4,000 miles by boot, raft and ski
By Jill Homer
When Erin McKittrick and her husband, Brentwood “Hig” Higman, last visited Juneau, an unseen October drizzle pattered on their tiny rafts as they paddled into the inky darkness along Gastineau Channel. At first, the city was just a small island of lights in a sea of night. Then they could make out the fog-obscured shapes of buildings, and then the crimson stream of car lights on Egan Drive, and then the imposing towers of the cruise ship dock where they landed.
“As we paddled into Juneau, the rain seemed unrelenting,” Erin wrote in her blog. “Even through the layers of gloves and mitts, my hands were cold and wet. On a remote coast, I would have shrugged off the spat in the weather ... But coming into town? Each building glowed; windows of lit gold shining over the water as dusk fell on the channel. And each and every window taunted me with its promise of warmth and dryness.”
It was the largest city they had seen in several months, and one of the few outposts of civilization along more than a thousand miles of Pacific Coast that they had walked and paddled since leaving Seattle four months earlier, in June 2007. Behind them were a lifetime’s worth of adventures that most can only dream about: Climbing snow-bound mountains, packrafting glacier-lined channels and frolicking in the surf with dolphins. But these experiences didn’t echo in their world-weary thoughts as they approached the inviting lights of Juneau. They only had one thing on their minds: Pizza.
“Pack bulging with poorly arranged gear, packrafts haphazardly strapped on top, we stumbled through the door of Bullwinkle’s Pizza,” Erin wrote in “A Long Trek Home,” her recently released autobiography about the trek. “The tops of our sodden dry suits bulged awkwardly, stretched over the modifed sleeping pads we were wearing as life vests and camera gear we stuffed next to our skin to keep it dry and warm. ... A football game was blaring on the giant flat screen TV, and as we snacked on pizza, we tried to puzzle the rules of the game, which neither of us really knew. I felt like an alien species, visiting this strange indoor world.”
The meandering journey that brought the couple to Juneau’s quintessential pizza parlor took them more than 4,000 miles from their former home in Seattle to the Aleutian Islands over the course of a year. From the soggy shores of Southeast to the deep-frozen wilderness of the Copper River Basin, Erin and Hig’s trek brought them closer to their goal — to better understand the relationships between humans, communities, ecosystems and natural resources. As they walked, packrafted and skied, they came to a deeper understanding about their own desires for beauty and simplicity in their lives.
“Coming into Juneau was more extreme that usual,” Hig said. “It was straight from the water, and water is always wilderness. We went straight from that to busy streets.”
Erin and Hig will return to these busy streets on Tuesday, Dec. 1, for a book signing and slideshow presentation about the journey at Centennial Hall. Hig estimated he and Erin took 22,000 photos over the course of the trip, and plan to show at least 100 in Juneau.
At the presentation, Erin expects to field the usual questions: “What gear did you use?” “How far did you walk every day?” “Are you crazy?” But she also plans to talk about “A Long Trek Home,” written as a poetic love letter to Alaska, the wilderness and the seasons of the year. In the book, Erin also addresses the environmental issues facing Alaska, such as the effects of climate change, logging and the proposed Pebble Mine.
“It is an adventure narrative fundamentally,” Erin said. “I do present some of the issues, but it’s all tied into the story.”
The section of the book addressing the couple’s trek through the Juneau region is titled “Hospitality,” a reference to the Southeast Alaskans who took them in and offered them food and shelter during their autumn visit. Erin said they left Juneau by packrafting across the Gastineau Channel, walking around the point of Douglas Island, crossing Stephens Passage to Admiralty Island and walking the Glass Peninsula. She said at that point in their journey, their movement was mostly aquatic, and the endless series of rain-shrouded islands and channels is a bit of a blur.
“After four months in the Inside Passage, we had come to wonder how much it had left to offer us: Thinking of drizzly coastlines and thick forest brush, and turning our thoughts prematurely to the open Gulf of Alaska coast,” she wrote in her blog. “But there are always surprises. The ocean between Petersburg and Juneau was one of the most alive chunks of coast we’ve seen the whole trip. Humpback whales sang for us the rest of that night, and a good part of the next one.”
After leaving Juneau, they still had more than 2,000 miles to trek, and the whole of Alaska’s brutal winter to hike, ski and camp through. But before they could enter the subzero cold and snow of the Interior in winter, they had to pass through the spectacular storms and ice of the Gulf of Alaska. In one of the trip’s more harrowing experiences, Erin and Hig paddled across Icy Bay late into the evening in a rainstorm, fighting wind and current that threatened to pull them into a morass of churning ice. Fear of hypothermia and sinking their rafts amid the swirling bergs kept them paddling even as exhaustion and darkness closed in.
“It was a very long, frightening five hours we had no wish ever to repeat,” Erin said. It also become one of Erin and Hig’s more memorable experiences.
“Definitely the Lost Coast,” Erin said of her favorite section of the trip. “Leaving the Glacier Bay section is so remote and there were so many storms and so many bays to cross. It was really a wonderful place.”
Their trek ended on Unimak Island, where a treacherous 12-mile ocean crossing keeps grizzly bears, caribou and packraft-bound humans from ranging any farther. At that point, Erin and Hig had been traveling under their own power for more than a year, becoming more accustomed to a simple lifestyle. Erin was pregnant with the couple’s first child. They had endured hunger, cold and powerful isolation, and emerged with an understanding that their future no longer fit with the glittering complexity of the big city.
“We had made so many plans during our long walk,” Erin wrote in “A Long Trek Home.” “Now that we accomplished one extravagant goal that we set for ourselves, we had to start looking to the next. Not all of our days could be extraordinary. But our lives could still be.”
They moved from Seattle to Seldovia, a small village just off the road system on Kachemak Bay, where Hig grew up. They built a small yurt, complete with what Erin sees as a glut of modern conveniences: Internet, a wood stove and little shelves that lock into the lattice of the yurt’s frame. On Valentine’s Day, Erin gave birth to a son, Katmai. Now Erin said the family is preparing for new Alaska wilderness journeys, such as a monthlong trek through the northwestern region of the state with an 18-month-old in tow. A baby may slow them down, Erin said, but he certainly won’t stop them.
“He loves to go on hikes,” Erin said. “Baby’s are pretty portable; they don’t take much stuff.”
As to her answer to the common question of whether they’re adrenaline junkies or just plain crazy, Erin said she didn’t feel like walking from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands was any more dangerous than tasks most people take on every day, such as driving on the freeway.
“We’re very cautious people,” Erin said. “We evaluated hazards, and would think through risks.”
“We want to do it again in 23 1/2 years,” Hig said. “We’ll change in that time and so will the places we’ve been to. The experience will spread out, and provide some of the depth we often lack.”