Expeditions can be cold and wet and dirty and hard. But a good expedition is more than just a display of athleticism or the grunt work of walking. A good expedition is also a series of puzzles waiting to be solved with muscles and maps and bits of string.
Our bits of string lashed together bent green willows, stripped of their bark with a pocket knife. String was also used to lash together a frameless backpack, an inflatable boat and a bicycle wheel. These improbable items were thrown together to solve an even more improbable puzzle: how to cross a glacier with two small children.
One of the grant applications I filled out for this expedition required me to list the skills of each member of the team. For my husband, Hig, and me, I listed the thousands of kilometres of human-powered wilderness travel, photography, navigation, writing and science that we had previously undertaken. For our toddler son, I listed ‘pebble throwing’; for our infant daughter, ‘eating sand’. The application was rejected.
When we began this expedition, Lituya was eight months old. She’s named after a beautiful bay that lies 800 kilometres to the east of our home in Alaska. Katmai
was two-and-a-half years old. His name comes from an imposing volcano 250 kilometres to the southwest.
The children were adorable naturalists. Katmai poked a wiggling trout in the palm of his father’s hand, crouched intently over a pile of ptarmigan droppings and named each iceberg for its shape: bird, fish, turtle and monster. Lituya held ice in her two chubby fists, gumming shining pieces of glacier as the meltwater trickled down the back of my neck.
Our children were also clingy and whining brats. They spilled water on the sleeping bags, dropped electronics in the mud, filled nappies, snatched toys from each other and attempted to crawl into the hot stove. In short, they were ordinary children.
They were also heavy. Lituya slept on my chest as I walked, tucked into a length of red fabric that was wrapped and tied around my body. As she pulled me forwards, my rucksack pulled me back. The pack was stuffed to a little beyond bursting with everything from cheddar cheese to a portable electric fence. I paused to wait for Hig, shifting from foot to foot as the glacier’s chill crept up through my thin-soled shoes.
Hig grabbed the sticks of willow like the handles of a wheelbarrow, painstakingly manoeuvring the little bicycle wheel over the sharp boulders that covered a buckled ridge of ice. Katmai napped inside the raft that we had suspended on those sticks, seemingly impervious to the jostling that set Hig grunting and grumbling with every step.
Then it began to snow. White fluff piled on white ice and smoothed the sharp edges of the boulders. It speckled the black of our rain gear and the red of our inflatable raft. Swirling flakes filled the air, where our ribbon of ice disappeared into the formless sky.
A LOST WORLD
It was the end of September and we were in the middle of the Malaspina Glacier, located in the centre of Alaska’s Lost Coast, which is my favorite terrible place in the world. This coast is ‘lost’ between Prince William Sound and the gentler waters of the Inside Passage. It’s lost because – even by Alaskan standards – this stretch of shoreline is harsh, remote and devoid of humans. The giant peaks of the Saint Elias Range rise straight from the ocean, creating some of the highest relief in the world. Flowing down from their snowy ice fields, North America’s largest glaciers spill onto the beach plain in vast, rapidly melting lobes. Storms whipped up in the Aleutians whirl down this coastline, funnelled onto the narrow strip of beaches between the roiling ocean and the towering peaks.
If the 2,200 square kilometres of Malaspina Glacier were a typical piece of the USA, it would be home to more than 74,000 people, with highways connecting shopping malls to neighbourhoods of neatly painted houses. In Britain, more than half a million citizens could fit within its footprint. Here, there were just the four of us, boosting the population above its usual number of zero.
Nobody comes here. While we were planning this expedition, I was forced to reach back to the 1890s, when Israel C Russell’s team of intrepid explorers set out to cross the glacier and climb the tallest peak beyond it. They hand-drew maps and wrote descriptions filled with awe and warning: ‘So vast is the glacier that, on looking down on it from elevations of two or three thousand feet above its surface, its limits are beyond the reach of vision.’
We pored over Russell’s descriptions and studied the satellite images on Google Earth, trying to gauge the smoothness of the ice and the availability of firewood. We tried to figure out whether our idea was even possible. Russell was sponsored by the National Geographic Society. We were sponsored by a nappy company.
Waking up, Lituya squeaked and wriggled in the wrap on my chest. I tossed my coat on the snow, laid her on top of it and proceeded to undo the mess of zips and snaps that held her into a bundle of fleece.
Her chubby legs waved in the air. Her pale pink toes turned pinker in the cold, speckled with the wet drops of melting snowflakes. She squeaked her displeasure, while my hands moved in a blur of efficiency.
Luckily, she was my second child. After two-and-a-half years, I had become an outdoor-nappy ninja, switching out the compostable pad within a minute and tossing the wet one into a handy crevasse.
All wrapped up again, we proceeded, very slowly, until the next stop for a child emergency. During the course of two months, we moved our camps a total of just 160 kilometres in a series of eight-kilometre days between base camps. It was the slowest expedition I had ever heard of, let alone been involved with. But we weren’t here as athletes – we were here as explorers. We were here to watch a glacier crumble and to see the world remade.
We often use the word ‘glacial’ to mean ‘slow’, evoking the years-long compression of snow into ice and a metre-by-metre journey across the land. We should recast it. Today, the word should mean ‘fast’. Glacial is the torrent of silty water that shoots out of a melting face of ice; it’s the cracking boom of an iceberg calving into a new lake; it’s ice running backwards, retreating kilometre by kilometre, leaving moss and flowers to smother the bare rock left in its wake.
OPTIMISM THE KEY
Why bring the kids? The simplest reason is because we have them. Before children, I had always believed that parents must straddle a wall with kid stuff on one side, adult stuff on the other and babysitters the only way to cross the divide.
But there is no wall. There is only a series of puzzles to solve. And where Russell solved his with canvas and wool and the ingenuity of a team crossing unmapped terrain, we solved ours with high-tech fabric and satellite imagery, and the misplaced optimism required to motivate a two-year-old.
Our kayak paddle stood in the centre of the cone-shaped and floorless tent, supporting the structure. Rocks staked out the edges. Beside it, a roll of titanium sheets and wires had been assembled into a wood-burning stove the size of a loaf of bread. Its chimney stuck out of the nylon roof at a jaunty angle.
The stove was cold. On a nearby ridge of boulders and brush, Hig was sawing branches with a bow saw he had made using a stick that he had found and a saw blade that he carried. Eventually, we would have the hot noodles I had been dreaming of.
The electric bear fence was a tangle of wire lying on a sleeping bag. I hadn’t yet seen bear tracks. Was it worth assembling this extra layer of protection around our tent tonight? It had already taken several hours to pitch camp. I didn’t feel like a backpacker; I felt like a nomad, creating a new home at every camp.
MOMENTS OF WONDER
I pushed aside the hanging solar panel that had become our door when glacial silt killed the tent zip and carried in the muddy ball of my daughter. The zipper teeth on her rainsuit were so clogged with silt that I wondered if I would be able to get it all off.
The next day, we put our red packraft into Fountain Stream. The children were shoehorned onto my lap, just a few centimetres from the reach of Hig’s paddle. Our packs rested on the bow and stern.
As we allowed the swirling brown waters to carry the shattering load I usually shouldered, all I could feel was how unbelievably light everything and everyone was. It was the start of the third week of our 61-day expedition.
Ahead of us lay storms that would flood our camp, wind that would pelt our tent with sea foam, the worst bushwhacking I had ever seen and so many moments of wonder that I want to go back even now. Because our Malaspina expedition was a crazy idea. Having kids was a crazy idea. Life is a crazy idea. And all of it is amazing.
Erin McKittrick is an author, scientist and adventurer. She has written two books: A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski and Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska. www.groundtruthtrekking.org
An expedition to Alaska’s Lost Coast is difficult enough with a group of adults. But taking two small children along for the ride changes the emphasis completely. Here, Erin McKittrick lists the most important pieces of kit that she took to Alaska, including a number of essential items that kept the young ones warm, comfortable and entertained
Alpacka Denali Llama
from US$870/2.4 kilograms
For little more weight than a brim-full two-litre water bottle, this raft can take you down a wild river or across an ocean bay to open up previously inaccessible terrain. The Denali Llama is tougher than it looks and handles most types of wilderness abuse
2. Wood stove
Titanium Goat Vortex cylinder stove
from US$215/737 grams
With its roll-up design for the body and pipe, the packed size of this titanium stove is equivalent to a water bottle and a couple of dinner plates. With no need to carry fuel, the Vortex is ideal for expeditions in areas where wood is available
3. Running shoes
Inov-8 Bare-Grip 200
The lightweight Bare-Grips may look like neon-green football boots, but they’re not out of place on a glacier. What these barefoot-style shoes give up in durability, they gain in flexibility. The large, dramatic lugs provide amazing traction on slippery surfaces – especially mud
4. Compostable nappies
gNappies 100% biodegradable disposable inserts
£9 (for 40 inserts)/30 grams per insert
These biodegradable inserts fit inside a reusable cloth cover, which allowed us to cut down on both laundry and load
5. Fleece romper suit
Patagonia Infant Synchilla suit
Fleece bodysuits with integral hand and feet covers are one of the best ways we’ve found to keep our children at a comfortable temperature
Victorinox 3¼-inch Straight-edge Spear Paring Knife
The single stainless-steel blade on this knife is tougher, easier to clean and more useful than a folding knife (especially when splitting and shaving firewood). It fits into a nylon or plastic sheath for storage. And at the end of the expedition, you can use it in your kitchen
7. Frameless pack
Mountain Laurel Designs Ark
Lacking a frame, the ultra-light Ark may seem like a glorified bag, but it’s cleverly designed, durable and surprisingly comfortable. We regularly used it for carrying carefully packed loads that were much heavier than the weight limit recommended by the manufacturer. Available in two back lengths
8. Head torch
Princeton Tec Byte
The red LED mode is my favourite feature of this headlamp. A red light preserves night vision and battery life (providing up to 146 hours of illumination from two AAA batteries). You can switch the Byte to project a bright white light (for up to 96 hours) when required
9. Camera lens
Canon EF-S 10–22mm f/3.5–4.5 USM
from £490/385 grams
We took most of our expedition photos with this lightweight, wide-angle lens (equivalent to 16–35mm in 35mm format), which enabled us to bring our online audience into the story alongside us
10. Electric bear fence
Electro Bear Guard UltraLite Portable
When camping in areas with a high bear density, it’s nice to have protection. This electric fence encloses up to two tents and is fairly quick to set up. The carbon-fibre poles collapse from 100cm to 40cm for packing. With just two AA batteries it can deliver a charge that will scare off a bear, but will cause no lasting damage
This story was published in the August 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine