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46 » Backcountry

A Walk on the Wild Side »

Learn more about Erin and Hig’s ambitious, adventurous projects at www.groundtruthtrek- king.org.

Paddling a “pack- raft” across George- town Creek, B.C.

January + February 2010 » Washington Trails


A Long Trek Home Indeed

Two adventurers, one 4,000-mile journey from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands

Nothing about Erin McKittrick’s and Bret- wood Higman’s outward appearances suggests that they are “extreme sports” types.

They look and sound like reasonable, serious people. Like scientists. Indeed, McKittrick is a molecular biologist and “Hig” is a geologist who specializes in tsunami research.

And yet, in 2007, Erin and Hig embarked on a brazen 4,000-mile endeavor, traveling along the Pacific Ocean, from Puget Sound to the Bering Sea, by foot, packraft, and skis.

Erin and Hig’s unique course meandered through both wilderness and civilization. They didn’t take a helicopter ride to reach a remote locale and start there. Instead, their journey began in Wedgwood, a north Seattle neighbor- hood, where they stepped off their porch ready to face the wilderness—albeit with a day or two of suburban travel ahead.

After reaching the spine of the Cascades, they continued north through a diverse array of settings: old-growth forests and clearcut forests, large cities and tiny villages, glaciated subalpine terrain and coastal tidepools. They hiked in blazing heat, rafted under steady rain, and skied through blizzards, until finally, a year after leaving Wedgwood, they reached Unimak Island, in Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain.

A Long Trek Home, recently published by the Mountaineers Books, recounts this year-long journey in detail. Broken into the four sec- tions, one for each season, the book provides a firsthand look at the environmental issues that these adventurous scientists encountered while on their trek.

McKittrick’s vivid and intriguing descriptions engage all your senses. When she and Hig are drenched, you too will feel wet and soggy. When the sun breaks, you will feel warmth.

When McKittrick reflects, her prose is both straightforward and eloquent. She writes,

“There’s something awesome about setting yourself under nature’s rules—something that transcends comfort. The intensity of the Lost Coast was like nothing we’d ever experienced. And when it was gorgeous, it was the most gor- geous place on earth.”

I caught up with Erin and Hig while they were traveling through the Pacific Northwest on their recent book tour to find out more about their trip, the writing process, and the “re-entry process” of adjusting to a less nomadic life.

As Erin was already in the habit of taking notes each night during her long journeys, she didn’t feel that writing a book about this trip changed her approach to the journey too much. However, as Hig pointed out, “this trip was for more than just us” and having a set goal, a rule forbidding motorized transit and an expectant audience proved to be good motivation.

Erin’s key piece of advice for anyone think- ing about tackling a long-distance expedition is to “be comfortable with wilderness hazard analysis on the fly,” which Hig seconded and rephrased as “accept that there are hazards, but don’t kill yourself.”

Those of us who aren’t thinking about hiking for a year straight can still adopt a few of the practices that this team employed. Hig recom- mends giving your hike a concept, such as focusing on geology, or hiking at night, or going out to collect data, while Erin notes that plan- ning to go into a really remote place will force you to adopt a different perspective on your time outdoors.

After completing their trek, Erin and Hig both found it extremely strange to be able to travel without paying full attention to that process. As Erin pointed out, “When you are a passenger, you can even fall asleep and still get somewhere!” t

  • Lace Thornberg

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