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Local filmmaker premieres feature at Anchorage Film Festival

Posted: Thursday, December 02, 2010

Hardiness is something of an assumed trait if you live in Alaska, and most Alaskans fit the bill at least some of the time. But like anything, the term is relative.

On one end you have urban-dwelling Alaskans with limited outdoor skills who shop at the supermarket, rarely hike or hunt, and spend most of their outdoor appreciation time looking out the window. In this category would be the local woman who, on her second day in town, proclaimed she'd walked "all the way to the end of Basin Road - and back!" "That's where the trail starts," she was told by the laughing locals. (The shame has since faded, a little bit.)

On the other end of the scale, you have those Alaskans for whom distance, physical discomfort and exposure to the elements seems not to be an issue. At the farthest point of this far end, there's Erin McKittrick and Hig Higman, a married couple from Seldovia who walked more than 4,000 miles from Seattle to the Aleutians. The pair traversed savagely wild country on foot, in kayaks, and on skis, completely under their own power, planning every detail to make sure they had enough food to get across multiple vast stretches of unoccupied land.

What was that like? You can see for yourself in a new film, "Journey on the Wild Coast," made by local filmmaker Greg Chaney. It debuts Monday at the Anchorage International Film Festival, during the all-Alaska Snowdance portion of the event, and is scheduled to come to local screens in the near future.

This will be Chaney's fourth appearance at the film festival, and his first in the feature category. Locally, he has also had multiple films in JUMP Society shows.

He first met Higman and McKittrick as they passed through Juneau on their way north and, intrigued by their story, began following their progress on their blog, www.groundtruthtrekking.org/blog. When they came back through town while on tour for McKittrick's book, "A Long Trek Home," he asked what they were planning to do with the footage they'd shot during the trip. They didn't know, so he volunteered himself to be their filmmaker.

McKittrick said handing it over wasn't really a difficult decision.

"Originally we didn't have a plan," McKittrick said. "We thought it would be great if something got done, and we don't have the time or the skills to put together a movie ourselves."

Chaney said he was given access to McKittrick's journals, which provided the basis for her book, and tried to create a movie that complemented rather than duplicated the book's content.

Raw footage for the film -more than 100 hours - was primarily taken by Higman on a small hand-held video camera. Chaney sorted through and edited all the footage, working it into a cohesive narrative and adding interviews with several other people, including Higman's parents, McKittrick's mother and two adventurers who joined the couple for small portions of the trip, Bob Christensen III and Eric Parsons. Including footage of the other hikers should help put the couple's incredible fortitude and character in perspective, Chaney said.

"I was afraid viewers would watch the movie and see Hig and Erin like rubber cartoon characters - no matter what gets thrown at them, they just seem to bounce back ... even when they're near death." he said. "And Eric is a lot more like an average person, reacting as an average person would, and that helps give a little perspective."

One such life-threatening situation was their encounter with a grizzly (one of many). The bear is impossibly enormous, stock-still and drooling copiously, fixing its beady little eyes on the couple while it weighs its choices. Another scene, harrowing for other reasons, details the couple's alarming food shortage. As demoralizing and energy-sapping as that was, however, it still was nothing compared to what the couple calls the most risky part of the trip: the Icy Bay crossing.

Higman said the difficulty they had in making the crossing was a mental, rather than physical, miscalculation.

"We did not imagine this ice that was being driven by the wind against the shore," Higman said. "It's not that unpredictable, it's just that our imagination failed there. We didn't picture that scenario."

"I think that's the only time we screwed up in a dangerous way," McKittrick said. "That was the only bad mistake that we made that had the potential to kill us."

But most of the time, the couple minimized the risks they were taking through careful planning and an analytic approach.

"We're both academics, we're both geeks, so our approach to decision-making is kind of analytical, and that is a calmer process," Higman said.

Similarly, though their adventures and the landscapes they pass through are dramatic, there isn't a lot of social drama in the film - no shouting or throwing things, no tears or tantrums on either side. Chaney said he didn't leave that footage out, it just didn't exist.

"If we were in an argument or something that's not when you think, 'Oh, lets pull out the video camera!'" Higman said laughing.

Married couples watching the film may marvel at the couple's compatibility, something Chaney said struck him right away.

"The fact that they were married is what made the trip possible," he said. "They shared everything. They shared a sleeping bag, they shared their silverware, they brought one spoon, one fork, one pot. I talked to Hig today and he said, 'yeah, we shared a toothbrush.'"

Chaney said his visit to stay with the couple in their yurt in Seldovia earlier this year only reinforced his opinion about their good-naturedness and compatibility.

Both McKittrick and Higman said they were pleased with the way Chaney put the pieces of their story together, and are looking forward to watching it with an audience on Monday. That is, unless McKittrick is in labor - her second child is due Dec. 17. The couple's first child, Katmai, is already well on his way to becoming an adventurer himself; the family of three recently returned from a trek along the Chukchi Sea coast, a journey of more than 300 miles that McKittrick described as a totally positive experience.

The family plans to keep adventuring after the next child is born. Also in the plans: a return trek from Seattle to the Aleutians. Watch for "Journey to the Wild Coast, Part II" in 2033.

In the meantime, if you're in Anchorage, part one will be showing Monday, Dec. 6 at 7:45 p.m. and on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. in Anchorage.

For details, visit www.anchoragefilmfestival.org/2010/film/. You can also check out the couple's blog, www.groundtruthtrekking.org/blog/, for more on their adventures and their thoughts on environmental awareness.



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