A Family’s Unstoppable Journey to Travel the World
Bruce Kirkby and Christine Pitkanen are travelers, and along with their 2 sons, Bodi and Taj, they’re the focus of Travel Channel’s new series Big Crazy Family Adventure. The show follows the family as they travel from British Columbia to Ladakh, India (more than 13,000 miles), by every mode of transportation except planes. Whether it’s exploring your neighborhood, visiting the city or going to the next state or the next country, travel changes you, and it seems as if nobody understands that more than Bruce and Christine. In anticipation of their prime-time debut, the couple answered a few questions about their love of travel, how they travel such distances with small children, and more.
How many of your family and friends were on board with you guys traveling with the kids?
Bruce: By now, honestly, most of them are accustomed to us taking off on crazy journeys with the boys. I called my mother once in tears, from northern Pakistan, at age 22 — I was biking through the mountains alone and felt homesick — and she worried for months. After that, I don’t think she ever worried again. I think both grandmas have a lot of trust that Christine and I will take good care of the boys and make wise decisions along the way. Heck, I’m trying to get the grandmothers to come on more adventures with us!
Christine: My family knows the drill, although I think my mom still worries more about the kids and what we are putting them through! My friends vary: Some think I am out of my mind, and why would I do that to myself? A handful of friends wish it were them. But most think it is truly an amazing and great experience for our kids and family.
Take us back to where this love of traveling began. Bruce, you’re a professional photographer; did it start there or earlier on?
Bruce: Even as a child, I loved being outdoors. My parents owned a farm we visited on the weekends, and we also camped a lot. I was always riding around the subdivision we lived in at night or catching frogs in nearby ponds. I went to a university for the geekiest possible degree — engineering physics — and after graduation, I got a cubicle job as a database programmer. At the same time, I began guiding white-water rafting trips on the weekends. One day, I realized that the 2 days of my weekend were about 50 million times more rewarding than the 5 days of staring at a blinking screen, so I quit my job, packed my rusty pickup and drove west. Since then, I’ve operated on faith that things will work out if I pursue my interests and always am a good person. So far, at least for 25 years, it seems to be a good plan.
So many times, parents lose their dreams of traveling, either out of fear of traveling with the kids or simply because they don’t have the money to do it. What would you say to those parents?
Bruce: Those are 2 common challenges in life — fear and money. Regarding fear, Christine and I were comfortable traveling before kids came along, and it was such a part of who we were that there was no question we’d continue with kids. When we realized how much children grew and benefited from travel, even as toddlers, it doubled our enthusiasm. I think that as a parent, it is easy to be worried about your kids wherever you are — on the street in New York, choking on a grape, falling out of bed. We all learn to deal with such fears, and travel is no different. Everything from difficult plane rides to unusual food to jet lag can be dealt with; it just takes a bit of persistence and ingenuity.
Regarding money, we have always traveled on the cheap. We tend to stay at comfortable but budget accommodations and eat local food. Basically, we are backpackers — even with kids. So it takes far less than one might imagine to finance such a trip. Flights are often the biggest expense, and I try to save frequent-flier points from photographic assignments to offset those. Also, we often spend a lot of time in a tent, which doesn’t cost anything!
Christine: Camping with my 3-month-old was new to me, but I thought, “Nobody is going to die here!” The risk was minimal. Sure, changing diapers and sleeping in a tent might be trickier, but if that is the limiting factor, think of what the trip has to offer to keep a positive, realistic light. Staying home and indoors with kids can be much harder than exploring the outdoors in a new environment.
Finances can be tricky, but camping is cheap once you get the gear. Hotels don’t have to be 5-star, and if you can get away in the offseason, accommodations can be quite cheap. Do your research. I am always looking for a deal. I know many families who spend so much of their savings for Disneyland when they could get 3 trips out of that budget. So I guess priorities have to shift, too. I also have a “travel savings jar” for all loose change. It adds up after a while!
Christine, when you’re canoeing 5 hours, do you hold it or abandon “ship”?
Christine: I would do 10 hours if Bruce would let me. (smiles)
What would you say to the mothers and fathers out there who are wanting to travel with their children but are nervous about it?
Bruce: When the baby arrived, it didn’t come with a manual. And quickly, one figures it all out. I think the same is true of travel. The obstacles can seem hugely daunting from home but often are not too bad. If you can supply your child with rest, food and plenty of love, you’ll be 90% of the way there. And try to spell off your partner, giving each other a break each day to explore the new city alone, grab a workout or simply nap.
Christine: Bring a little home with you — blanket, stuffy, water bottle, books. Familiarity is grounding for kids. Let the kids in on some of the decisions that are less important (such as the order of doing things) so they feel more involved and invested. Do activities that are interesting and fun for them, not just you!
When the cell phones and iPads are put away, what are some of the classic games that your family enjoys playing?
Bruce: “I Spy” was a classic when the boys were younger, and I still resort to it when they need some distraction — I just look for really hard things. Physical games are good for the boys, too. I chase them or let them chase me, play hide-and-seek, thumb wars.
Christine: Classic games, not so much, because our boys have always been young. I would say cool sticks, rocks, water and exploring new territory are always a hit. I feel as though we are just getting into the Yahtzee, Uno, Battleship phase!
Was traveling on the container ship, in fact, “epic”? By which day did everyone get cabin fever, if at all?
Bruce: The container ship was one of the great, pleasant surprises of the journey. It was very comfortable, our cabins were great, the crew was friendly, and the constant routine (meals, coffee breaks, snacks) was perfect for the boys. I found it very pleasant. Crossing the Pacific is always “epic” — it’s the world’s biggest ocean! And we saw some burly conditions. But it was perfectly comfortable aboard the ship. I’d do it again!
Christine: My personality is such that I don’t need to be “doing” all the time. I quite enjoy an experience for what it is. The ship was our home for that period of time, so I made the most of what it had to offer: Reading, working out, looking for dolphins, socializing with crew and playing games all contributed to a fun time. I didn’t ever feel that classic cabin fever, although I thought the potential was there. The ship was a pleasant surprise in that it exceeded my expectations in terms of comfort, food and crew. It was kind of epic in that we crossed the Pacific Ocean by boat! That doesn’t happen for families very often. (smiles)
Christine, your 1 hour to work out — how often did that happen?
Christine: I think I took that hour most days, even if it was just for stretching. I think anyone’s mental health depends on “me” time. You don’t get a lot on busy trips, but if you can trade off some time with your partner, you will feel rejuvenated. People aren’t used to spending so much time with their kids, and it can be an adjustment. Working out is 1 outlet I use at home and when traveling that helps ground me and keep me sane!
Watch Big Crazy Family Adventure, Sunday, June 21 at 9pm|8c.
From annual events including the Cherry Blossom Festival to some events that only the locals know about, such as the Bethesda Literary Festival, here are my 5 picks for family-friendly things to do this spring in Washington, DC.