Magazine article Geographical

Two and Two Halves to the Malaspina

Magazine article Geographical

Two and Two Halves to the Malaspina

Article excerpt

Despite storms flooding their tent, high winds pelting them with sea spray and a continuous stream of dirty nappies, Erin McKittrick has nothing but good memories of crossing Alaska's Malaspina Glacier with her husband and two small children

Expeditions can be cold and wet and dirty and hard. But a good expedition is more than just a display of athleticism or the grunt work of walking. A good expedition is also a series of puzzles waiting to be solved with muscles and maps and bits of string.

Our bits of string lashed together bent green willows, stripped of their bark with a pocket knife. String was also used to lash together a frameless backpack, an inflatable boat and a bicycle wheel. These improbable items were thrown together to solve an even more improbable puzzle: how to cross a glacier with two small children.

One of the grant applications I filled out for this expedition required me to list the skills of each member of the team. For my husband, Hig, and me, I listed the thousands of kilometres of human-powered wilderness travel, photography, navigation, writing and science that we had previously undertaken. For our toddler son, I listed 'pebble throwing'; for our infant daughter, 'eating sand'. The application was rejected.


When we began this expedition, Lituya was eight months old. She's named after a beautiful bay that lies 800 kilometres to the east of our home in Alaska. Katmai was two-and-a-half years old. His name comes from an imposing volcano 250 kilometres to the southwest.

The children were adorable naturalists. Katmai poked a wiggling trout in the palm of his father's hand, crouched intently over a pile of ptarmigan droppings and named each iceberg for its shape: bird, fish, turtle and monster. Lituya held ice in her two chubby fists, gumming shining pieces of glacier as the meltwater trickled down the back of my neck.

Our children were also clingy and whining brats. They spilled water on the sleeping bags, dropped electronics in the mud, filled nappies, snatched toys from each other and attempted to crawl into the hot stove. In short, they were ordinary children.

They were also heavy. Lituya slept on my chest as I walked, tucked into a length of red fabric that was wrapped and tied around my body. As she pulled me forwards, my rucksack pulled me back. The pack was stuffed to a little beyond bursting with everything from Cheddar cheese to a portable electric fence. I paused to wait for Hig, shifting from foot to foot as the glacier's chill crept up through my thin-soled shoes.

Hig grabbed the sticks of willow like the handles of a wheelbarrow, painstakingly manoeuvring the little bicycle wheel over the sharp boulders that covered a buckled ridge of ice. Katmai napped inside the raft that we had suspended on those sticks, seemingly impervious to the jostling that set Hig grunting and grumbling with every step.

Then it began to snow. White fluff piled on white ice and smoothed the sharp edges of the boulders.

It speckled the black of our rain gear and the red of our inflatable raft. Swirling flakes filled the air, where our ribbon of ice disappeared into the formless sky.


It was the end of September and we were in the middle of the Malaspina Glacier, located in the centre of Alaska's Lost Coast, which is my favorite terrible place in the world. This coast is 'lost' between Prince William Sound and the gentler waters of the Inside Passage. It's lost because--even by Alaskan standards--this stretch of shoreline is harsh, remote and devoid of humans. The giant peaks of the Saint Elias Range rise straight from the ocean, creating some of the highest relief in the world. Flowing down from their snowy ice fields, North America's largest glaciers spill onto the beach plain in vast, rapidly melting lobes. Storms whipped up in the Aleutians whirl down this coastline, funnelled onto the narrow strip of beaches between the roiling ocean and the towering peaks. …

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