Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Small Feet, Big Land - Book Review AND a Giveaway!

Our summer adventures are winding down and I'm finally taking some time to slow down, to catch up, and to share some very overdue adventure stories.  Today's adventure is a little different from what you'll normally read on my blog because for a pleasant change,  I'm not writing about my family and we're going beyond the Canadian Rockies.  In fact, we're traveling to Alaska today.

Today, I'd like to introduce you to Erin McKittrick and her family who live in the tiny village of Seldovia in Southcentral Alaska.  I've long been intrigued by this family ever since discovering Erin's blog, Ground Truth Trekking, and her incredible photography showcasing the realities of raising small children outside in a very big (and wild) land.

Erin hiking across the Alaskan wilderness with daughter Lituya

Small Feet, A Yurt, and an Isolated Village


Erin working in her yurt
Imagine raising two small children in a one-room yurt.  If you don't know what a yurt is, it's a round cabin of sorts made out of wood and fabric, and there are no bedrooms unless you use curtains to partition off a private space.  They generally don't have bathrooms and Erin's yurt has no indoor plumbing which means no shower or bath tub.  If you're lucky, there is a wood stove in the center for heat but that's it.  Run out of wood for your stove and you run out of heat.  And Alaska is not exactly known for its warm or mild winters. 

We recently stayed in a simple tent-cabin while camping and it was a fun way to spend a weekend "roughing it."  At least for a weekend.  Everyday life in a small yurt however, would be a very different experience.  Just imagine the bathing process alone with a newborn baby, heating water on the wood stove and then cooling it down with water from the well outside (possibly after chipping the ice away from the well in winter.)

Erin has written a fascinating book about her family's day to day adventures in Seldovia blended together with their scientific explorations to document and research climate change in Alaska. Not being much of a scientist myself, I have to admit that the everyday stories in the book were the most interesting to me.

I loved reading about the daily challenges that made up the family's simple lifestyle in the yurt.  For example, Laundry and showers required trips into town, 3 miles away.  The trip to town would often be made on snowshoes in the middle of the cold Alaskan winter.  And just reaching the village of Seldovia requires multiple flights with the final leg done by ferry or a small Cessna plane.

Erin narrates an intriguing story of "pioneer" life that includes storing vegetables, fish, and fresh meat for the winter (vegetables grown from their own garden and fish often caught by their own hands.)  Wood must be chopped and stacked to last the winter and while supplies can be ordered or purchased in town, nothing comes easily like it would in my big city.  
Growing Veggies in Erin's Magical Garden

"There's something intensely satisfying about providing food for myself and my family - growing it, catching it, gathering it, seeing it appear from the very land around me.  When the pie is made from berries I've picked, when the salad comes from veggies I've grown, when the fillets come from fish I've caught...it's not just food.  It feels magical."
Erin's book is full of poignant lessons on simplicity.  I was captivated constantly by Erin's descritions of acting out stories told from imagination rather than from library books they didn't own, making toys out of drift wood, mud, and boulders instead of Lego or plastic blocks.  And I'm pretty sure her children still don't know what a video game is.  Blissful simplicity!

Awe and Gratitude in every-day life

"Small Feet, Big Land" is bursting with inspiration for those of us who would struggle with daily gratitude.  Choosing to live without showers and flush toilets, this amazing family chooses to embrace and be thankful for the basics from warmth to family, love, and a community where they can feel safe and embraced by like-minded people. 

"We live on the doorstep of wilderness, with a million-dollar view, space for a garden, a close-knit community, a cheap and debt-free lifestyle, and a schedule nearly entirely of our own making.  Could I have all that and all the conveniences and comforts of urban life?  Maybe, with enough money.  But what would I give up to earn it?
And with that quote, I stop to ask myself what I myself have given up so that I can live in "comfort" within my three bedroom house that possesses not one but four bathrooms.

Scientific Expeditions, Glaciers, and Toddlers  - Together

Erin's book is divided into four parts with the second and fourth parts focusing on their scientific expeditions and huge month-long journeys that the family would take to study climate change and its impact on remote Alaskan villages - while bringing their two children with them! I mentioned earlier that I'm not much of a scientist myself but I still found these parts of the book completely fascinating because I'm not sure I could embark on the kind of adventures Erin and her husband do for their research.  And certainly not with kids in tow! 

Life on Ice (And yes, they really are sleeping on ice.)

Life on Ice with Two Toddlers
Erin and her husband Hig first start off with an eight-day journey as a "test" of sorts to see how possible a month long trip would be with their first child Katmai, a toddler at the time.  Later in the book, they progress on to a much more epic journey where they plan to spend "two of the wettest months of the year in one of the wetter places on the planet on the vast icy lobe of Malaspina Glacier." - and I love how Erin explains the "craziness of the idea" below. 

"We'd planned for the middle of nowhere before.  But here, the middle of nowhere collided with harsh weather, unknowable terrain, and a stretch of time four times longer than we'd ever spent entirely in the wild.  And our expedition team included an eight-month-old baby who couldn't yet walk, and a two-and-a-half-year old toddler who walked only in wandering circles between streams and bugs and climbing rocks.  Despite our best efforts, neither were potty trained."

Personally, I found the family's two month expedition to be very inspirational and I received a powerful lesson in the importance of slowing down.  Erin talks about how they had done the same trip four years earlier but had missed seeing the same lakes, had failed to notice the detail, and had travelled the same distance in a morning that it was now taking a week to travel with the kids.  And while Erin admits that the pace was often glacial, she also says that "feats of observation took over from feats of athleticism." 

Where feats of observation take over from feats of athleticism

I could actually go on for another thousand words on how much I learned from Erin's book.  I have pages of notes I took on my reflections on comfort, thoughts on introducing children to the concept of wilderness at such a young age, and lessons I took away on family bonding through adventure. However, I'd rather give you the opportunity to read the book for yourself and then to let me know what you think.

The Giveaway!

Mountaineers Books would like to give away two copies of Erin's book to two lucky readers.  To enter, reply with a comment below telling me why you would like to read this book and what you hope to take away from it. 

A bonus entry will be counted if you follow Erin on Twitter at @Erin_McKittrick and or on Facebook at Ground Truth Trekking.  Please let me know where you follow Erin in a separate comment. 

The contest is open until midnight on the night of October 28th (mountain standard time) and winners will be drawn randomly and contacted on October 29th.  Please make sure you leave email contact information in your comment (or sign in via a social media account I can reach you through.) If I can't contact you,  I will choose another winner.

Disclaimer:  A review copy of this book was provided to me but as always, my opinions and thoughts are my own. All photos were used with permission from Erin's website and are her property.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Family Camping Made Easy - Always Bring Friends

I haven't written a whole lot about our camping adventures this summer because most of the time we spent our days biking or paddling rather than hanging out at camp.  Our campsites were often "basecamps" for these day trips away from camp and we'd play hard from morning to late afternoon, trying to do as many fun things as we could at each destination.

A typical day "camping"

While we didn't spend a ton of time at each campsite this summer, we still enjoyed camping with friends where our hours at camp were always a lot of fun.  The kids would run wild around the campground, the adults would enjoy afternoon "happy hour," and we'd often cook meals together or hold margarita parties with Mexican Fiesta dinners. We even had a disco dance party one afternoon before the evening meal.

Crazy Afternoons at Camp
Margarita Parties were always a hit!  (with juice for the kids)
Nothing like a camp disco dance party.  YMCA! 

We even celebrated one birthday while camping and had a very special pinata for the birthday girl (me) - who, is still working her way through all the bottles contained inside the pinata!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Another Season of Banff Awesomeness! #mybanff

We've always loved playing and exploring in Banff, but oddly enough, we had never camped much in this national park until this year.   We spent four weekends camping in Banff this summer and fall which is the most time we've ever spent camping in the same spot in one season.

June Camping at Two Jack Lakeside

Add a couple other day trips, a weekend at a wilderness hostel and another weekend spent in a backcountry lodge, and we spent a LOT of time in Banff this summer and fall season!! 15 days total I think between May and October.

Biking the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail in Banff

Our Favourite Campgrounds in Banff

Two Jack Lakeside has become our favourite lakeside campground and we grew pretty fond of Tunnel Mountain over the summer too.  We plan to spend lots of time at both again next year.

Paddling on Two Jack Lake in Banff

We loved paddling on Two Jack Lake and enjoyed our comfort camping experience in an o'TENTik.  Meanwhile, Tunnel Mountain offers prime real estate for mountain bikers and we can't wait to plan another spring biking weekend next year.

Mountain Biking on Tunnel Mountain

For more information on the campgrounds we've camped at in Banff, read my story:  The Banff Campground Review - The Good, the Bad, and the Awesome!.

And to read about our comfort camping experience at Two Jack Lakeside, check out this story:  Comfort Camping in Banff National Park - The Experience

Comfort Camping in Banff


Our Favourite Bike Rides in Banff

I can't even begin to choose our fav. trail from this summer because we spent the whole summer trying to ride every easy trail in Banff. And we liked them all!  To read about our adventures, check out these stories:

Biking the Fenland Trail in Banff

The Best Summer Adventure in Banff - Hands Down!

This one is easy!  The award for best summer adventure goes to Mount Norquay's new Via Ferrata Tour which was the highlight of my entire 2014 year so far (and that's from January!!)

On top of Mt. Norquay - after climbing my way up the Via Ferrata system

To read the full story of my experience, check out the story:  My First Via Ferrata Tour - And it was Awesome!!

Crossing the Mt. Norquay Suspension Bridge

Our Best Hike in Banff National Park this Summer/Fall Season

This one is a tie between Gibbon Pass and Parker Ridge.  We spent a weekend in September at the Hilda Creek Hostel on the Icefields Parkway and enjoyed the most fabulous day hiking across Parker Ridge to the Hilda Glacier. 

Hiking Parker Ridge on the Icefields Parkway

Later in September, we hiked into Shadow Lake Lodge for a weekend and hiked up to Gibbon Pass.  From the Pass, we climbed up to a summit on Copper Mountain.  The photo below says it all.  I mean, how many 5 year olds get to stand on a mountain like this after hiking for two days to reach the summit??

Copper Mountain above Gibbon Pass and Shadow Lake, Banff National Park

To read about our adventures at Hilda Creek, check out the story:  Moving on to Big Adventures - and the Kids Get to Come Along 

Hiking Parker Ridge above the Hilda Creek Hostel

To read about our weekend at Shadow Lake Lodge and our hike to Gibbon Pass and Copper Mountain, check out these stories:  Magical Autumn Hiking on the Bow Valley Highline Trail  and Family Backpacking in Banff National Park - No Tent Required  

Larch Trees at Gibbon Pass above Shadow Lake Lodge

The Easiest Little Adventure in Banff

We try to make it up to Sunshine Meadows at least once a year and it had been a couple years since Noah's last fall hike up here.   Time to remedy that so we spent a lovely day up at the meadows in late September and hiked around the three lakes near the Continental Divide.

Rock Isle Lake, Sunshine Meadows

This hike was quite a bit easier than some of the other crazy stuff we'd done this summer and I recommended it to many friends as an easy way to see the golden larch trees.  If you didn't get up there this year, add it to your list for next fall. And to read the full story, find it here at Sunshine Meadows - One of Canada's Top Hikes.

Hiking Across the Continental Divide at Sunshine Village

Winter is coming and we already have 8 days marked down on the calendar for Banff adventures over the next season.  Can't wait!!  Now we just need the snow to hold off and the lakes to freeze for skating season.  Freeze lakes, freeze.  Pretty please!

Another month and this will be Banff in November.

Did you spend time in Banff this summer? Leave a comment with your favourite trip, campground or experience.  We'll add it to our list for next summer.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Comfort Camping in Banff National Park - The Experience!

Earlier this summer I wrote a story about comfort camping in Banff and it's been extremely popular which makes me think a lot of you don't really like traditional tenting all that much.  And I don't blame you one bit.  We bought a trailer a couple years ago and I have not looked back.  For those without trailers though,  what are you going to do when autumn arrives and it drops below zero at night in the mountains?  You have two choices at this time of year:  Stop camping and stay at hotels, OR stay in a cozy cabin and call it "comfort camping."

Comfort Camping in Banff National Park

We recently had the opportunity to stay in one of the new o'TENTiks in Banff at Two Jack Lake and it was a great way to stay warm on a cool weekend.  Friday night was drizzly with light rain but we slept dry and toasty inside our tent-cabin which included a very warm heater.  (in fact, we had to turn it down the next night so that we could actually sleep under our blankets we'd brought.)

Home away from home in Banff National Park

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Mountain Biking the Tunnel Bench Loop in Banff - WITH KIDS

If you would have told me a few years ago that I'd be mountain biking on the Tunnel Mountain Bench in Banff, I would have said you were crazy. Add WITH a 5 year old child, and I'd have laughed at you. You see, the Tunnel Mountain area of Banff has some pretty sick mountain biking trails that I will probably never be able to ride.  I had no idea that there was a lovely little green loop on the bench or that the blue loop was actually pretty good for novice bikers.

Riding the Tunnel Bench Loop in Banff

Earlier this summer, we picked up the "Biking Trails in the Banff Area" brochure from the Banff Info. Centre and I quickly decided that I wanted to bike all of the easy green trails in the little pamphlet this summer, as a family.  And we've done pretty good!  Check out the story I wrote earlier this summer on the Best Family Bike Trails in Banff National Park

Biking on the Tunnel Mountain Bench in Banff

We'd biked most of the green trails this summer but had failed to complete the one I most wanted to do - The Tunnel Bench Loop.  Mostly because it wasn't actually a green trail.  It's rated as a solid blue and is really not something you do on a tiny bike with 16" wheels.  Regardless, I wanted to at least give it a shot this summer.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Moving on To Big Adventures - and the Kids Get to Come Along!

I've enjoyed the past 5 years of baby adventures, the toddler hikes, chariot backpacking trips, and ski trips with the trusty pulk.  However, I am VERY glad to also be moving on to bigger and grander things!  Such as this hiking trip below:

Hiking along Parker Ridge, Banff National Park

This is one of my favourite photos above from a recent backcountry hiking trip along one of Canada's most beautiful highways, the Icefields Parkway. The Parkway connects the Village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park with neighboring Jasper National Park, and you don't need to worry about choosing the best hike in the area - because they're all amazing!

Incredible Scenery in Backcountry Banff National Park

When I look  at the photo above I feel like we're in the Himalayas of Nepal.  And I've been to Nepal so I'm not just basing this on photographs or movies I've seen.  We honestly could be on some remote pass in the Himalayas in this photo.  And we only had to drive a couple hours to get here! 

Noah usually gets to bring a friend on his big adventures

Noah almost always gets to bring a friend along on his big adventures (hence the mention of kids plural in the title of this story)  and most of the time they come with happy spirits like the sweet girl in the photo above.

Mountain Buddies - for life I hope


Hiking Parker Ridge

Want to get the views above with your own family?  Good news!  It's super easy.  And the hike is really very short if you just hit the ridge and go back down. Park at the trailhead for Parker Ridge on the Icefields Parkway, just before the Icefields Centre where they do snow coach tours on the Athabasca Glacier (which you should totally do if in the area.)  The route description and trailhead is found here at the following link for the Parks Canada website.

Easy Hike up the Parker Ridge Trail

The ridge trail is super short at only 2.7 km one way and with only 250 metres of elevation gain.  My son did the hike by himself when he was 3 so it was easy peasy as a 5 year old.  The trail is also well switch-backed so you aren't slogging up a steep hill or anything.

Early winter snow on the hiking trail to Parker Ridge

Once you get to the top of the ridge, you will get views down to the Saskatchewan Glacier and over to the Hilda Horn and Mount Athabasca.  The best views of the glacier are down the ridge to the left.  Meanwhile, we went right and headed off trail in the direction of the Hilda Glacier.

The kids heading off to the right along the ridge top
Mount Athabasca is seen to the right of us in this photo

Hiking Parker Ridge to the Hilda Glacier

I love hiking up the Parker Ridge trail but the scenery really gets spectacular as you go further towards Mount Athabasca in the Jasper direction (to the right along the ridge top.)  From here, it is wide open backcountry hiking with no real trail.  Ramble anywhere you want and enjoy the solitude.

Mount Athabasca looms over us in the background (and I climbed that back in the day!)
Parker Ridge stretching out behind us as we hike

If you hike far enough (I'd say approximately 2-3 km), you'll reach great viewing of the Hilda Glacier and you'll be in the high alpine well above tree line the whole time.  AND this hike seriously isn't described anywhere that I've ever seen!  Really!

Mount Athabasca (left) and the Hilda Horn (right) in the background
The Hilda Glacier starting to show up at far left below Mt. Athabasca
My Backcountry Explorers heading towards the Hilda Glacier

We stopped often for candy, breaks, and to take photos.  Eventually we got close to the moraines surrounding the Hilda Glacier and the kids had fun climbing them.  We considered going to the toe of the glacier to touch it but as you can see from the photo above, it's a loooong way away.  And the kids were getting tired.

Climbing the Moraines below the Hilda Glacier
Walking on the Glacier Moraines
Tired but happy
Our Happy Family
The view we hiked to get of the Hilda Glacier
I am Strong, I am Mighty!

Hiking from the Hilda Glacier to the Hilda Creek Hostel

At this point you're probably wondering where to now?  And we certainly weren't going back the whole way we just came from.  This was a traverse from A to B, and now it was time to finish up the hike and get back to our end point, the Hilda Creek Hostel (and lodging for the weekend.)

Creek crossing on the way back out
Back at our Hostel to rest (or play)

I didn't really take many photos of the final section as you can see above.  We pretty much just descended the moraines, found a trail along the creek, and followed it right down to the hostel pictured above.  For a description of the hike from the hostel to the glacier, check out this one that I found on the Alberta Wow website. It doesn't mention going further to Parker Ridge but it's all open country once you get up there so it's pretty hard to get lost.

Paradise at the Hilda Creek Hostel


Putting the Shuttle Together

The easiest way to do this shuttle and whole traverse is to stay at the Hilda Creek Hostel.  From the hostel you have a cozy base camp for your adventure and you end the hike right at your door.  From the hostel, just drive or walk up the road to the Parker Ridge trailhead (a 10 minute walk) and then go get your car later on if you chose to drive as we did. And we figure the whole traverse plus hike up Parker Ridge was about 7km one way.

Parker Ridge as seen from the Icefields Parkway
Mount Athabasca, the Hilda Glacier, and the Hilda Horn as seen from the highway

Want to stay at the Hilda Creek Hostel?

Your response here should be "heck ya" because it's truly our favourite hostel in the collection of wilderness hostels run by Hostelling International.  We stay here at least a couple of times a year and it's awesome in every season! 

The view from the hostel deck at sunrise

For more information on the Hilda Creek Hostel and to make a reservation, visit the Hostelling International Website.  (link goes straight to HI Hilda Creek.) The hostel sleeps 6 so we usually just book the whole hostel and go with another family.  One of the bunks is a double bed as well so you could fit 7 people if an adult and small child shared a bed.

To read a couple stories on our past winter stays at Hilda Creek (and to see photos of the hostel covered in snow,) follow the links below to these stories:

Raising Tough Kids - Hilda Creek Wilderness Trip

Spring Adventures on Alberta's Icefields Parkway

This is what Hilda Creek will look like next time we visit!