To Higman's surprise, McKittrick, whom he had met while they were studying at Carleton College outside Minneapolis, was game. "That was a defining moment," says Higman, now 33; he knew McKittrick was the one.
Ten years later, they are married, have an 11-month-old son and have walked more than 7,000 miles together. "When we got together, it was more than the sum of the parts," says McKittrick, who is 30. "Much more."
Their last trip took an entire year, during which they covered more than 4,000 miles of both urban and untouched terrain in Alaska, Washington and Canada by foot, raft and ski. McKittrick's account of the adventure, A Long Trek Home, was published last October.
Although their epic expedition has ended, they're still camping. Today, their lives unfold under the conical eaves of a Mongolian yurt. They have lived in it since November 2008, high on a spruce-covered mountainside of the Kenai peninsula, in the coastal town of Seldovia (population around 250), where Higman grew up. The remote town is not connected to other parts of the state by road; residents must travel by either boat or aeroplane. A recent passenger on Homer Air, the local airline, was a poodle on its way to the vet.
The decision to live in a yurt has forced them to confront the same questions that many people do, but their conclusions have been very different. They decided they could live without running water, shower, bath or a flush toilet, but they had to have broadband internet access.
The couple discovered yurts when they returned from their 4,000-mile trek and passed through the nearby town of Homer, where Nomad Shelter Yurts sells modern tents inspired by those used on the Mongolian steppes by nomadic herders. Unlike the Mongolian ones, which are covered with wool felt, the approximately 8,700 tent that is home to Higman and McKittrick is encased in Duro-Last roofing vinyl and backed with heavy-duty Tyvek insulation to withstand the Alaskan climate.
"Part of it was just logistical," Higman says, explaining their decision to buy the tent. "A yurt can be set up in eight hours." It was also in their price range, suited their minimalist approach to life and, perhaps most importantly, evoked the wilderness experience they cherish.
"The walls move when it blows hard," he said. "It's a little bit more out there in the elements."
McKittrick, who grew up in Seattle, seems at home in a domestic setting – her eyes never leave their baby (named Katmai, after a nearby volcano) and she can deftly whip up a salmon quiche for dinner. But elements of the frontiers-woman are apparent as well. She can split wood and haul water and doesn't blink when Katmai plays with a pair of big visiting dogs, or a fire poker.
Higman has a PhD in geology from the University of Washington, where his wife earned her masters degree in molecular biology.
Their domestic and professional lives play out within the yurt's 452sq ft, though as Higman points out, "square" is a misnomer: The room is circular.
The futon where the couple sleep with their baby is cordoned off by a handmade quilt curtain. The kitchen, which is a sink with no running water (they draw water from a nearby well), is flanked by a few short feet of counter space. It is so cold that homemade yoghurt resting on the plywood floor stays chilled. During the summer, the couple keep food cool in a root cellar they fashioned out of an old refrigerator.
How big or small your living space is, according to McKittrick, is a matter of perspective. When she's cooking, she imagines the kitchen is the entire tent. "I like having only one room," she said. "It means you can live in a small space and have it feel big."
In the centre of their yurt is a small, constantly burning wood stove. In Seldovia, which can see up to 17ft of snow in a season, even the biggest blaze offers slight warmth. It's often freezing inside when they wake up in the morning. They feed logs into the stove every 15 to 30 minutes; the winter ritual of chopping, hauling and splitting firewood is constant and arduous.
Rather than use a propane heater, the couple chose the stove because, Higman says, "Each step you take in that direction is a step away from the wilderness."
By this thinking, toilets that flush were deemed superfluous. A cheerily painted outhouse takes the place of an expensive septic system. Their waste, which is untreated, eventually degrades. Showers didn't make the cut either; they take a weekly hour-long walk to town to wash their clothes and themselves.
But to them, the sacrifices are worth it. "I'm someone who doesn't mind giving up some level of convenience for having an interesting experience," McKittrick says. For the pair, everything from watching bears trundle through the garden in summer to canning salmon bought by the bucket from fishermen docked in town is a fascinating departure from modern life.
Their treks are made not only for pleasure but on behalf of Ground Truth Trekking, the non-profit group they founded. Through this organisation, the couple hope to raise awareness of environmental issues across the state by visiting contentious sites such as the Anwar arctic tundra. They also consult for environmental organisations and run Sundrop Jewelry, an accessories business.
Time holds a higher value for them than the more lucrative jobs they might have had with their advanced degrees. There is time for snowshoeing in winter and gathering wild nettles to eat in the spring.
The money they save enables them to travel for long periods. Their next expedition, scheduled for late August, is a 200-mile month-long trek to unmined coal repositories in north-west Alaska. This time, their son, who was conceived on the last trek, will ride on their backs.
New York Times
If you want to stay in a traditional Mongolian yurt in Loch Tay (from 40 per night), see www.lochtay-vacations.co.uk, tel: 01567 820323. Available from 25 May. To buy or hire a yurt, handmade in Scotland, visit www.redkiteyurts.com, tel: 07708 302808. Prices from 1570 for an 8-foot yurt (including delivery).
This article was published in The Scotsman on 23 January, 2010