Truth is in the eye of the trekker

Ground Truth Trekking children appreciate nature and change

Katmai McKittrick held the purple nylon bag open by the two rods and flapped it down once, twice, three times. The bag led to a valve connected to a half-inflated, red packraft.


“See how the inflation bag has air?” he said.

He twisted the rods to close the inflated bag. Then he belly flopped on it. The raft rubber puffed.

“Then you have to untwist it,” he said.

He untwisted it and repeated the process Friday afternoon on the floor of the Kenai Community Library Conference Room. Almost 30 people, mostly adults, milled about.

Katmai is four years old.

He and his family — parents Erin McKittrick and Bretwood “Hig” Higman and two-year-old Lituya Higman — had returned in mid July from an 800-mile trek around the perimeter of Cook Inlet. They had used Katmai’s technique often to cross the many rivers that ran into the salt water. Their adventures are well publicized. They are Ground Truth Trekking.

That night, Erin and Hig were presenting Erin’s second book, “Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska.” The book is about their lifestyle, their treks and the “very different world” their children may grow up in, according to the description on, Erin’s blog.

During the slide show, the wife and husband showed pictures of meandering bears and dilapidated tents, curious kids and crumbling glaciers. They spoke about Seldovia yurt life, their family adventures and the signs they have seen along the Alaska coast of climate change.

Coastlines are eroding so fast, fishermen troll waters marked on maps as forests, Hig said. Permafrost is melting, and sinkholes pock the beaches of the Chukchi Sea where the sand falls into the earth, Erin said. An elder in the village of Kivalina told them that homes began sluffing into the ocean 60 years ago, Hig said.

Funny River Road resident Donny Joachim said the change is obvious. Look back only 10 years, he said.

Many children today hook into TVs, iPads, Xboxs. They suck down electricity; they gobble gas. Their impacts, he said, generally go unnoticed.

But Katmai and Lituya live in a yurt. They don’t have cable. They are off the grid. Joachim’s two kids, 3-year-old Banyan and 2-year-old Sequoia, are the same. When Joachim and his family need heat, they chop firewood. When they need power, they have a generator. It’s their own energy, Joachim said.

Katmai and Lituya, and children like them, will grow up different, he said.

“I don’t see these guys being championship Xbox players,” he said. “I see these guys being sure of the footprint they leave behind.”

If other children grow up resilient and as learners, they will adapt to the coming changes, said Dan Chay, of Kenai. While the outdoor lifestyle is too much for some, others flourish in it, he said.

Erin’s mother, Niki Hoagland, said Katmai and Lituya will grow up advocates because they are engulfed in the outdoors, she said.

Hoagland joined her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren for the last month-long leg of their trek around Cook Inlet. Probably because both their parents are biologists, her two grandchildren are constantly learning. Katmai even taught Hoagland on their walk back about plants, she said.

“Everywhere they go,” she said, “it’s an opportunity to explain the world.”

It was now after the slideshow, and Katmai was back at the packraft. This time it was a black boat, fully inflated.

He bounced on and off its bow.

One of Joachim’s kids ran around the raft swinging the blade of a paddle like a sword.

Erin and Hig answered questions.

Katmai said it’s too hard to explain why he enjoys being outside. He shook his head. It’s easier, he said, to talk about dinosaurs.

Giganotosaurus was the biggest meat eater, he said. It is from the Cretaceous Period — that’s pronounced “kri-ta-shes.” That’s the last of the three dinosaur periods, he said.

He toyed with the raft’s heavy-duty zipper. It would still be bigger than all of the other carnivores even if it lived in the Triassic Period or Jurassic Period. It was even bigger than the Tyrannosaurus Rex, he said.

His blue eyes looked up.

“And now I’m not so interested in dinosaurs,” he said; “now I’m more interested in airplanes.”

Dan Schwartz can be reached at


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