Why Small Feet, Big Land is a compelling read

Small Feet, Big Land

Take a deep breath, close your eyes and picture this: husband and wife set off on a two-month-long expedition over an Alaska glacier during the storm-battered months of October and November. In addition to the usual tent, stove and camera, they also bring along their kids, an infant and a toddler, both still in diapers.  They carry them over long stretches of frozen grey ice, hunker down in ferocious rain, and experience the magic of ice caves and desolate pebble-strewn beaches.

Small Feet, Big Land chronicles life in Alaska for Erin, her husband Hig and their two children, Katmai and Lituya. It tells the story of ambitious expeditions (like the one described above), it describes the daily life of raising a family in a remote yurt, and it explores climate change through the lens of highly educated scientists making observations on the ground.

At one point in her book Erin writes about a filmmaker who has joined part of an expedition: “It would be easy to show Greg’s camera a scene of cold and hardship to make viewers happy for their own cozy comforts. But I wanted to show them something that would make them sorry they weren’t here.”

This sentiment sums up well how I felt reading Small Feet, Big Land. At times, I snuggled deeply into the down comforter and quilted blankets on my own bed, grateful for a roof overhead, electric heat and a child sleeping peacefully in the room next door.

But at other times, the book stirred my heart with vivid daydreams and deep reminisces of the six years I spent living in Alaska. I could almost feel the texture of tundra, taste the fresh berries and hear the roar of sea lions.

Erin writes with beautiful descriptions, a rhythmical cadence and genuine candor. It’s a style that’s both easy to read and endearing.

This candor comes out in paragraphs like this one:

“As I thought about how our toddler got to watch sea lions and bears and wolverines and eagles, to throw rocks into glacial waterfalls, and to roam a scenic Alaska wilderness few adults have ever set foot in, it was easy to spin myself into a pleasant bubble of self-congratulation, the most awesome mother ever. On the other hand, he’d never realize a moulin was more special than a rock-lined puddle, or that a sea lion outranked a curious gull, or that he should appreciate the view of snowcapped peaks more than the face of an interesting climbing boulder.”

Small Feet, Big Land is one of those books I wanted to absorb, word by word, reluctant to rush through it. By the end, I found myself debating with friends the issues of climate change described so vividly in this book and scheming up how we can take our daughter on a packraft trip through Alaska’s Brooks Range, the expedition of my dreams.

It made my outdoor pursuits with my daughter feel less crazy and more normal, because as Erin so aptly puts it, when describing her son:

“He had joined a family of adventurers, therefore he comes on adventures, adapting to the circumstances of his birth like every baby in the world.”


Disclaimer: a review copy of this book was provided free of charge. However, as always, the opinions expressed in this article are honest and fully my own. 

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