. The sea lions are just bizarre...

McKittrick: ...and there's been numerous other bear encounters but they just run away.

Empire: Do you think any of your gear alterations will change the way trekking gear is produced?

Higman: That's interesting! So, essentially we are making gear for ourselves. What that ends up meaning is that we are not making things the way they would be marketed. Like, we have a Thermarest life vest! That's a great thing, but you have to think of liability when marketing products.

McKittrick: You have to get it Coast Guard approved.

Higman: ... One thing that we have developed that has potential is our simple full-body, crotch-less fleece suit undergarment. We have kind of refined that and figured out what fleece to use and there may be a market for that, but most of our stuff is kind of specialized.

McKittrick: Our stuff is specialized for our use. There are no bells and whistles or pretty looking and stuff like that for marketing things.

Empire: Your Web site says that savings, donations, and sponsors finance your trek. You must both be amazing proposal-writers. Do corporations, as well as environmental groups sponsor you?

Higman: Well, you know, everybody is a corporation these days!

McKittrick: Alpacka Rafts are an Alaska-based company in Anchorage. They make our dry suits and rafts, and we have been on board with them for a few years. We got a grant from Gore-Tex too.

Higman: Mostly we are dealing with small companies. The big ones are Alpacka Rafts and Montrail shoes. Montrail sent us eight pairs each, and we get them shipped to us when we need a new pair. We go wet-footed during the day and have a system for drying our feet out every night. It is really important to get the feet dry on a regular basis.

Empire: (Your Web-site) says that you "journey through lands at the heart of controversy." Do you believe that your trip is stirring up controversy or enlightening awareness of controversies already at hand?

Higman: We don't really think of it as "stirring." Our focus is providing information to the public, and we have our biases but we try our best to get out there and report accurately what we see, what we find, and what we hear by talking to people. We are not out there to drive home whatever particular bias we have.

McKittrick: We are not going to pretend that we do not have opinions of our own, either.

Higman: Yeah, we love the wilderness and we are really inspired by conservation, but we are not out there to make things up and cause more trouble.

McKittrick: Also, we do want to raise awareness and make people aware of some of the issues that aren't yet, and depending upon what they think about what they find out, maybe that is stirring up controversy. You can do both. We have done a lot of work on the Pebble Mine issue up in Southwest Alaska, and when I first went out there in 2005, it was an issue, but it wasn't nearly as big. It wasn't something headlining all the newspapers in the state, all the time. I do not know to what extent I was responsible for any of it, but since then it has become a much bigger controversy, and so I probably did play a part in stirring that up. I also like to think that I did put a lot of information out there for people and I tried to make it as accurate as possible and photos of the area, well, they are just photos, and people will do with that what they will!

Higman: Our two Web sites and Erin's Pebble Mine section is still a top hit for Google and if you type in 'Pebble Mine' our site beats out Northern Dynasty's multimillion dollar publicity campaign, so we are kind of proud of that!

(Their Web-sites are www.groundtruthtrekking.org and www.aktrekking.com.)





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