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Reflection on the Wild Coast: A Photo Essay

Adventurers Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman summarize their 4000-mile trek in photos and prose.

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by Erin Mckittrick; photos by Erin Mckittrick and Bretwood (Hig) Higman | 2008-12-25 00:05:00-07

Reflection on the Wild Coast: A Photo Essay

Click a thumbnail to view the image gallery.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 1
Tolt Reservoir Trail
June 11, 2007. Hig walked the Tolt River trail on our third day out of Seattle. After a year of planning and months of frantic preparation, we had finally begun. With out-of-shape bodies and brand new gear, we turned east towards the mountains, leaving Seattle's urban corridor behind.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 2
Stump on a Stump
July 18, 2007. Erin posed next to a giant old red cedar stump, which sported a recently-cut hemlock stump on its crown. We had been eagerly looking forward to the British Columbia coast. The map showed us promising curves of green islands, winding blue channels, and craggy white peaks. Somehow, the twisting lines of logging roads were missing from the maps. While southern B.C. was scenic from the waters frequented by yachting tourists, on land we found nothing but ridgelines too steep to walk, bordering valleys razed and re-razed by the loggers.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 3
Princess Royal Island
August 13, 2007. The summer's glorious sun and its less glorious swarm of insects brought us to the paradise of Princess Royal Island in northern coastal B.C. The island's rare pure white black bears remained stubbornly hidden while we explored the thick rainforests and steep granite slopes. Carved into smooth granite, the alpine lakes held the clearest water I've ever seen. Waterfalls cascaded down a stepped slope of cliffs and flats. Weaving our way along long terraces, searching for a way down between the cliffs, five downhill miles made a full day's travel.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 4
Misty River in the Misty Fjords
September 11, 2007. Mist hung over the Chickamin River in southeast Alaska's Misty Fjords. The dramatic ocean fjords are well-explored by tour boats and kayakers, but few people beyond the Fish and Game salmon counters venture inland. But the steep terrain and lush undergrowth of the temperate rainforest made boat travel by far the most practical way. At this point in the trip, we'd done over half of our distance by packraft in ocean, lakes, and rivers.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 5
Rainbow Season
October 1, 2007. Fall in southeast Alaska's rainforest is rainbow season. Between bouts of drizzle and relentlessly grey skies, the sun would appear, hanging low in the autumn sky, glinting gold on the mossy trees, and creating sparkling rainbows in the perpetually moist air.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 6
Start of the Storms
October 5, 2007. We had been waiting for a storm. Wind rushed up Seymour Canal on southeast Alaska's Admiralty Island, doubling over the bushes and whipping the water into a frenzy of whitecaps. As packrafters, we were happy to thumb our noses at it, appreciating the storm from the sheltered paths of bear trails while fishing boats sloshed and swayed in the waves.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 7
Crashing Surf
November 14, 2007. Hig's tiny form gave a sense of scale to the giant waves crashing on the Gulf of Alaska coast. Driven by the most recent storm, the ocean swells crashed huge and white on the bouldered coast.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 8
Icy Bay
November 19, 2007. Hig stared out across the jagged white expanse of icebergs at the head of Icy Bay. The previous evening's crossing attempt had landed us up against a wall of grinding and shifting bergs, and it had taken us three hours of hard paddling in the dark, wind, and rain to return to the east side of the bay. Between the frequent storms and copious ice, it seemed unlikely that we would ever get across.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 9
Extra Insulation
December 5, 2007. Low tide left icebergs scattered on the shallow mud flats at Controller Bay. The obstacles of the Lost Coast had pushed our schedule weeks behind our plan. Winter arrived before we were ready for it. With warm clothes winging their way through the postal system two towns ahead of us, Hig stuffed his backpack with grass for a bit of extra insulation in the packraft, in our mittens, and around our bed.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 10
Black Spruce Snow Shwack
January 11, 2008. In the darkest days of January, in the shadow of a mountain range where the sun rarely peeked, winter proved itself slow. In the imaginations of inexperienced winter travelers, snow would allow us to fly across the landscape, everything transformed into a smooth white sheet for our convenience. As we pushed our feet through a six-inch base of fluffy powder in a thick forest of black spruce, we started to realize that the journey wasn't going to take nine months after all. This would be a year-long expedition.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 11
Spotlight on Moose Ridge
February 26, 2008. A low hanging sun behind a haze of clouds spotlights Hig on a snowy ridge. Winter was finally starting to turn around for us. As we left the peopled surroundings of Anchorage behind, we started to hit the first good snow and open skiing terrain we'd seen all winter. River otter belly tracks crisscrossed the hills - our fellows in enjoying the snow.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 12
Pizza from the Sky
February 29, 2008. Rarely visited on foot, Lake Clark Pass is a corridor for the small airplanes that connect the small villages of Lake Clark and Lake Iliamna to the rest of the world. The small beige plane wiggled its wings at us - swooping down and waving with each twice daily pass overhead. One morning, we looked up to find a yellow-streamered blessing from the sky. The pilot had dropped us a pizza from the Moose's Tooth restaurant in Anchorage. It might have frozen in the ten degree weather, so we devoured it immediately.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 13
Over a Windy Pass
March 23, 2008. Following a possible road route from the proposed Pebble Mine, we crossed a steep pass between Lake Iliamna and the ocean. Wind funneled through the narrow notch in the mountains between the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean weather zones, grabbing at the skis strapped to our packs and sending rivers of snow swirling in the air.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 14
Buried by Snow
April 5, 2008. This is not what our pyramid shelter is supposed to look like. Come nighttime, a sudden wind left us in a high snowbound pass with only a few scattered boulders to hide behind. We spent an hour carefully building a six-foot-high wall of snowblocks, cut with our paddles. Then we spent a night being buried in the drift behind the wall, squeezing into a smaller and smaller space as the shelter threatened to collapse over our faces with the weight of the snow.

Journey on the Wild Coast - 15
Encounters with Bears
May 5, 2008. Our first spring grizzly bear left a platter-sized track on the early May snow. According to the bear hunters' calculations, he might have stood eleven and a half feet standing on his hind legs. According to our observations, he was a skinny and hungry eleven and a half feet, even more put out by the late cold spring than we were. Hig videoed the bear's circling investigation while I stood by with the pepper spray ready. We were happy not to end up as lunch in one of the tensest bear encounters we've ever had (out of hundreds).

Journey on the Wild Coast - 16
Packraft along Unimak Cliffs
June 17, 2008. We paddled around the fog-shrouded cliffs of Unimak Island, watching bears napping on ledges, making slow progress through a landscape with far too many things to photograph. I fixed my eyes on land to keep from becoming seasick in the small swells.

"So, how was your trip?"

"Awesome!" I reply unrevealingly. Or, "It was everything." Or, "It was a year...," my voice trailing off in the hopelessness of answering.

We get this question from everyone. As if we could sum up a year-long expedition in the same few words one might use to describe a week on a Caribbean cruise.

Images pop into my head. Swatting a seemingly infinite stream of mosquitoes beneath a baking July sun while climbing through a steep forest of yellow cedar... Nudging our packrafts through a maze of shifting ice floes while trying to find a way across the nearly-solid Knik Arm... Hunkering down in a thicket of alders which were shaking and roaring in a late May snowstorm...

Tracing the line of the journey back, I can picture each of the events that came between, connecting these disparate images. But I have a hard time believing that they were part of the same trip.

We journeyed from the middle of Seattle to the first Aleutian Island. We traveled 4,000 miles - about 1,000 by packraft, 1,000 by skis, and the remaining 2,000 on foot. We finished on day 385 - a year and two weeks from the journey's beginning. In over a year, we didn't step into a car, skiff, airplane, or any other form of motorized transport. Temperatures ranged from 90F to -30F. I can't even guess at the speed of the wind or the number of storms.

"The weather was awesome."

Soon after we returned, we gave an interview to an NPR's Weekend America. "I asked you about what you learned, and you keep telling me about the weather!" the host exclaimed.

When we attempt to add flesh to the skeleton description of our journey, we find our words inevitably circling in the pattern of seasons and storms. Long before we decided on this particular trip, I was enchanted by the idea of an expedition that spanned the seasons. Summer would be warm. Winter would be cold. We would need to change our gear and mode of transport with the seasons. We would see everything.

Only the last of those expectations began to approach the true experience of a year spent entirely outdoors. Snow melted, bugs came out, berries ripened, day breezes broke the uncomfortable heat, we wore shorts and silly sun hats, leaves turned yellow and brown, mushrooms popped up, leaves blew off the bushes, we wore fleece most of the time, we were moistened by a seemingly endless gray drizzle, mushrooms froze, the days grew darker, waves whipped the ocean's surface, storms howled along the coast, bears denned up, snow flew, thin ice crept across the water, we stuffed grass in our too-thin mittens, snow piled on our coats and packrafts, we added a down quilt to our gear, we stepped into skis, zero degree weather started feeling warm, we skied firmly-frozen rivers and lakes, the sun returned, wind blew, snow fell, we left forests behind, blowing rain ended the cold snaps, the sun rose high and blazing, thundering booms went off beneath the slowly-thawing lake ice, snow melted, wind blew, skis were abandoned, sea ice cracked up, snow fell, lakes began to thaw, wind howled, snow fell, bears woke up, wind screamed, the first green sprouts poked above the red-brown tundra, snow fell, wind roared, we floated full spring rivers, wild greens graced all our meals, rain blew sideways, flowers bloomed, and the wind shook the earth.

Our moods were shackled to the weather. The first storms were an exhilarating rush of wind. Later gales left us feeling weary and battered. Even now in a calmer world, a strong gust of wind subconsciously triggers excitement and apprehension - for a gale that never comes. The persistent drizzles of fall soaked into our psyches, and it sometimes felt as if my brain itself would dissolve. The call of a new bird returning north could turn any day wondrous. Flashes of sun made us ecstatic. Waiting for spring was a months-long state of being that penetrated every corner of our minds. With only a few sheets of lightweight fabric between us and the outside world, through regions with some of the most extreme weather in the world, our moods followed the swirls of the air.

"The terrain was amazing."

"I've flown over all that country," the pilot said, shaking his head in incredulity. "And I can't even begin to imagine how you would do it!"

There's a reason that when people set out to walk around the world, they go nowhere near this coast, preferring to pass through Alaska in the more open, less-rugged arctic. The arc of the north Pacific is a line that seems simple only when viewed from a long way up in space.

We fought our way through thickets of logging slash, salal, devils' club, willow, and blueberry. We struggled over steep bouldery scrambles and treacherous snow slopes. We walked the open expanses of gravel roads, sandy beaches, granite ridgetops, mossy meadows, crumbling blufftops, frozen lakes, windblown tundra, wind-packed snow, and fields of lava. We paddled bouldery creeks, giant rivers, calm inlets, swirling tidal rapids, crystal clear lakes, white-capping channels, and iceberg-choked bays. We skied on rutted snowmachine trails, through fluffy snow on frozen creeks and in thick black spruce forest, across frozen estuaries, on glare ice in six inches of water, over the wind-packed snow on lakes, valleys, and ridges, and on the half exposed cranberry plants where there was hardly any snow left at all.

It was a purposeful inconsistency. We've never been attracted to polar expeditions, long desert crossings, or journeys across the ocean. We're impatient. Both Hig and I have a mindset perfect for a packrafter - someone who's not content to travel in the same way or through the same sort terrain for any appreciable chunk of time.

You might think that after seeing so much wild terrain, one would become jaded - that each piece of new country would be a little less interesting than the last. But even at the end of the journey, battered by blowing rain, out of food, and with nearly every piece of our gear rent by bushes, stones, and one particularly unwelcoming bear, we never stopped planning for future expeditions.

"Nothing will ever be the same."

It's a tired cliché that a long journey will change your life. Even for two experienced people who thought we'd gone through all the metamorphosis the wilderness had to offer long ago. Even for people who weren't looking for change. There's something inexplicably powerful about stepping out beyond the realm of anything you've ever done before.

Maybe we'll even do the same trip again, in another 25 years or so to see how the world has changed. But next time, we'll pick a warmer year.


"Reflection on the Wild Coast: A Photo Essay ," by Erin Mckittrick; photos by Erin Mckittrick and Bretwood (Hig) Higman. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-12-25 00:05:00-07.


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Journey on the Wild Coast
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Journey on the Wild Coast on 12/25/2008 20:26:30 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Journey on the Wild Coast

Sean OLeary

Locale: Mid West
Re: Journey on the Wild Coast on 12/26/2008 04:09:22 MST Print View

Fantastic! What an epic journey, and stunning photography. Well done.

Jeffrey Loso
(Vagabon) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Wild coast on 12/26/2008 14:51:43 MST Print View

Wow you guys are amazing!! Way to go it has been a blast following the trip via podcast and now these pictures.

Steven Nelson
(slnsf) - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Wow on 12/26/2008 18:36:39 MST Print View

Fantastic photos, Erin and Hig. A great extra treat to make the months of podcasts and stories we've been following all the more vivid.

Thanks for sharing such a great adventure with all of us.

- Steve

Ethan Croft
( - F

Locale: West (Big Horn Basin)
Re: Journey on the Wild Coast on 12/27/2008 17:03:11 MST Print View

What an amazing expedition it must have been.

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Journey on the Wild Coast on 12/30/2008 18:39:33 MST Print View

Incredible pictures!

Thanks for sharing them with us.

Monty Montana
(TarasBulba) - MLife

Locale: Rocky Mountains
Re: Journey on the Wild Coast on 01/02/2009 17:18:57 MST Print View

What a remarkable journey! Both in the sense of the physical distance you covered and the wonderous vistas you passed through, but also in the sense of the inner journey. I seem to recall a previous commentary in which you described how you learned to get along, cooperate, and appreciate each other. Perhaps this is what the NPR interviewer was getting at. Anyway, congratulations on your epic endeavor!

Tom Bender
(shovelman) - F

Locale: Out East, sort of
A Question for epic journeyers on 01/12/2009 17:05:47 MST Print View

A question if I might. Does it remain a journey or is it a different life that you are living? Any danger of staying there?

Tjaard Breeuwer
(Tjaard) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota, USA
Great article! on 03/07/2012 09:11:18 MST Print View

Very well written and wonderful photographs!