ADN Article: Rafting to the Aleutians

In case you missed it this was in the Anchorage Daily News on Sunday:

Rafting to Aleutians from Seattle a minimalist effort

START IN SEATTLE: Couple seek adventure and education on the ride.

By SCOTT BOWLEN Ketchikan Daily News
Published: September 23, 2007

Bretwood Higman, left and Erin McKittrick leave a concrete dock at Thomas Basin boat harbor in Ketchikan recently in their Alpacka rafts on their voyage to the Aleutian Islands.

KETCHIKAN > – They landed at Mountain Point recently after about 1,000 miles of bush-whacking, beach-walking and pack-rafting up the Pacific coast from Seattle.

Less than 48 hours later, Bretwood “Hig” Higman and Erin McKittrick strapped their minimalist gear – much of it homemade or customized – onto two 5-pound Alpacka rafts, hopped in and paddled out of Thomas Basin.

Just 3,000 miles to go.

The couple plan to reach the Aleutian Islands in March, traveling essentially nonstop and without the aid of motorized vehicles or vessels.


Adventure, of course. But their other big goals are to learn about environmental issues and educate people.

“The idea is … get out there and have an interesting adventure, and then deliver information,” Higman said.

Higman, 30, and McKittrick, 27, grew up in Seldovia and Seattle, respectively. They met in college in 1999 and married in 2003.

Higman just finished work on a doctorate in geology (the geologic record of tsunamis), and McKittrick has a master’s degree in molecular and cellular biology.

They were seasoned trekkers well before leaving Seattle northbound on June 9.

They’ve logged more than 3,000 miles in Southcentral and Southwest Alaska, most recently a 450-mile loop in the Bristol Bay watersheds downstream of the proposed Pebble mine in 2005.

That trip brought together their love of expedition travel with their growing interest in learning and raising awareness about environmental issues. They formed the Ground Truth Trekking organization in 2006 as a “vehicle” for their environmental projects.

The Seattle-Unimak Island expedition is the next step.

“Something like the Pebble mine, ultimately, is just one thing,” McKittrick said. “But when you look more into it, all of these issues are complicated and they’re all intertwined. You have the mining, you have the forestry, you have the fisheries, you have global warming.”


Context is difficult because many people often don’t know what’s going on beyond their immediate location and issues, she said. The trek is an effort to gain a broad perspective firsthand.

“We want to have this really great adventure and to really try and learn and teach others along the way about these issues,” McKittrick said.

She’s planning to write a book after the journey is complete. For now, they’re maintaining a detailed blog (>> ) that includes text, photos and video.

“Hopefully because people are entertained about us doing things like getting caught for an hour after dark in Portland Canal, they might come to read about that and actually learn a little something too,” McKittrick said.

After departing Seattle, Higman and McKittrick took an indirect route to Ketchikan.

There was a side trip to Prince Royal Island in British Columbia, and explorations of the Quall and Ecstall rivers that flow into the Skeena River.

Before arriving here, they figured that they’d bush-whacked through forest and thick brush for about 20 of the 80 traveling days and spent about 10 days hiking on roads and trails.

There was a day of beach-walking, and about 10 days of pack-rafting on rivers and lakes. The rest was ocean-paddling in the pack rafts.

Made in Eagle River by Sheri Tingey, the Alpacka rafts are small, light, stable, slow and just about perfect for this type of travel, said McKittrick and Higman, who’ve used Alpacka rafts since 2003 and now are sponsored by the company.

“There’s really not any other way, I think, to have a trip where you’re really able to do both a lot of stuff on land and a lot of stuff on the water,” McKittrick said,

Paddled from a kayak-like sitting position, the rafts travel at about 2 mph in average conditions.

“They’re the fastest boat you can carry over the mountains, but they’re not the fastest boat in the water,” she said.

For the casual observer, putting out to sea in a 5½-foot raft might be difficult to fathom. Even more astounding might be the seeming absence of gear strapped to the rafts for such a journey.

Higson and McKittrick are gear aficionados, actually, having developed a quirky set of lightweight, durable equipment and clothing that either have withstood or been developed from heavy use on earlier trips.

They’ve designed and made their own rain gear and thermal layers, for example.

They’ve also got shelter and sleeping gear that they’ve custom-rigged through experience.


And perhaps their niftiest dual use of gear is the inflatable Thermarest sleeping pads they’ve reshaped to work as life jackets too.

As minimalist as the gear might be, it’s brought them as far as Ketchikan.

They said they’ve enjoyed the trip thus far, although there has been a hitch or two.

They’ve not been able to restock food supplies at some places they’d planned to.

“It often can be easier to find Internet access than groceries in some of these places,” McKittrick said. “I’m looking for Internet access too, which is great. But groceries are (of) a little more primary importance.”

In addition, interpreting Canadian topographic maps has proved difficult in some cases.

The map notations and what they actually represent on the ground vary more in Canada, according to Higman.

Sometimes that’s resulted in time-consuming route changes, they said.

One thing they noticed during the early stages was the time it took to reach the wilderness after leaving Puget Sound, McKittrick said.

“Basically, from Seattle all the way to north of Vancouver Island,” she said. “You might be in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no towns and really hardly any people, but it’s just all clearcuts. It’s all power lines. It’s all fish farms. It’s all dams. We were expecting some of that, but not as much as we saw.”

Arriving in Ketchikan was a return to familiar water for McKittrick, who’d paddled a kayak around Revillagigedo Island in 2004. Otherwise, the rest of Southeast Alaska is new territory.

They departed Ketchikan accompanied for a portion of the trip by Bob Christensen of Gustavus.

Their plan was to head up Thorne Arm and cross overland to Behm Canal. They said they’ll cross Behm Canal and go into the Chikamin and Unuk rivers.

“Then actually a little detour into Canada and out the Iskut and Stikine (rivers),” said McKittrick.

She’s interested in both seeing and learning about mining and proposed mining activity on the Canadian side near the Stikine and Iskut rivers – rivers used by salmon.

“We kind of plan our route around the most interesting places,” McKittrick said, adding that “interesting places” includes cool sites to see and areas such as the Iskut River that have environmental issues that people might not have heard much about.


Later on, they plan a side trip back to the proposed Pebble mine area near Bristol Bay, she said.

McKittrick said the learning experience of seeing things and talking with people along the way has been interesting.

“I don’t want to give the mistaken impression that we think we … know everything about all of these issues and are just going to, like, tell people about it,” she said.

Asked whether they’re traveling with preconceived ideas about the environmental issues they’ll be looking into, McKittrick responded, "No – or at least we’re trying not to.

“Like everybody else … we have our preconceived concepts and our own prejudices,” she said. “We try not to as much as we can. And we do try to just learn as we go.”

Their next town will be Wrangell. They’re basically traveling straight through to Unimak Island, with short stops in towns and cities along the way.

They aim to maintain an efficient schedule to get past Yakutat and the Gulf of Alaska before December.

“We want to get through there before it really gets to be winter,” McKittrick said.

They’re hoping to spend 10 days in Anchorage, and to collect their skis in Valdez for the serious winter-travel portion of the trip.

If all goes well, they’ll arrive at False Pass at Unimak Island, the first island in the Aleutian chain, in March.

Hig and Erin are having an interesting time with ice and storms at Icy Bay on the Gulf Coast right now…

…worth reading – they’ve been paddling packrafts for five months now…