Today I am trading blogs with Eric McKittrick of Ground Truth Trekking. She and her husband, Hig, live in Alaska with their two small children, and bring attention to the beauty and challenges of the Alaskan wilderness by exploring their state and sharing their experiences online, as well as through films and books. Erin has written a beautiful blog, with some amazing photographs. I can see I will have to pull my socks up to maintain standards from now on!
You can read my blog over at Ground Truth Trekking.
Over now to Erin….
I “met” Roz online in 2010, when we were put in touch by an Alaskan friend who saw the same thing in my voyages he saw in hers – something beyond the standard record-setting pursuits. My name is Erin McKittrick. And I don’t look like an adventurer. In addition to being female (Roz and I are definitely in the minority on this one), I’m married, in my 30s, and have two young kids (ages 1 and almost 3).
In some ways, I don’t act much like an adventurer either. I have never skied to a pole, bicycled a continent, rowed an ocean, or climbed an 8000 meter peak. What I have done is walked and paddled thousands of miles, in harsh and remote terrain that few people ever travel – first with my husband, and later with kids as well. And out of the 7,500 miles or so of human-powered wilderness travel I’ve accomplished, more than 6,500 miles has taken place in a single U.S. state: Alaska.
Within Alaska, I have walked across vast glaciers, through tangled thickets, and over endless hills of tundra. I’ve packrafted icy fjords and rivers thick with salmon. I’ve weathered storms hundreds of miles from the nearest human habitation. I’ve glimpsed cultures as different from my own as I might find in any foreign country.
I first visited Alaska when I was 20 years old. Now, a little over a decade later, I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.
Alaska is Big
At over 580,000 square miles, it dwarfs not only every other state in the U.S., but most of the world’s countries. And with only 1.2 people for each of those square miles (most of them in Anchorage, the largest city), it is absurdly easy to go somewhere you’ll be sure not to run into another human being. Alaska has 34,000 miles of coastline. 100,000 glaciers. 3 million lakes. 30,000 grizzly bears.
But those are just numbers. It draws me as a place that’s more wild than anywhere I’ve ever been, diverse enough to encompass landscapes from vast wetlands to craggy peaks, deserts to glaciers, and alive with both abundant animals and ancient human cultures. Expeditions in Alaska are full of the kind of awe-inspiring moments that make me think “Man, anyone in the world would LOVE to be here right now.” On the other hand, given Alaska’s less than pleasant weather, unruly wildlife, abundant blood-sucking insects, and near-total lack of trails to ease a backpacker’s passage through ridiculously tangled thickets of alder and devil’s club, expeditions in Alaska are at least as full of the kind of intrepid moments that make me think “Why on EARTH would anyone be here voluntarily?” There’s a reason for our low population density. Much of Alaska is wilderness – which I define as “a place not altered for the convenience of humans.” But Alaska is not a place free of humans, our industries, or our concerns.
Alaska is Up for Grabs
Ever since the arrival of the first non-native visitors, Alaska has been a natural resource colony for the rest of the world. Sea otter furs for Russian captains, gold nuggets for grizzled prospectors, salmon for the cannery companies, rainforest for the pulp mill companies, oil for British Petroleum and Conoco Philips…
It’s a fact that seems strangely at odds with the wilderness character of most of the state.
In some cases, the land has recovered from the excesses of exploitation. Sea otters have returned to bays wiped clean by the Russians. Salmon have returned to rivers nearly wiped clean by the canneries.
In other cases, we can’t see what’s gone, or simply don’t remember what it used to be. My town of Seldovia was named for massive herring runs long vanished. To my newcomer’s eyes, the bay looks no less beautiful and alive – I’d never notice what is missing. In the gorgeous wilderness of Prince William Sound, pools of black sludge from the Exxon Valdez oil spill still linger – visible only to those who know where to look.
Most of Alaska has been preserved by simple remoteness. It’s always been difficult and expensive to set up shop in Alaska’s hinterlands. Our resources are far from populations of workers, infrastructure, and markets. Weather conditions can be brutal, and in much of the state, access is only by water, air, or ice-road. But as we use up the easy-to-get resources in the rest of the world, this calculation is quickly changing.
The ground beneath Alaska is full of coal, gold, copper, natural gas, oil, zinc, lead, and other mineral riches. Most of them are still in the ground. Alaska has a huge amount of coal – possibly much of the U.S. supply. Despite that, we have only a few small coal mines, all outside the town of Healy. The state was founded on gold and runs on oil money. But much of the oil is still beneath the Arctic Ocean, and much of the gold is still beneath remote tundra hills.
Alaska is synonymous with “gold rush” in many people’s minds, but the gold rush of the late 1800s is dwarfed by what is planed for the early 2000s. What we have is not mines, but proposals. Proposals blanketing huge swaths of the state, envisioning mines on a scale Alaska has never seen – some of them on a scale the world has never seen. Pebble Mine is the most controversial, and most well-known, but far from the only dream of the mining companies. Nearly all large mines leave behind toxic waste that must be stored and treated, forever.
Alaska is Connected to the Rest of the World
In other places, people debate climate change as something that might cause problems in the future. Here, climate change is now – upending ecosystems and infrastructure, melting glaciers, eroding coastlines, and creating so many obvious changes it is nearly impossible not to believe in it. As an arctic state, vulnerable to faster and more dramatic warming than most of the world, we stand to see outsized effects of global climate change. And with a huge chunk of U.S. fossil fuel reserves, Alaska has the potential to be an outsized contributor to the problems of climate change. We have enough resources here (on private, state, and federal land) that how we choose to use them matters – whether it’s recklessly or wisely, at go-for-broke speed or with an eye to a sustainable future. What we do could make us global leaders, short-sighted victims, or something between the two.
Alaska is Small
Luckily, in addition to being big, Alaska is also very small. With 700,000 people, it’s what I call a “one degree of separation” state. Pretty much anywhere in Alaska, you’ll get to talking to someone, and soon find you have at least one friend or acquaintance in common. This human scale makes it easier to reach out and talk to people, and gives me a little more hope that we can find solutions together.
Hope for the Future?
Do I have hope for Alaska’s future? I’m raising my kids here. Here in Alaska, where they will be living on what my generation has left them – whether it’s bountiful salmon runs, mountains of perpetual mine waste, an unstable climate, sustainable industries, or an economy collapsing after the easy resource wealth has dried up. Beyond Alaska, they will be dealing with the impacts of global climate change, resource depletion, and ecosystem degradation stretching far beyond our own backyard.
By the time they’re adults, the state economy will no longer be able to coast on a shrinking pot of oil wealth. By the time they’re adults, the climate impact of all that oil we’re burning will be leaving a swath of destroyed or displaced infrastructure and ecosystems. But raising kids at all is an expression of hope. There is hope in our healthy watersheds that still provide clean water and an abundance of fish. In our renewable resources. In our vast supply of untapped renewable energy. In politicians that seek to save some of the non-renewable wealth for future generations. In the creativity and resilience of our residents. In the fact that so much of Alaska is still covered with “proposals” rather than “mistakes” – projects for which choices can still be made.
My husband and I have devoted our lives to understanding and trying to influence the big natural resource and environmental issues across the state of Alaska. To make sense of the issues in such a sprawling and wild place, and to understand them in a deeper way than we ever could by research alone – we Ground Truth. Which means we spend a lot of time figuring out how to undertake remote wilderness expeditions in places few people ever travel, with bears, glaciers, storms, wild rivers – and a pair of wild little children.
Next year, we plan to take our 4 year old and 2 year old on a 600+ mile journey around Cook Inlet, looking at Alaska’s energy past and future by walking along beaches covered with grazing bears, packrafting rocketing tidal currents, and interviewing people in every community along the way. (Roz might join us for part of this).
Last year, we spent two months journeying 100 miles across the vast and melting landscape of Malaspina Glacier with our 2.5 year old and 9 month old, experiencing and documenting the dramatic impacts of climate change in a place changing so quickly that even Google Earth is woefully out of date.
Before that, we talked about climate change, mining, and the prospect of oil drilling with villagers on the Northwest Arctic Coast, joining them for dinners of whale blubber, and walking 300 miles down the Chukchi Sea Coast with a 1.5 year old (while I was 6 months pregnant).
Before that, we spent a year walking 4,000 miles from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands (3/4 of the distance in Alaska), looking at issues too numerous to list.
Before that, we followed the watersheds downstream of the proposed Pebble Mine in Southwestern Alaska.
Ground Truth Trekking
I’m not sure if that list sounds outlandish or not. But assure you I am quite ordinary in everything except for stubbornness. Extraordinary journeys can be ordinary. For anyone. There’s probably something any one of us could “Ground Truth” a stone’s throw from home. Even if you don’t have a month or a year, but only a week or a weekend. Even if you’re slow (I assure you we are glacially slow with both kids) or unathletic. Even if you have “trappings and responsibilities” of every day life like kids, a spouse, or a house.
Next time I’m dragging two whining toddlers along a remote beach in a storm, I might wonder about my “trappings and responsibilities” and whether or not I’m insane to keep doing this. But Alaska is my backyard, and the place I care about most deeply. And nothing will keep me from continuing to explore here, and continuing to learn.