Outdoors

Seattle native Erin McKittrick wins National Outdoor Book Award

Seattle native Erin McKittrick has won a National Outdoor Book Award for her book detailing her family’s Alaskan adventures.

"Small Feet, Big Land" (The Mountaineers Books, 2013, 224 pages, $18.95, $15.95 e-book) tells the stories of trekking places such as Alaska’s Malaspina Glacier and the Northwest Arctic with toddlers in tow.

She was one of 123 entries in the Outdoor Literature category for National Outdoor Book Award and one of 13 winners.

In November 2013 she spoke with The News Tribune about the book. Here’s part of the interview:

Question: How did you decide to take toddlers on adventures most adults wouldn't do?

Answer: We were not willing to be stuck inside, and we thought it would be great to start when they were little. . . . Wilderness adventure has always been a part of our lives. At first we had no idea if you can take a kid on something like the Malaspina Glacier. But, really, they are very portable, and it was a lot better than we thought.

Q: My kids think walking to school in the rain is torture. How do your kids handle the presumably harsher climate of an Arctic adventure?

A: They don't complain when it rains; it's the adults who grumble. They will whine, like any other kid, if they feel cold. But they don't have these preconceived ideas that rain is bad or dirt is bad or hiking is hard. Kids are more adaptable than adults. They think whatever you do is normal.

Q: If you had waited until they were older to start these adventures, do you think you would have been tempted to keep putting them off?

A: I don't know if it would be for us (parents), but if you wait for too long, you might end up with griping teenagers who want to stay home and play video games.

Q: Were you ever in any harrowing situations with your kids?

A: We try very hard not to be. There is a lot less risk in the wild than what you run into in the city. I'm more terrified of parking lots. Cars are way faster and way more common than bears. But there are risks, and the biggest is cold water. If we take them out in a pack raft, we wouldn't go out in as big of waves as we would if it was just us. And we wouldn't be as far away from shore.

. . . It's important to point out that what we do is very normal. For thousands of years, pregnant women and kids traveled in wild places. Just in the past few decades we've forgotten that it's normal.

Q: Have you had any negative feedback?

A: I don't tend to get that. Maybe people are too scared to ask, but I do get second-hand stuff like your question. Some people probably do think we shouldn't do this with our children. But people are bad at analyzing risk. We underestimate the risk of things that are familiar, like cars and air pollution, and overestimate the risk of things that are unfamiliar, like bears. We are all subject to that fallacy, myself included.

Q: Do you see character traits in your children that you credit to the way they are living?

A: They are very adaptable. We are on this book tour, and I might tell them, "We are taking a midnight ferry tonight and then we are staying in this person's house, " and they just go with the flow. They are very comfortable in a lot of situations.

Q: What adventures wouldn't you try with your children?

A: A lot of little things. . . . We put off doing big winter trips with potential frostbite weather until they are old enough . . . to tell us how cold they are. More difficult routes that require scrambling that can be dangerous even for adults, we don't choose to do.

Q: In your book, you wrote about eating whale blubber. When my kids were that young, I couldn't get them to eat chicken unless it was heavily processed and shaped like dinosaurs. How did you pull that off?

A: Katmai loved it. He was 1 1/2, probably before the age where kids start getting picky. But he gobbled it up. I needed more convincing. But it's not bad.

Q: What does whale blubber taste like?

A: Like coconut. It's pretty fatty.

Q: Your website says the goal of your nonprofit, Ground Truth Trekking, is to "educate and engage the public on Alaska's natural resource issues." How do your adventures help promote this conversation?

A: We are going out to learn. We are learning about the issues as we see the melting permafrost, talking to elders and seeing rapidly melting glaciers and see areas for potential coal mines. You look at all those climate change models, and most go through 2100. I do the math and I think my daughter is going to probably be alive then. A lot of people who are alive now are going to be alive when that graph ends. This really is about their future.

Q: What's next and will the kids be joining you?

A: We'll do smaller trips this summer since we just did a longer trip (an 800-mile trek around Cook Inlet). And we'll keep going with the kids. We love them, and even if it was practical, I can't imagine leaving them with somebody else for months on end.

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