By Michael Lanza
As I nosed my two-person sea kayak, shared with my seven-year-old daughter, Alex, onto a wilderness beach in Johns Hopkins Inlet, deep in Southeast Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, our lead guide, Sarah, strolled over to me and announced, “We’re thinking of camping here. There’s just one problem: It’s a bear highway.”
Our party of a dozen people got out of our kayaks to stretch our legs and inspect the small beach—staying close together, eyes frequently scanning the open mountainside above us for ursine stalkers. I looked over the three oval depressions in the beach sand, where brown bears had laid down to sleep, and the paw prints stamped all over the ground, some longer than my rubber boots and twice as wide. Fresh scat littered the beach. Impressions of long claws remained intact in the wet sand. Those bruins had bedded down there just the night before.
I thought of that episode while reading Alaskan Erin McKittrick’s new book Small Feet, Big Land—Adventure, Home, and Family on the Edge of Alaska ($18.95, Mountaineers Books, mountaineersbooks.org), about she and her husband, Hig, raising a toddler and baby in a yurt at the edge of the wilderness in Seldovia, Alaska, and taking their children on expeditions that would make most parents start sucking a binky themselves. They backpacked for a month along the storm-thrashed coast of the Chukchi Sea in remote, northwest Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle—with a toddler son, while McKittrick was five months pregnant with their daughter. They traversed one of Alaska’s largest glaciers for two months with a two-year-old and an infant.
Parents who have backpacked with young kids know the complex, unpredictable challenges of short-term wilderness parenting. McKittrick’s family expeditions involve living for a month or two with a toddler and infant in a tent in one of the wettest, rawest environments on the planet: Alaska. Where most American parents more commonly worry about their children safely negotiating neighborhood streets and traffic, McKittrick concerns herself with brown bears. “I was accustomed to bears,” she writes, “but maybe I’d never be fully accustomed to parenting-near-bears.”
Her tale blends scenes familiar, mundane, and endearing to anyone who has ever hiked with a toddler—“He threw rocks. He waded in the trickles that ran down the beach, and threw ptarmigan feathers into the wind… Walk, look, pause, play, walk, look, pause, play, walk…”—with anecdotes about carrying their children tucked inside wraps on their chests, with monster packs on their backs, through driving rainstorms, searching for a campsite that’s near water but not underwater on a glacier, and not near signs of bear traffic.
My own family has taken numerous ski trips to backcountry yurts, so my kids understand what it’s like to stay in one—but only for four days at a stretch, not to actually live in one room, heated by a wood stove, going outside in any weather to an outhouse multiple times a day. McKittrick has reached her thirties without ever owning a car, and “I wanted to keep it that way.”
She writes about finding the tracks of moose and wolverine in the snow on walks from their yurt. On their family expeditions, their toddler son hurls himself down on patches of alpine blueberries, happily gorging himself. Their children play on the beach, as do children everywhere; but these are very remote, wilderness beaches, with no one else around. I’ve seen my own kids spend hours in tide pools on cool, overcast days on the wilderness coast of Washington’s Olympic National Park, until their hands and feet feel like fish pulled from the refrigerator. While the fact that they’re playing on a wilderness beach—rather than one crowded with hundreds of people—probably does not matter to that child on that day, there’s little doubt in my mind that it will shape the adult that child becomes.
“Adventuring with kids is working incredibly hard to plan for something you can’t possibly anticipate,” McKittrick writes. “Then adapting everything you know on the fly. Then throwing out every one of those techniques to start over from scratch the next time. Despite all that, we do it anyway.”
McKittrick recognizes what I’ve long considered the greatest benefit of family time in the backcountry. As she writes, “Out here, the kids had both of their parents, every hour of every day, devoting far more of our attention to their explorations than we ever could at home. In a place engaging enough that we enjoyed it too.”
Her children are young in this book, but she muses about their future: “What would it be like as a kid to have wilderness at your doorstep? To just wander into a world without fences, beyond the sight of any house?… Will there be tree forts and hide-and-seek and kingdoms beyond the reach of grownups?… Or not. Maybe I’m just trying to give our children what I kind of wish I’d had, ignoring all the things I took for granted. The things we’re not giving them. Like an infinite array of organized kids’ activities and more than a handful of same-age peers. Like a toilet.”
McKittrick also writes about the ravages of climate change on the landscape around them. Few corners of the globe are warming faster than Alaska, where average temperatures have increased by 6.3˚ F over the past 50 years, twice as fast as the rest of the United States, and for only the second time in its 43-year history, the Iditarod dog sled race will alter its route this year due to a lack of snow. And anyone spending much time in the natural world understands that the impacts of global warming are more profoundly and disturbingly visible in nature than in our controlled, urban and suburban environments, where we need only turn on the air conditioning and sprinklers to ignore the problem. McKittrick relates walking Alaska’s Harding Icefield, seeing “a stark gray landscape of dead spruce forests, killed by the bark beetle that thrives in warmer weather.”
She reflects more thoughtfully on concerns that undoubtedly many parents share (and that I wrote about in my book about family wilderness adventures, national parks, and climate change): “Bringing a child into a world of rapid climate change might mean bringing him into a world of transformed politics, gleaming solar panels, and an economy where community has pushed aside consumption. Or a world of pain and extinction, upheaval and hardship. Or more likely, some of each scenario.” She worries about the cold fact that, while we are witnessing climate change today, our children’s generation will live with the full impacts of whatever it brings.
McKittrick’s story not only gives us a window onto an exceedingly rare frontier-type family lifestyle, it reminds us of how few children in America today can relate to this on any level. Children have great imaginary capacity to place themselves in the life of a story’s protagonist, especially if they have some contextual parallel in their own life. But today, smaller numbers of American children can dash off into a woodland from their home, on foot, by themselves, to pretend for an afternoon that they live in the wilderness. We’ve created physical barriers to most American children being able to even really imagine the lives of Erin McKittrick’s children. And for children, physical barriers erect mental barriers, depriving them of the contextual experience that stokes imagination.
It’s tempting, as parents living in softer circumstances in civilization, to speculate that McKittrick’s family’s “experiment” with living more primitively will not survive her children getting older, needing more space and freedom (and their parents getting older and perhaps longing for a little more space and comfort). And it’s certainly easier as a parent to impose your lifestyle on babies and toddlers than on teenagers.
But I’m not ready to pass that judgment. My experience, with kids now 14 and almost 12, has long been that other parents tend to presume that their reality represents the only possible reality for all parents—that if their family can’t live without, say, a large-screen, flat TV, multiple bedrooms, cell service, and plumbing, then no other family can do it. I could fill an Olympic-size swimming pool with all the confident advice from parents with children older than mine that never rang true for my family.
To parents just starting out, I say: Ignore the advice about what you can’t do, choose selectively from the advice about what you can do, and follow your own path.
McKittrick’s blog reports that the family—the children are now six and four—plans to set out in March to ski 500 miles in two months, from Nome to Kotzebue on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula.
Personally, I’m rooting for McKittrick’s strategy of extreme parenting.
Read more about Small Feet, Big Land, including a free sample chapter, and buy it at this link. McKittrick and her husband are the founders of Ground Truth Trekking, a nonprofit that uses science and adventure to further the conversation about Alaska environment issues: groundtruthtrekking.org/blog. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
NOTE: I wrote about my family’s five-day, wilderness sea kayaking trip in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and other wilderness adventures in national parks, in my award-winning book, Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.
The Big Outside is proud to partner with these sponsors. Please help support my blog by liking and following my sponsors on Facebook and other social media and telling them you appreciate their support for The Big Outside.