10-year-old Katmai leads the way into a gully during a family trip in Katmai National Park. Photo by Erin McKittrick.

Katmai raised his granola bar triumphantly for the picture, standing in the slushy-deep snow that had dominated the final hours of our climb. Katmai’s crater lake appeared below, an eerie blue that reflected darkly on the fog. At 10 years old, Katmai the person had finally met Katmai the mountain. We ran back down in the way only a child and a trail runner can, airplane arms, whooping and kicking up pebbles of pumice in our wake.

It was the fourth day of a two-week trip through Katmai National Park, with my husband Hig, son Katmai, daughter Lituya, and mother Niki. It was a wilderness journey, a birthday present, an apprenticeship. It was the closing of a circle that had begun 18 years before, when I’d hiked through Katmai, plucking its name for a dreamed-up future child.

When Katmai turned 10, we thought he should see his namesake, and that we could use his enthusiasm as a teaching opportunity. Could a child lead us through the wilderness? He plotted his priorities, zooming in as far as Google Earth would go, speckling the area around the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes with pushpins labeled “explore.” We filled in logistics, gear carefully weighed to fit in a plane, and decades of experience we tried not to depend on. 

Step, step, sink. Sink, sink, sink. Slurp, slurp, shluuuuuuck… Katmai’s feet followed the bow-legged craters of a bear across the Katmai River Valley. Two steps back, I plunged even deeper into the mire. Our progress was gritty, wet, agonizingly slow. Maps and satellite photos stuck out of a pocket on Katmai’s pack, incapable of telling us how insubstantial the ground was.

Hikers wash their shoes in Katmai River
Katmai, his sister Lituya, and their grandmother Niki, wash grit from their shoes in the endless mire of the Katmai River Valley. Photo by Erin McKittrick.

We paused on a small island, crouched beneath alders, washing out pounds of grit that had filtered into our sneakers. Katmai smiled shyly at the camera my husband trained on him, discussing his plans. “I had to decide whether to take a shorter route to the edge where I knew it was going to be better walking or having more time in the river, but going more in the right direction. Now I’m thinking about walking a bit more on the island we’re on, then crossing over and walking more on the shore.”

One day later, the ground was dry and hard. It was easy to walk, easy to daydream, easy to miss the fog that was actually silt and sand, scouring the valley ahead as a dark storm blew over the pass. “I think we should stop here and discuss today’s plan,” I suggested to Katmai, breaking him out of the imaginary world he shares with his younger sister.

“Why?” he said.

“Have you thought about where we’re going to camp?”

He looked at his watch. It was barely midday. He said, “I want to keep going.” I gently pointed out the dust storms, the barren landscape before us, the bushes beside us the only protection for miles.

A wilderness journey is all about uncomfortable uncertainties. I cheered Katmai on as he charged into the muck, because I’d judged it unavoidable. Now I was trying to hold him back. A few hours of playing hearts in the tent could save us from the misery of an unprotected night in a pumice storm. Both discomforts were safe, but only one seemed worth it. It’s an impossible edge, one I’ve spent decades crossing back and forth, learning wet, exhausted, thorn-scratched lessons. Was there an easier way?

On day four, the steep climb toward Katmai’s crater was doing nothing to warm us. Fog blew a misty chill. Kids whined. Katmai was the leader, but I was the mom, and I huddled us behind a boulder with snacks, extra layers, and a difficult decision. “We’ll probably get up beyond the fog. The rain will probably stop. But maybe not. This is your only chance to climb this mountain. We don’t have to climb it. You get to decide. But…”

Boy lifts pumice boulder in Katmai National Park

I interfered. I told him if he climbed it, he’d be glad in the end. I told my daughter that she’d have more fun returning to camp with my mother. Watching him kick steps into the slush, the first to peer into the crater, I knew I’d made the right call. For that day. But for life?

On day 11, we reached “the badlands.” On Google Earth, it was a feathery pattern of dry channels on a barren-pale background. In reality, I wasn’t sure it’d be much of anything. But Katmai had obsessed about it for months, so we had dedicated an entire day to this particular “explore.” 

The kids lifted pumice boulders over their heads. Katmai ran up and down the steep gully walls, banking off the sides like a skier. We followed the canyons deeper, taking whichever turn struck Katmai’s fancy, until we found ourselves in cool green oases tucked between towering red walls of fused ash, finding fossils, and playing with rafts of pumice pebbles that floated down miniature creeks. It was a day of childish joy I wouldn’t have put in if I were the leader.

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