Every journey, they say, begins with a single step. That idea is profound in its simplicity. But if the journey is 800 miles around the beaches and bogs and wetlands of Cook Inlet, and if the steps you’re taking are dictated by a pair of curious toddlers, well, the whole endeavor is still mighty profound, but it’s no longer quite so simple.
Seldovia author and adventurer Erin McKittrick gave a taste of that kind of journey at a recent presentation for her book “Mud Flats and Fish Camps: 800 Miles Around Alaska’s Cook Inlet”, which she wrote after the family’s 2013 trip.
With her husband Bretwood ‘Hig’ Higman and then 2-year old daughter Lituya and 4-year old son Katmai, McKittrick says this trek and this book are about more than simply documenting the trials and tribulations of such a walk. It’s about getting a sense of Cook Inlet’s future from the people who call it home. They had lots of conversations about that during the trip, and McKittrick says the outlook wasn’t always very rosy. Along their route, they made it a point to have conversations with the people they met, asking nearly everyone some version of the question "What will Cook Inlet be like in the future?" Here are a few responses.
"There's only about 30 speakers of Sugpiaq left and that's dwindling. The younger people know some of the words, but the ability to have a conversation is lost."
"Everyone who fishes salmon comes in and says it was a bad year, and as that keeps happening, I wonder why they aren't more scared. Well, I'm scared. I'm scared for my kids."
"Everyone will find his own way. The jobs won't be the same, but something will work out."
"Well, they're trying as hard as they can to get rid of us. They're going to regulate us out of existence for the tourists."
"Mabe the oil companies will have chosen new leaders for us by then. Or maybe we'll run out of oil, and the Okies and Texans will leave and we'll be back where we started, when we wrote a good constitution. There won't be so many people then. This state was a better place before oil."
So, if there’s a bit of a feeling of doom and gloom, perhaps it’s only insofar as people feel their way of life slipping away, or potentially slipping away. But you don’t get that sense from Erin McKittrick, especially when it comes to what a journey like this can give her own kids.
"I hope that they keep a sense of curiosity about the world, however they choose to explore it. Whatever places they choose, I hope they'll remember (that) you go out, you start exploring and you'll see things that you should be curios about. And I hope they'll keep a little bit of that adaptability and problem solving, too. Because I think one of the things you get when you're out there in the wild is you get to realize that you can't look it up, you don't know the answer. You get up to this cliff and we're all sitting there, parents too, wondering how we can get around this cliff. And sometimes the answer is that it's easy and sometimes the answer is that it's hard and sometimes the answer is that it's impossible and you have to come up with a different solution. You have to go a different way. So, some of that problem solving and adaptability to know that you can live in different ways, however you choose. You can live in New York City if you want to, and you'll adapt to that. And you can choose to live way out in the bush and build your own cabin and you'll adapt to that, too."
You can find “Mud Flats and Fish Camps: 800 Miles Around Alaska’s Cook Inlet” at your local book store. McKittrick says after they spend some time building new trails in Kachemak Bay State Park this summer, the next big adventure is to South America for a whole new set of challenges and opportunities.