We have a special contributor this week. Erin McKittrick and her husband, Hig, have been hiking and adventuring for years. Now they’ve added a third to their trips, Katmai. Based out of Seldovia, AK, they committed to taking Katmai with them on their treks. Erin writes about their first year together. Please stay tuned for the next two parts later this week.
We knew how to plan routes through a complicated landscape of cliffs, water, and brush. We knew how to packraft in a gale, set up shelter in a blizzard, and start a fire in the pouring rain. We knew how to pare our backpacking gear down to a fine-tuned minimalism. But we knew nothing about babies.
Wilderness expeditions were a thread of our lives we couldn’t imagine giving up. Yet we couldn’t imagine having an infant along either. Most of our early speculations revolved around babysitting grandmothers – wondering when the baby would be old enough to leave for an hour or two, a day or two, a week or two. We wondered whether it was possible to bring a baby bushwhacking at all.
In the year since Katmai’s birth, we’ve never been hiking without him. He’s more portable than we imagined.
Katmai was squalling, his high shrill voice ringing from where he was curled in the wrap on Hig’s chest. The cry sent my new mom brain into a frenzied flurry of activity. I pulled a thermarest from my small day pack, plopped down unceremoniously with snowshoes still dangling from my feet, snatched the fussing newborn from Hig’s arms, and threw a down quilt over the pair of us. He started nursing immediately, eyes still closed, neither knowing or caring that his dark warm cave was on a snowy hillside. The awkward diaper change by unpracticed parents in 20 degree weather went a little less smoothly. But within a minute or so of us starting to walk again, all indignities and discomforts were forgotten. We continued for another couple of hours, repeating the nursing break once more – slowly building a new rhythm to our lives.
“See the snow? I know you’ve never seen anything else, but someday things will be green here.” At three weeks old, the world outdoors was probably not much more than a monochrome blur of white ground and black branches. It was probably also not much more important – the world beyond mom irrelevant to the tiny infant’s brain. My words trailed off as Katmai fell asleep, and I listened for the small sounds of baby breaths and snores from the wrap on my chest, over the din of snowshoes crunching on an icy trail. He never saw the top of the hill – the half hour it took to get there was longer than he could stay awake.
In the shade of the forest at Cape Yakataga
I covered Katmai’s ears with my hands as the 5-seater plane buzzed over the giant Bering Glacier, on its way to the lonely outpost of Cape Yakataga. As we neared the coast, Hig and I talked excitedly about the places we remembered from our year-long trek, excited to be setting off on this latest expedition.
We’d switched out our stretchy cotton baby carrier for a homemade version made of ripstop nylon. We had three backpacks for the three of us – only Hig and I carried all of them – a large one on each of our backs, and a small front pack for whichever parent wasn’t carrying the child. After many years of ruthlessly cutting down our pack weight, the bags seemed oddly bulky for just three days away from base camp – expanded by a collection of baby diapers, baby sleeping bag, baby clothes and a baby life vest. A much larger volume than the three and a half month old baby we carried it for.
On the scale of our adventures, it wasn’t much. Eight days in the field, two small backpacking trips, some easy packrafting, a few thick bushwhacks, a bit of scrambling, bugs, sun, and logging roads… It wasn’t something we thought we’d be doing this year at all. But the invitation to Yakataga arrived unexpectedly in the spring, tempting us with a trip that seemed both interesting, and surprisingly possible. Katmai was portable.
The rhythm evolved. Tuck baby into wrap, face into mommy or daddy’s chest. Walk a few minutes until baby falls asleep. Continue until baby screams.
Pluck him out, nurse him, and pop him back into the wrap, face out this time. Protect baby’s eyes from the bushes as he gets a close-up tour of river bank alders, logging road ditches, and forests. Try to keep mosquitoes off the baby’s face. Continue until baby screams.
Pluck him out, nurse him, and pop him back into the wrap, face in. Repeat.
With each venture away from our base camp, the packs grew smaller, as we realized that babies, like adults, need less gear than you might at first think. With Katmai, we floated down a braided glacial river in the packrafts, and crossed several more. We ducked and climbed and swatted our way through overgrown deadfall on the edge of a clear cut, and a smorgasboard of milder bushwhacks. We scrambled steep slopes of crumbly rock near the edge of a glacier – dad carefully picking his footsteps while the baby happily gurgled and kicked.
Hig and I were acting as field assistants for Cascadia Wild, documenting the potential for restoration in the massive Yakataga clearcut. Hig measured stream widths, while I nursed Katmai. I scribbled notes on streamside vegetation, while Hig showed Katmai the varying textures of alder and willow leaves. We appreciated the dramatic face of the melting Yakataga Glacier, the broad valley of the Duktoth River, and the misty Lost Coast. Katmai appreciated gnawing on cottonwood twigs, grabbing at dandelion poofs, and watching the bushes rush by.
Stay tuned for Part 2 on Wednesday.
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