KTDontheGO: The Picking is Berry Good

We’re lucky here in Alaska; few other states offer so many opportunities for harvesting mother nature’s goodness within reach of our doorsteps. From basket to table, Alaska is a market of wholesome products upon which families have been feasting for centuries. Our favorite, though, comes in the form of crawling the mountainsides in a favorite end-of-summer ritual that means not only food for a cold winter ahead, but wholesome family togetherness as well. It’s berry time, and even though a scourge of caterpillars threatens our favorite spots, we’ve been hearing reports of fair to good picking nonetheless.

It’s easy to find a berry patch in southcentral Alaska, and kids love to pick berries, be they the low-growing crowberries found along many alpine slopes, or the plump blueberries familiar enough to most children but possessing a tart, crisp taste not found in any commercial fruit. There is nothing like a late summer afternoon spent canvassing the slopes with those near and dear, picking berries as fast as one can and listening to the shouts and laughter of other families doing the same. It’s a sound we only hear once a year at this particular time, and it fills my heart with a joyous melody I tuck away for the dark winter ahead.

What does a family need to pick berries in Alaska? Not much, other than a few household items and an enthusiastic crew to help. Containers need not be fancy; we use a leftover ice cream bucket with a sealable lid to protect berries from spills coming down the hill. Some folks count on their berry picker, a metal scoop sort of thing with tines on one end that collects berries, leaves and all, and deposits them into the nether regions of the picker. AK Dad is a pro with this particular tool and can clear a patch faster than one can say “homemade pie”. Other optional items include a pile of snacks and drinks, since berry picking is more fun on a full stomach; bear bells and bear spray for those unlikely encounters (but we prepare anyway, especially in the more wooded areas); and bug dope.

Wielding a berry picker tool

Alaskans have their favorite species of berry and thus their favorite berry picking spots, many within a short drive of downtown. Try the ultimate in views and berries at Arctic Valley off the Glenn Highway east of Anchorage. Exit at Arctic Valley Road and wind up a few miles to a pristine alpine meadow that offers one of the best vistas in town and a wealth of blueberry and crowberry patches. The Hillside area of Anchorage, including Flattop Mountain and Powerline Pass offer lovely spots for family berry time with plenty of company.

Girdwood’s Alyeska Resort has a bunch o’ blueberries on its ski slopes, so start by walking up Mt. Alyeska from the Day Lodge or take the Tram up and hike down, picking and grinning along the way. The Winner Creek Trail also has easy berry picking along the trail’s start right out the Hotel Alyeska back door. AND, the resort’s Blueberry Festival kicks off this weekend with tons of berry-related games, music, crafts, and family fun.

The Alaska Public Lands Information Center on 4th Avenue in Anchorage has a great map of berry picking areas, and so does the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where one can not only gather information on where to find berries, but how to identify and prepare them, too.

Sweet or savory, berries have long been a tradition of Alaskan families. Start yours today. Come winter, you’ll have more than just a jar of jam to remember it by.

Show 40: Excerpt - From Bhutan to Alaska, a Refugee Family's Story

Graphic via: IndiaDaily.org
According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), over 75,000 Bhutanese refugees continue to reside in camps in Nepal.

ONE NIGHT BACK in 1992, 8-year old Nir Rana thought she and her family were walking upriver and crossing the Bhutanese border into India to visit their grandparents. What was really happening was the country decided to revoke the citizenship of over 108,000 Nepalese workers who had made their home there since the 1600's. That night, the Ranas were swept up in the confusion and joined by many other refugees in a camp in Nepal. Today, 18 years later, 4 out of their 8 family members have resettled in Alaska.

Contributor Ann Kaiser sat down with them to hear their story. Listen below...


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Show 40: Refugee Families in Alaska

Photos via: cssalaska.org

IMAGINE BEING FORCED to leave your home, your friends, your job and your country – taking everything you can carry and moving from camp to camp until starting over in a foreign country. Now imagine doing this and having to start school, meet a whole new set of peers and do homework in a new language, too. That’s the reality for the some children in refugee families who resettle in Alaska. Our two guests are helping to smooth the transition for these families.

As of January 2011. Photo via: UNHCR.org

IN-STUDIO GUESTS: Joining guest host, Kathleen McCoy, in the studio are Karen Ferguson, the Program Director of the Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program of Catholic Social Services, the only refugee resettlement program in Alaska; she is also the US Office of Refugee Resettlement's State Refugee Coordinator for Alaska. Christine Garbe is the supervisor for the English Language Learners Program with the Anchorage School District, the department that assists refugee children enroll in and adjust to school.

Graph via: UNHCR.org


Music to Their Ears - Michelle Theriault Boots reports on the RAIS Refugee Youth Music Group in Anchorage. Learn more about the group, the kids, the leaders or to volunteer (musicians wanted!) visit: RefugeeMusic.org

From Bhutan to Alaska - In 1992 Nir Rana, then 8-years old, and her family were captured and taken at the Bhutan/India border along with thousands of other Nepali immigrant workers residing in Bhutan to a camp in Nepal. Today, 4 out of their 8 family members have resettled in Alaska after 18 long years as refugees. Ann Kaiser sat down with them to hear their story.


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Next Time on KTD!: Refugee Families in Alaska

THEY COME FROM all over the globe and for a host of different reasons to seek refuge and to find a better life after being forced to leave the countries they call home. Next time on Kids These Days! we’re talking about refugee families in Alaska. Also, we’ll learn about a music program that helps refugee kids cope and we meet the members of a family from Bhutan who’ve made a new life for themselves in the 49th state.

That and more next time on Kids These Days! - that’s Tuesday at 2 and again at 7 on KSKA 91.1, and 24/7 right here on KidsTheseDays.org.


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KTDontheGO: Developing an Eye, Ear, Nose and Feel for Travel in Children

PERHAPS MY GREATEST travel memory is the feeling of early morning in insert any European city here. Up and out of the youth hostel early, I would shoulder my backpack and walk to the nearest bakery/coffee shop, my nose fairly twitching as the delightful scents of dark roast coffee and freshly-baked goods wafted across my path. What could be better?

Travel is delightful tapestry of both familiar and unfamiliar sensory experiences, and children should not be exempt from sights and smells, or textures and tastes while away from home. Even the most routine of smells, like that coffee and pastry reminder above, seem different when we are outside our own boundary of comfort, and it’s easy to incorporate a little bit of the unique and different into your kids’ day while traveling.

Kids always discover new things without much prompting from us, but here are a few suggestions for standout sensory experiences on a family vacation:

Look and Find (sight): Provide kids with tools for looking far away and up close. Alaska, in particular, provides hundreds of opportunities for eye-candy experiences. Check out the heavens with binoculars, watching for soaring raptors and their nests. Take a peek into the canopy of a rainforest on a zipline adventure with older kids and see how things look from the “other side” of an evergreen tree. Get down on your hands and knees at the beach and allow sand or mud to trickle through your fingers, noting the tiny pebbles and their unique shape and color. Find a dead log in the forest and with a hand lens (available at any outdoor store) observe the pattern of ants or beetles as they busily go about their day.

Stinky Fish (smell): Vacationing in Alaska? Visit an aquarium, fish hatchery, or go creekside during spawning season and ask your kids to describe what they smell. Out of state? Visit a local farmer’s market (Pike Place Market in Seattle is perfect for this) and try to discern the melting pot of scents traveling across your nose. Fish, produce, tea, coffee, french fries, it’s all there. Stop by a local park or along a hiking trail and sniff the flowering plants and/or the trunk of a tree. Is it spicy? Sweet? Sour? Walk a city street and smell the exhaust from cars and trucks as they roar past and notice, with thankfulness, that we don’t have too much of that in Alaska.

What do we see down this clam hole?

Listen Up! (hearing): I try to spend a bit of each day just sitting still and listening to the sounds around me. Try times of day when your family is usually doing something else; twilight is perfect to visit a local park, sit or lie upon the ground, and open your ears. Are there insects buzzing or chirping? How about birds? Do you know what a bat sounds like, whizzing around in the darkness? We also enjoy listening to a city “wake up” in the morning. Doors slam, cars start, and birds sing as the world gears up for another day. Play a guessing game to see who can “name that sound.”

Texturize (touch): Nothing irks me more than taking my kids to a museum, visitor center, or exhibition hall and seeing signs that say “Don’t Touch!” Children must touch to learn, so finding an appropriate outlet for handling anything and everything is inherently valuable to a vacation experience. Search around for those attractions/museums who do offer touchable exhibits; our favorite here in Anchorage is the Alaska Museum of Natural History in the Mountainview neighborhood. This little facility makes it a priority to offer kids the chance to touch, carry, and dig into the natural science and history of Alaska. While trekking around outside, give your kids a list of items to find, including cones, pebbles, leaves, and make a collage out of the results. Splash in a stream or mud puddle and note how cool or warm the water feels upon your toes, feel the different types of leaves (safely, of course) and note their texture. Let the rain fall upon your face.

For more ideas on sensory experiences for children, at home or on the go, visit the Family Education website. They feature a great list of activities, broken down by category, that are sure to amuse and educate.

Show 39: Excerpt - Hearing Screening & Cochlear Implants

IT USED TO be that kids with hearing loss weren’t diagnosed until they were about two-and half years old - at the stage when they should be developing language skills the way other kids were, but weren't. Now, thanks to better technology and mandatory newborn hearing screening, babies are often diagnosed before they are three months old.

As KTD Contributor Jessica Cochran reports, there are lots of ways to help even young babies and toddlers develop good communication. Listen below...


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Show 39: Excerpt - Assistive Technology Helping Deaf Students Succeed

Matt Huenerfauth, assistant professor of computer science and linguistics at the City University of New York, demonstrates the use of motion-capture data-gloves to record the movements of the hands; this information can be analyzed to produce realistic movements of a virtual human character in animations of sign language.

AT THE LINGUISTIC and Assistive Technologies Laboratory or LATLab at the City University of New York in Queens, lab director Dr. Matt Huenerfouth is studying how to produce software that would generate animations of sign language for the deaf and hearing impaired population. There is a need for this type of technology because for those who have been deaf their whole life, reading written English is a challenge.

The interior of the Linguistic and Assistive Technologies Laboratory at Queens College of the City University of New York.

The average reading level among deaf high school graduates is a fourth grade level. American Sign Language is a completely different language than spoken English so it's understandable that for children whose mother tongue is ASL that they would have trouble in traditional schooling environments where lessons are taught in spoken/written English. One of the biggest challenges in deaf education is confronting these literacy challenges, but graduate-level research at CUNY are seeking to close the gap for hearing impaired students.

Mathematical models of the movement of human sign-language users are digitized and analyzed to produce realistic and accurate animations of a virtual human character performing sign language.

Here in Alaska, many types of assistive technology are used in the classroom to assist hearing impaired students. Kaela Parks is the director of Disability Support Services at the University of Alaska Anchorage. This department arranges for classroom interpreters and also stocks an assortment of technologies for students and professors to use in the classroom. Their mission is two-fold – accommodating disabled students, and also sharing their resources with others in the state.

KTD Producer Sarah Gonzales has the story, listen below...


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Patrick on the Edge: Let the Last Days Begin

This last Monday was registration day for seniors. Last Monday is quite appropriate in its finality as it was the last time my class had to (or got to, depending on your opinion of school) register. As I went to the various stations and jumped through all the necessary administrative hoops, I saw faces I hadn't seen since May 18th. It was just like any other year, sharing waves, "heys", or if I wanted to be subtle, the always-popular nonverbal nod/chin raise. But this year there was a new emotion thrown into the mix - a blend of apprehension and excitement. As I looked around at my fellow seniors-to-be, I could tell they were thinking the same thing- this is my last high school registration... And soon to follow will be my last first day of high school, and after that all the "last" milestones will blur together like looking at something through a foggy window - you can tell what's outside, but you can't describe it in detail. Sooner than we think (and sooner than I want) my classmates and I will be walking across the stage at the Sullivan Arena, shaking hands with people we've never heard of, and smiling at the camera on the side, without knowing why. After that day, some of us may still have some high school left, in the form of sports or AP Tests. But truly, after graduation, we all cross the threshold from the security of childhood to the untapped mystery called the rest of our lives.

I can wait for that day. But I'm not keeping a countdown of how many days I have left to get up early (as if once I'm out of high school I'll never again have to get up early), nor will I ever start. I see this year as my last chance at childhood. Anything that I haven't done in years past, I'm trying to check that box this year (If I can remember). Because if I don't do it now, who knows if I'll ever have the chance again? Do I know if I'll live in Alaska after college? No, so I have to take advantage of everything this state has to offer.

This year isn't entirely about tying up loose ends and looking back on the last 18 years though; it's also about preparing myself for the years ahead. Getting into a good college to ensure a good career, and establishing myself financially so I don't have to rely on anyone straight out of college are two things on my 'Future List' for this year.

I see this year as the Bridge between the past and the future. If I'm too excited about getting to the other side, I'll realize I left everything I needed on the side I was too happy to desert. Conversely, If I take too long collecting every bell and whistle, a raging wave will tear the bridge away, like it happens in any quality cartoon, and I'll miss the crossing. So I'm going to travel at the pace that I want, taking each day individually, and asking myself "are you ever going to be able to do this again?" so that I take every opportunity for awesome presented to me.

And now I'm ready.

Show 39: Deaf & Hard of Hearing Children

BABIES CAN SIGN before they speak, and many parents are helping their little ones to communicate in this way with the aid of educational resources like the popular series, Signing Time! Guest Rachel Coleman designed this fun, musical program in response to learning that her own daughter was profoundly deaf. Today, learn Rachel's story and how Signing Time! is helping families with deaf children talk to one another. Tracy Pifer from the Alaska State School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing is also in the studio with host Shana Sheehy to let us know about the ways that our state is helping deaf children to learn and grow academically.

A clip from a Signing Time! video: "It's Nice to Meet You"

ALSO THIS HOUR, Jessica Cochran reports on infant hearing tests and introduces us to a little girl with cochlear implants; Sarah Gonzales learns how linguistics + computer science = better literacy for older deaf students and finds out what resources the University of Alaska offers its deaf population.


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Love + eMotion: 3 Tips for Taking Young Kids Fishing

Balancing our heavy five-foot-diameter dipnet on my right shoulder, I plunged one foot at a time into the gooey mudflat. It was low tide at the mouth of the Kenai River and the mudflats had already killed Ethan’s talking Finn McMissile and petered out Thomas.

Every step was a gamble. I could fall flat on my face or sink so deep that I got stuck. As I plunged into the ocean with all my strength, the net whipped in the current and nearly knocked me over. Licking my lips, I tasted the spray of saltwater, the thrill of not knowing what was going to happen next.

The icy waters cooled my feverish excitement of being an Alaskan as I fought my net and tried to tame it against my ribs. To my right in one deft move, a neighbor knocked a salmon out with his club and hung it on a string tied to his waist.

It was our third year dipnetting and still I felt like a novice. Here are three tips that made this year’s fishing easier.

1. Bring the proper gear: The shore is often littered with fish guts, seagull droppings, and puddles that kids can’t resist touching. Last year, Kyra and Ethan were drenched and miserably cold five minutes after we started fishing. So this year, I invested in waterproof jackets, pants, and gloves. Check the label and make sure that it states the product is 100% waterproof and not just water-resistant.

Bog boots or something comparable that stays warm down to -30° F keeps socks dry, toes warm, and shoes on! (My kids love any excuse to go barefoot.) Those easy-on pull handles also saved Ethan’s boot several times when it got stuck in the mudflats.

Kid-sized camping chairs surprisingly act like an invisible leash. Last year, Kyra and Ethan couldn’t climb into the adult-sized chairs easily, so they drifted and complained that they were tired, and eventually buried themselves in the wet sand. We didn’t even bother bringing adult-sized chairs this year because we could squeeze our bottoms into their chairs if we really needed to rest.

Finally, it’s all about the toys and snacks. Supply them with easy snacks that they can open and dispose of on their own and make sure they eat first before they start playing. Check their pockets and make sure that they don’t sneak their favorite toy down to the beach. My kids each have a set of waterproof beach safe toys that they only get to play with when we go fishing.

2. Engage your sidekick: There’s something about the title “sidekick” that my kids love. Maybe, it’s because lately Batman and Robin are their favorite bad guy fighting pair. Or maybe, at this age, they want to feel like a member of the team.

Kyra and Ethan help me disentangle two fish from the net.

Ethan was frustrated that he couldn’t fish and I had to keep a close eye on him because he kept trying to walk into the ocean like Dad. His hands would get caked with mud and he would start to wail. I asked Kyra to get a bucket of water to wash his hands and this evolved into their job. They never tired of lugging buckets of water to our side so that we could clean tools or fish.

Although Kyra can’t wait to cut fish, I told her she could start by helping me to vacuum seal them. She took this job very seriously and knocked aside my hands if I hovered.

3. Create teachable moments: The Alaska Sport Fishing Regulations guide came in handy when Thomas cleaned the salmon. I taught Kyra about the five different salmon species found in Alaska and asked her to identify each salmon. She then tried to teach Ethan who was much more interested in swatting away the flies.

With Ethan, I also played the “I spy with my little eye” game to review his numbers, colors, and alphabet. But unlike his sister, Ethan runs away if he thinks he’s being tested or educated.

What lessons have you learned about fishing with young kids?

KTDontheGO: Taking a Break from Vacation - 4 Tips

After two weeks hopping on and off State Ferries and the same amount of time hiking, biking, and exploring the wildness of southeast Alaska, we’re pooped. In a good way, of course, but mentally and physically, this AK Fam is ready for a break.

Extended time away from home (more than the usual 7-day family vacation) is stressful on both kids and parents. New patterns of sleeping, eating, and activity push everybody beyond their usual limits, resulting in too-tired kids who are definitely overdone after constant here and there running about. After a number of wild family vacations that left my husband and I ready for another as soon as we returned home, we created a strategy to mitigate the crankies while traveling.

Watching the fog roll in in Wrangell

1. Avoid Overscheduling: As interesting or fun a destination might be, kids’ bodies are just not made to go, go, go all day long. Bopping from one activity to another, morning ‘till night can result in meltdowns and missteps on everyone’s part, and compromise safety in places like Alaska. Our rule of thumb is one activity in the morning and one in the afternoon for our six year-old, with parental power of addition for the evening. Kids also need unstructured time to play in parks, dig in the sand, or listen to a story at the library. Don’t forget to indulge that desire.

2. Take a Down Day: When we travel for longer than a week, my husband and I purposely schedule a day to do nothing. We sleep in, eat a leisurely breakfast, then spend the day wandering wherever our feet take us. It’s meant discovering less-visited but equally impressive areas of a community, and we’ve met some delightful people through our impulsive right or left-turns. Put your kids in charge for a day and see where you end up. Local visitor centers offer great maps for easy navigation, just ask when you arrive.

3. Return to the Familiar: If your children are accustomed to watching PBS Kids in the morning or lounging in their PJ’s until after breakfast, it’s okay. I repeat, it’s okay. We bring the portable DVD player of Curious George episodes or AK Kid’s favorite stories on CD for a little bit of home, especially handy during the middle of a busy vacation. Naps? Of course, sometimes for everybody, and we never, ever forget the favorite blanket and stuffed animal.

4. Relax: Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But how many times during a vacation do we parents start fretting about getting everybody where they need to be, when, and in a relatively sanitary condition? Traveling in a large group can make such a mission even more complicated, so remind yourself often to slow down, gauge your kids’ attitude, and make the necessary adjustments accordingly for optimum chillin’.

Of course, putting the kids to bed at their regular time and spending a little quality time with yourself is a priority, too. Remember, this is your vacation as much as theirs. Enjoy. You deserve it.

Patrick on the Edge: Keep Frolfing Clean, People!

Like many kids my age, I've taken to frolf ("frisbee" + "golf" or aka "disc golf") with great enthusiasm. I like it because it's cheap (around $12-20 for a disc), easy, and fun. It's like golf in the sense that you and your friends can hold a conversation throughout the round, and it requires a fair bit of precision. But, unlike golf, it doesn't come with the "country club mentality"- stuck up *ahem* older people strutting around in their argyle attire, holding $200 clubs, and paying exorbitant green fees.

I can't deny it though, frolf has a problem. Since it's so popular with teens and young adults, the sport has attracted more and more people who smoke, drink, frolf and then leave the trash for someone else to clean up. Along with trashing the course, they become increasingly rowdy as the night goes on, and although I have never seen anyone hit by a disc, I have heard of it.

Some people propose to station cops at some of the worse courses, like Westchester. This would clear up the problem, either by keeping the illicit substances away, or the kids themselves. But then a problem arises - how could the city afford this? The simple answer? They couldn't. So to combat the financial strain, the city would have to impose green fees. For me, that's the worst possible outcome, because right there frolf is getting closer to golf, and less accessible to the kids like me who don't want to throw down a fiver every time they want to frolf.

But, unfortunately, there is no easier solution to the problem than a fee, or really just cutting most people off from the sport.

A seemingly idealistic solution to the rampant litter and law-breaking would be to have fellow frolfers calmly tell one another how to conduct themselves on the course, or simply acting like the Chinese proverb "Bend like a blade of grass in the wind, but do not break." This would consist of just cleaning up after the less cleanly frolfers, and hope that karma would come back to reward you. Some may scoff at these solutions because there are some who wouldn't listen, and that minority ruins it for the rest of the group. I think that most frolfers, if reminded that it is, after all, their course, would clean up after themselves.

In Anchorage, we have a great variety of frolf courses - from Girdwood to Russian Jack Springs Park, and most all of them are free to anyone who has a Frisbee-like object to throw. It's a great alternative to running or biking to enjoy the outdoors, since frolf requires little to no effort. I hope we can clean up the courses, as well as keep them cheap, because what's the good of a playground if no one gets to play?

Love + eMotion: Don't Tell the Kids

Clouds as sticky as cotton candy clung to the edge of jagged mountain peaks. Silver lakes pocketed a bumpy green carpet of trees. Rivers braided and twisted in the sun.

The two-and-half-hour flight to Katmai National Park showcased parts of Alaska I had never seen before, and yet, I couldn’t stop worrying about a friend’s warning: “Don’t tell the kids where you are going. I still remember when my parents left me at home.”

By the time my brother died at age eighteen of the same disease that would claim my mother, my parents had taken us rafting, horseback riding, and caving in nearly all the national parks in the United States except for the ones in Alaska. I remember a mother who carried me out of my bed and into the backseat of her car padded with pillows and blankets. She never left home without me, a legacy I wanted to leave my kids.

After I became a parent, I started to realize how difficult this tradition was. Inevitably, Alaska presented opportunities like fishing on the ocean or snowmachining that Thomas and I would rather enjoy together than leave one of us at home with the kids.

This summer, a relative of mine gifted me a thousand dollars towards fulfilling my mother’s request that I visit Alaska’s national parks for her. Ten years ago, Thomas proposed to me in Denali. We cruised Kenai Fjords on that trip. When we moved to Eagle River seven years ago, we drove through Wrangell-St. Elias.

Since then, we’ve revisited these parks with the kids but gave up on seeing the parks off the road system due to cost and logistics. Owners of lodges in these parks regretfully admit that their price point is high (some visitors spend up to $40,000) because their business only runs 90 days a year.

Fortunately, companies like Rust’s Flying Service offer one day trips to Katmai or Lake Clark from Anchorage. Rust’s Flying Service has been operating since 1963 and yet none of my local friends knew that they could leave Anchorage at 8am, spend four hours at Katmai, then return to Anchorage by 6pm.

The first question our pilot, Virgil, asked us was, “Where are you from?” He took a step back when he heard our answer. “Wow, locals! Yeah, we don’t see many of you.”

While there is no age restriction on these trips, I was surprised to learn that young kids usually don’t accompany parents to Katmai. As soon as we stepped off our floatplane onto the banks of Naknek Lake in Katmai, we were sandwiched by two brown bears, approaching us from opposite directions. The park ranger that welcomed our party instructed us to be quiet and never run, two behaviors my kids would’ve had a hard time with.

Interpretive Park Ranger Jacqi Terry who manned the bear-viewing platform with her boyfriend said that in three years working at Katmai, she’s only seen about 2% children. She said that the young kids usually can’t endure the long wait for a spot on the platform, which only accommodates 40 visitors at a time.

The week I weighed whether to take the kids, a black bear visited our front yard every evening. Kyra and Ethan jumped up and down on our deck and made so much noise that the bear usually scampered off. If the bear ignored us, then the kids paid attention to it for only a few seconds.

Even though the kids seemed more excited about having a play date with their babysitter, I didn’t stop feeling like I had broken my mom’s legacy until I stood a few feet above a 1,000 pound brown bear, which ripped apart a salmon in seconds. A shower of guts pelted my skin as the salmon stubbornly flopped its tail even though only bits of flesh hung onto its bones.

For an hour, we enjoyed seven of the largest bears we’ve ever seen fishing at Brooks Falls. Battle scars rippled over knotted muscles. Sharp claws scratched their bellies. Pink tongues flicked across their moist noses. Deep throated growls earthquaked the platform that allowed us to taste this raw power of nature.

Photo credit Chi-Heng Lu

Walking hand-in-hand on Falls Trail back to our floatplane, Thomas and I noted how we hadn’t seen any kids and how grateful we were that Rust’s Flying Service had encouraged us not to bring ours.

That evening after I paraphrased parts of Brown Bears of Brooks River by Ronald Squibb and Tamara Olson, Kyra pretended to be the brave yearling that dared to swat at Conan’s muzzle, halting the cub killer’s charge just long enough for Old Mom to intervene. It was her favorite story because according to Kyra the Mommee bear saved the baby bear.

The kids counted fifteen bears in the photos and videos that we shared with them. They rolled on the floor, held their stomachs, and laughed hysterically over the bear that scratched its armpit.

Ethan fell asleep beneath the bear stuffed animal we brought home from Katmai, which Kyra proudly named “Diver,” one of the oldest and most dominant of all the male bears at Brooks Falls.

So far, the kids have not complained that we didn’t bring them along.

KTDontheGO: The Alaska Ferry Provides Family Fun by the Boatload!

Cruising up Lynn Canal from Juneau, I marveled not only at the gorgeous scenery unfolding before my eyes, but at the fact we were finally having a real vacation experience.

The Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS) offers not only stellar views from any one of its impressive ferries, it provides unfettered family time as well. Remember that line from the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song: “No phones, no lights, no motor car?” That’s us, only with a 21st century twist: No internet, no minivan, and no worries.

Our family is cruising the Inside Passage, the only marine highway designated as an All-American Road, and one of the most pristine sections of wilderness in the nation. Our trip is in cooperation with the AMHS, who want to promote the entire southeast Alaska area to, guess who? We Alaskans, and we’re happy to oblige. Our two-week sojourn will take us up one side of the Passage and down the other, from Juneau to Ketchikan and a few points in between before boarding a plane for Anchorage) at the end of the month. It’s the trip of a lifetime, adventure-wise, but it’s also one of reconnection. We’ve played hours of Uno, Crazy 8’s, a travel edition of the board game “Camp”, and read from a 1953 copy of “The Story of Daniel Boone.” I couldn’t buy that kind of free time at home.

The ferry provides ample space, all a traveling family needs to do is figure out a comfort zone for their particular sailing route. Staterooms are available for longer journeys, and we were grateful for the four-bunks and full bathroom facilities on our Skagway to Sitka route. Comfortable? You bet they were, and with a large window dominating much of the far wall, AK Kid was transfixed by the passing world outside. Otters, orcas, and eagles dominated the landscape, and our cameras clicked almost constantly until sleep became a higher priority in the late evenings.

Relaxing on deck

While we snoozed the night away in our stateroom, others found sleeping options in one of the MV Columbia’s recliner lounges on two separate decks. Similar to sleeping on an airplane or train, the lounges provide fairly comfortable seats and guaranteed darkness and quiet from 10 p.m.-9 a.m. Still others spread out sleeping bags under a heated solarium on the upper deck, where breezes were cool but the camaraderie hot, especially among older kids, who found this form of camping truly unique. A few tents were duct-taped to the metal decking in the hopes that the night wind wouldn’t tear them from their precarious moorings, and the general atmosphere was overwhelmingly cheerful, considering the steady drizzle.

There’s an air of proud independence among ferry travelers. Tourists with moxie; be they twentysomethings astride bicycles laden with panniers, tents, and fishing poles, or indie traveling families, European moms and dads among them, traveling with kids the same age as our own. That’s part of the fun, too. Kids are kids no matter their country of origin, and watching my son stumble in his first-year German in order to make a new friend is one of the reasons we travel in the first place.

The Alaska Marine Highway makes a point to remind travelers their boats are not cruise ships, and indeed they are right. There are no shore excursions, no formal activities, and no kids’ program. But what the ferries do provide is the opportunity to learn together about this wild place so many of us call home. And that can make for some pretty fantastic parent-child experiences. We have a week of exploring ahead of us, and I can’t wait to see what the watery road ahead holds for this family who desperately needed some quality time.

For more information about the Alaska Marine Highway System, its boats and amenities aboard, check out their comprehensive website at FerryAlaska.org, and follow the adventures of the Kirkland family at AKontheGO.com.

5 Nostalgic Childhood Summer Treats

MY YOUNGER SISTER and I grew up in Alaska for most of our young lives, but we'd regularly divide our summers between Kodiak or Homer (playing in the woods all day) and Los Angeles (playing in the pool all day) with our grandparents. Of all summer reminisces, the foods of summer bring back the sharpest and strongest seasonal memories. Below are my top 5 summer treats; what are your favorite summer foods from childhood?

1. Freezer Popsicles. As a kid there were maybe 3 things that tried my patience like nothing else: waiting to open birthday presents, waiting for my turn on the swing/ride/diving board, and waiting for popsicles to freeze. But, oh, did the wait ever pay off when it was finally time for each of these things! We had a set of plastic popsicle molds from Tupperware, and a quick search on Amazon reveals many new styles, colors and shapes available now.
Here's a delicious recipe for Strawberry-Yoghurt Popsicles.

Photo via TheKitchn.com

2. Hand-Scooped Ice Cream. We went to Thrifty's when I was a kid - it's a Southern California thing - cylindrical ice cream scoops from the drugstore. But going out for ice cream with Grandpa (his: butter pecan, mine: gumball) is a treat the country over.
Try Gelato Kudrino in Wasilla, Hot Licks in Fairbanks, and The Ice Cream Shop in Girdwood.

3. Peanuts in the Shell. Every summer meant Major League Baseball games (Go Dodgers!), and no game was complete without a big bag of roasted and salted peanuts. Wait! What? You mean we get to throw the shells on the ground and just leave them there? Awesome! Recently I went looking for peanuts at the market - super hard to find it turns out - but there are usually some in the bulk bins.
Alaska Baseball League games run through the beginning of August.

4. Watermelon. Grandpa was a truck driver and when he got home in the summers, we'd jump out of the pool and run to the front yard to greet him where he'd almost always have a watermelon (or honeydew, cantaloupe or casaba) brought home from work. Grandma would cut up the melons in cubes and later, we'd all sit on the front porch to have a seed spitting contest.
Best place for a seed spitting contest? Your own back yard (or front yard).

5. Salmon berries. In the late summer and back in Alaska to start school, it was so cool to find and eat berries in the woods. We knew exactly which ones were edible and our favorites were tart, hairy salmon berries, followed by smooth, slimy watermelon berries as a close second. The best thing about salmon berries is that since their insides are hollow, they fit on little girl fingertips - a perfect way to line 'em up before popping them in your mouth.
Check out Alaska Trekker for a handy guide to Alaska's berries.

Photo via GypsyForest.com

Patrick on the Edge: Better Late Salmon Than Never Salmon

Like many Alaskan families, my family loves fish, especially the ones that we can catch, cook, and eat with no outside help. To fill the freezer for the coming year, we dipnet for red salmon at the mouth of the Kenai River. Ever since we first moved here in 2001, it's been a family tradition to drive down on the 14th of July and, coincidentally, its always been a tradition for the reds to come in full force on the 15th. (Besides one time a few years ago when the run was so late that Fish and Game thought they would never come, so they shut down dipnetting on the Kenai).

I remember when I was in elementary school, my dad and I had a deal. If I caught a king salmon, I could order a king crab from Louie’s, a restaurant that we go to every time we’re in the area. I was obsessed with the king crab there, and my dad liked it because he would’ve liked to have a king salmon to eat and a story to tell. So, as a true elementary schooler, I used my logic skills to come to the conclusion that if I were to go farther out from the shore than the others, I would get the big one. I proceeded to go out into the water until it was right at my chest, about an inch below my waders. As I was bouncing along with the current and after a few hours of flirting with disaster - THUD! - I had the hit! My net started shaking like I was playing tug of war with a shark. As I struggled towards shore, I heard calls from the other dipnetters. “He’s got a king!” Hearing that pushed me even harder to land this fish.

I ran up onto the beach, and looked at my net. There was the big one, still in the water... but not in my net. As I turned around, all I saw was a silvery-red flash of the fish, darting back into safer waters. I was disappointed, but not too much so because I knew we’d be going to Louie’s that night anyway, and their clam chowder is just as good as their king crab.

This year, our family tradition slightly changed. We fished on the 13th-15th, but apparently the fish didn't get the memo. It was the slowest I have ever seen it: in over three days of fishing (around 18 hours), we caught 11 fish. That might seem like a decent amount, but to put it in perspective, last year we fished for 2 days, and caught over 50.

So, we did the typical fisherman thing which is: when the fish aren't there, wait until they are. After a weekend of recuperation, we headed down early in the morning for our redemption. And by early I mean 2:30 A.M. But the loss of 6 hours of sleep paid off. We fished for 3 hours, and caught about 35 fish. Our freezers would be full once again. This year the fish were late to the party, but all's well the ends well - fish that have been out of the water for less than 24 hours is the best dinner I've ever had and and ever will.

Will this change next year? Nah, I don't think so. Next summer I’ll be going off to college but I’ll be back for the summers - at least for these few days to help the family out. Of course, my parents won’t need to catch as much because they won’t have to feed me for the winter, and I know I’ll miss having my dad's grilled salmon (simple but perfect, cooked until dark pink in the middle) throughout the year, but when I come back in the summer it’ll be a great treat.

5 No Silverware, Low Mess Family Dinners on the Go

WE ALASKANS PACK a lot into our short Alaskan summers…and sometimes, getting out for a hike or getting to soccer practice takes precedence over a sit-down family dinner. With a little time to make something ahead of time, you can still have a healthy dinner together – on a picnic blanket, the tailgate of your car, or wherever you find yourself. Here’s a few we’ve tried, please share your ideas for other no-silverware, low-mess picnic dinners! - Jessica Cochran

1. Everything dipped in hummus. You can make your own hummus or buy it at the store. Scoop it up with chopped veggies (yellow and orange peppers, broccoli, and carrot sticks are favorites at our house), cut up pita bread or crackers and dip away! No plates, no silverware, and no double-dipping please!

2. Egg Salad. A batch of egg salad can be spread on bread for sandwiches, or dipped with crackers, carrot sticks, etc. Note: you might not want to try this in the car, unless you like ground-in egg salad on your seats.

3. Pretend you are French. Buy a baguette, some cheese and salami or other lunch meat, and make mini sandwiches. Just tear the bread – it's more fun that way! Accompany with sliced cucumbers, those little “grape” tomatoes, and some fruit for a balanced meal.

4. Leftover Salmon spread. Take that little bit of salmon left over from dinner last night, mix with cream cheese and olives or capers, and voila – another spreadable, dip-able “main dish”.

5. Tortellini. Some pasta salads require forks, but pre-packaged tortellini, cooked and tossed with a tiny bit of butter or olive oil and parmesan cheese, can be eaten with fingers. Don’t forget to add some veggie-sticks and fruit to round our your meal.

Love + eMotion: Rock Climbing to the Rescue, Part 2

Read Part 1 here

About ten minutes into Kyra’s birthday party, the staff at Alaska Rock Gym equipped ten six-year-olds and one two-year-old with harness and climbing shoes. Every kid, including Ethan, sat spellbound to the rock climbing wall where Carrie Barcom began her instruction: “This is not Bouncin’ Bears.”

She smiled reassuringly at the kids and repeated several times, “I know this is going to be really really hard, but please try not to run here.”

After some more safety procedures, Carrie rounded up three staff belayers and asked, “Who wants to go first?”

Without hesitation, four kids started to climb. Kyra was one of them. She had no expression on her face, as if she was simply executing a daily routine, like putting on socks.

All the parents looked in amazement at each other for none of these families had ever climbed before and yet, their kid seemed to handle the sport with ease. First one up and first one down, Kyra landed on the mat and shrugged.

Remembering the first time I ever climbed and how worried I was about my performance, I showered her with praises. Then, I asked her gently, “Did you have fun?”

She flashed me her trickster smile before joining her friends on the lower floor of the gym for more challenging routes. With 6,000 square feet of climbing terrain in the Alaska Rock Gym, I lost track of the number of times Kyra climbed and swung her way down.

My attention was focused on Ethan. At first, my little man could not wait to follow his sister up the wall. With pudgy hands on his waist and his belly sticking out, his attitude seemed to say, Come on, what are we waiting for?

Ethan impatiently waits for Carrie Barcom to tie him in.

Ethan made it up about as far as Kyra and then he froze. I noticed his lower lip drop and his head fold into his chest as he tried to hide the tears that dripped down his cheek.

Carrie said he did really well, but Ethan didn’t think so. When he got down, he stuck his left forefinger in his mouth and stared at the floor, probably wishing he could bury his head like an ostrich.

Wrapping my arms around my son, I whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry. You are just like me.” In college, I rock climbed with a mountaineering club and nearly always felt like crying, baked under the sun with scraped knuckles, knees, and ego.

“I believe that indoor climbing is a great way to not only gain strength and conditioning, but to also challenge yourself and overcome fears and inhibitions," said Siri Moss, one of the gym's owners. "It is a great way for teens and adults to participate in not only the movement of climbing up the wall, but also the aspects of team and leadership through belaying and working with a partner.”

That afternoon, I witnessed Kyra’s friends and their parents conquering fears and inhibitions. Many of the kids climbed just so they could leap wildly into the air and fling their limbs at gravity. About mid-way through the party, most of the parents decided to give climbing a try too. Carla, one of the belayers who has worked at the gym for the past five years, commented that rock climbing parties are more successful when the parents climb because then they realize that what they are asking their kids to do isn’t that easy.

When she said this to me, I wondered if I stopped rock climbing because I thought it was too hard. After all, I never trained at a climbing gym. I just threw myself on climbing trips and thought it would be a piece of cake.

At Kyra’s party, I climbed just long enough to get a photo of our family on the wall. When the gym opened for regular business, I saw families trickling in and wondered whether I could convince mine to do the same.

Kyra and Ethan are having a ball with Mom and Dad
on an indoor climbing wall.
Photo credit: Lailing Green

Relaxing on Kyra’s bed that evening, I tucked each kid on either side of me and asked them whether they liked rock climbing. I worried that maybe I had inadvertently done what I swore I would never do to my kids: force them to do something I had failed at.

Driving her monster truck up and down my belly, Kyra did not say anything at first. Then, she wrapped her whole body around mine and peppered my cheek with kisses.

“You are the best Mommee in the whole world.”

Ethan rubbed his nose against mine and said, “We love climbing!”

“You do?”

He nodded rapidly. “I climb. And then I cry.” He frowned, remembering that moment. Then his eyes lit up, “And then I swing. Daddee catch me. My Daddee is strong!” He babbled on and on about how he wanted his birthday party at Alaska Rock Gym too until he fell asleep.

I slept pretty well that night, knowing that my kids were not too young for a rock climbing party and that they had gained confidence and surprisingly, so did I. Confidence to rock climb again. Confidence to throw kid parties that are not a bore for parents. Confidence that I am not so bad at this parenting thing.

The Kid Rides Alone! And, Cycling With Kids in Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka and Wrangell

COULD THERE BE anything more precious than the moment a little boy takes off on his bicycle for the first time, unaided by grownup hands? AK Kid did so the other day, pedaling furiously down the street, smiling broadly and yelling back “This is the best day of my entire life!”

For us, however, it was more than just a fantastic moment of truth for our son, it was a glorious new possibility for family fun, wide-open and waiting. Both my husband and I are avid bicycle tourists; I cycled around Europe and much of the Pacific Northwest, and AK Dad has pedaled umpteen Seattle to Portland tours, as well as the more difficult Cycle Oregon adventure. We had been anxiously anticipating the first family bicycle ride where no one was encapsulated in a Chariot or snapped to a Tag-A-Long, and here it is, helmet, gloves, and mini-mountain bike at the ready.

I’ve written before about the wealth of bicycling options available in the greater Anchorage area; from Eagle River to Girdwood, paved trails abound for kids of all ages to pedal and push their way around, up, and down. It’s over 200 miles of pedal powered fun, and the rest of Alaska has followed suit with a broad range of fam-friendly biking that now, finally, we can pursue. Since AK Fam is southeast-bound, here are a few of our discoveries:

Juneau has a fine, paved bike path that stretches from the downtown area all the way to Mendenhall Glacier, some 13 miles away. Offering a lovely view of the area’s wetlands and waterfowl, not to mention a really cool view of the airport, this trail is suitable for all ages. Rent bikes from a number of different vendors, most found on the waterfront near the cruise ship dock, grab a helmet, and away you go.

Sitka, too, provides some great family biking opportunities and an easy way to see this historic town with kids. Start in the downtown area and head east along the Sawmill Creek Road path, stopping at the beautiful Sitka National Historical Park on the way. Crossing over the Indian River, this park is a beautiful example of the melding of cultures and is easily accessed by foot or bike. If you want a more challenging ride, continue out Sawmill Creek Road all the way to Whale Park, a few miles in the distance but worth the ride, as the park sits on a little clef of land where views of Sitka Sound are lovely.

We found in our pre-trip research the delightful town of , where Alaska’s history is rich and deep, and where outdoor fun is but a step away from the ferry dock downtown. A fun ride that surely will appeal to older kids is the Nemo Loop Bike Route, departing from the downtown and winding through scenic forested land and a petroglyph beach where time seems to stand still. At 13 miles one way, it’s long, but with crushed gravel surface it should be appropriate for the casual mountain bike. Shorter is the Petroglyph Park ride, an easy one-mile trek out of town to the famed rock formations that offer a glimpse into Alaska’s distant past. Everybody can do this one, and it’s going to be fun for us to inspect the replicas and make some rubbings to bring home.

It’s hard to discern what we’re most excited about - AK Kid riding his bicycle, or the family vacation. I’m glad we have the chance to combine the two as we pedal Alaska together.

What trails does your family cycle together? Where are the best trails to take a chariot?

7 Fun Ways to Water Play!

Ok, let’s face it – all those newspaper ads with pictures of kids splashing in plastic outdoor pools sometimes get me down in the summer - because a lot of the time, it isn’t even warm enough here for a quick run through a sprinkler. Still, there are plenty of fun ways to play with water that don’t induce full-body goose-bumps. Just think smaller scale. - Jessica Cochran, KTD! Contributor

1. Mud Pies. Yup, embrace the messiness and go with this old-fashioned favorite. At our house, we have a raised garden bed dedicated to that purpose. Equiped with empty yogurt containers, little watering cans and shovels (and a fair share of chickweed, too), it is kid heaven for a surprisingly large age range.

Photo via sbbabyco.com

2. A water table. There are some commercially available with little water wheels, an upper and a lower “pool” to float boats in. Or bring your kid-height table outside, and put lots of pots and pans of water on it. Maybe try using ladles, or an old medicine dropper, to move water from one container to another. Color different containers with food coloring and see what happens when you mix them.

3. Go “Fish”. Use a butterfly net, or a little net for a fish tank, or even a kitchen strainer and dip into the water until you find something cool to look at. Try it in lakes, creeks, or even a deep puddle. If you have a magnifying glass, you can take an even closer look at your finds.

4. Float home-made “boats” down the creek. One very rainy day last summer (remember how many there were?), we dove into our recycling bin for cardboard and other treasures, used as much duct tape and packing tape as we wanted, and made little cardboard boats. After tying a string on each one, we donned full rain gear and headed to the creek to water test our creations. (Helpful tip: bring a large garbage bag to put your disintegrated creations in, and another to carry home the dripping-wet creations that survived.)

5. Water the plants. My 4-year old son can spend many an hour doing this. With the spray nozzle on the hose, he fills containers, then pours them into the watering can, then waters something. And then repeats. And repeats. And repeats...

6. Dam the stream. Keep an eye out for a neighbor over-watering their grass or washing their car, and sending a stream down the edge of the street. Use rocks, chunks of wood, grass clippings or whatever else you can find to make a dam. Then, take it down when you’re done so the water can drain. (Safety notes: only try this on quiet streets, with parent supervision, and take a bath when you’re done!)

7. Go ahead and get that plastic kiddie pool, why not? Mix hot water with the hose water to fill and just pretend it’s warmer than it is!

Patrick on the Edge: The Last Carefree Summer

THE SUMMER BEFORE your senior year is the last summer before the responsibility for your actions rests entirely on you and not somewhat on your parents, too. When most kids (and kids at heart) think about these glorious three months, a picture-perfect montage runs through their heads: playing volleyball on the beach (Top Gun-style) while music blares, sharing a refreshing drink with a friend while watching the sun set, and really, doing whatever they please with a carefree attitude that they will soon disappear forever, in not too long.

What most dreaming kids don't realize (or reminiscing adults forget), is that a kid's transition to adulthood starts long before the final bell of their Junior Year. They get their driver's license at age 16, can see R rated movies at 17, so when the time for senior year comes, they are already well versed in some of things that our younger-selves associated with being a grown-up.

The other edge of the sword with this gradual transition to maturity is that the picturesque summer cannot exist for most - if not all - kids. The summer before your last year as a kid is filled with pressure. Pressure from your parents to get a job and learn how to become financially responsible in later life. Pressure from yourself (and your parents) to do well in school and to score high on standardized tests so you can get accepted by better schools. And, the most pressure comes from colleges (and parents), who send you pound after pound of literature about how their school is more diverse, more fun to attend, and offers more opportunities than ALL the other college in the country. While sifting through the piles of mail, you realize that this whole summer thing isn't all its supposed to be.

Sure, there's plenty of fun to had during the summer, especially in Alaska where the sun's everlasting light makes you want to stay up as long as it does. But behind the façade of carefree fun, every soon-to-be senior knows that soon this will all be over, that soon they won't be kids anymore.

Next week Patrick tells us what's he's up to during his last summer as a carefree high school student. What did you do your final summer before senior year?

Love + eMotion: Rock Climbing to the Rescue, Part 1

I am happy to report that I survived Kyra’s sixth birthday. For months now, it overshadowed other celebrations, like our wedding anniversary and my birthday, as we brainstormed ideas for the first party Kyra and I have ever planned together.

She had had a whole school year of attending birthday parties for her classmates, so when May rolled around, she didn’t want her party to be at the same location as the others. After days of research, I realized why parents did birthdays at Bouncin’ Bears or Blaine’s Art or Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Exasperated, I moved onto ordering a cake, hoping that some idea might be inspired by her theme. When a cake designer asked her what she wanted, she tapped her chin with her forefinger as if she had pondered this important question at length, “How about Optimus Prime fighting Hulk, no wait. Optimus fighting Wolverine and then I fly in on a dragon like Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon!”

When Thomas and I told her she could only choose one theme, she negotiated hard, “Okay, what about Lightning McQueen?”

“No,” we both snapped. Thomas hoped she would’ve outgrown Lightning McQueen and developed an interest in Princess stuff by now. I was tired of throwing one more party for my kids on this theme.

Kyra giggled. “Can Optimus Prime transform into a truck and drive to visit Hiccup and Night Fury? And Hiccup will say, ‘My goodness, you are here! Let’s fight dragons.’”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. Thomas raised his eyebrows.

Ethan added, “And then, Buzz Lightyear came to save the day.”

One morning before the kids were up, an idea sparked. At the Arctic Oasis Community Center, Kyra and Ethan often free climb a 30 foot horizontal boulder wall and drool over the teens scaling the 24 foot rock climbing wall.

I always tell them they are too little to climb, but after a conversation with Siri Moss, who opened Alaska Rock Gym in 1995 with three local climbers (her husband Charlie Sassara, J. Jay Brooks and Bruce Adams), I was delighted to discover that they have full body harnesses and climbing shoes that fit Ethan!

She said, “The belief that indoor climbing is a sport for everyone has been our overriding philosophy from the very beginning.” Not only do they accommodate climbers who want their toddlers to start early, but they offer after-school, home school, and summer programs for kids and teens ages six to seventeen.

Carrie Barcom, Assistant Manager at Alaska Rock Gym, told me her kids started climbing here at ages three and five. Her husband, Mike, coaches the junior competition team. According to Siri, their kids grew up on the walls here and are now highly skilled climbers. This past weekend, Carrie’s daughter placed ninth at the Sport Climbing Series National Championships. “Climbing has become a way of life for the Barcom family," she said. "The gym provided the venue for it all to happen.”

What a great way to get my kids away from screen time! Instead of their avatars climbing mountains on my iPhone while they grow fat on my couch, I imagined them developing into physically fit and strong individuals like Carrie and Siri climbing in Europe, the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, South America, Thailand, Mexico.

But before I got ahead of myself, I had to pitch the idea to Kyra. I showed her several photos from Alaska Rock Gym’s web site and was about to lead with dragons scaling mountains and such, but before I even finished my sentence, she started to jump up and down and clap her hands. “I love you Mommee.”

Ethan climbed onto my lap. Puffing his Superman “S” out on his chest, he pointed firmly at the photos of kids climbing and said, “I want to do this.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, glad that I had anticipated this problem and Alaska Rock Gym had offered a solution.

With this settled, all I had to do was figure out the darn theme. Kyra was so thrilled with the rock climbing idea that she conceded to choosing one theme. But after a week of taking Kyra and Ethan to at least ten party suppliers in town, we realized that Kyra might be the only kid in town interested in dragons.

So, we came home and I dug out a dragon stamp that I had bought years ago and engaged the kids in an art project. While Thomas watched in amusement, I stamped the dragon onto a party favor bag. Kyra sprinkled silver powder onto the stamped image. Then, Ethan embossed the image with a heat gun.

With sweat trickling down the sides of my head, I said to Kyra, “Let this be a lesson to never give up on an idea.”

How did a kid’s birthday party become so complicated? As the recent Kids These Days! show The American Kid pointed out, this may be the result of targeted marketing? Tell me some obstacles you had to overcome in planning yours.

Check back next week for Part 2 - birthday party at the rock gym...

Show 38: Excerpt - The Princess Marketing Phenomenon and Little Girls

THERE ARE SOME things you can say about American Kids even before studying and analyzing the numbers, like - they are the targets of a lot of marketing. Each new kid movie comes with a whole line of merchandise around it – with pictures on everything from tooth brushes to cereal boxes to bathing suits. The Disney “princess phenomenon”, especially, has been the subject of much parental hand-wringing and writing, with books like Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the new Girlie-Girl Culture.

Kids These Days! Contributor Jessica Cochran is the daughter of a Barbie-loving feminist economist, and the mother of a not-too-girly daughter, so she decided to look a little closer at the whole “princess” thing. She spoke with: Dr. Susan Linn, founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World; Dr. Dan Cook, Associate Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University; and Dr. Karen Wohlwend of Indiana University who authored a recent study on how girls use stories in princess play.


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KTDontheGO: Three Spots Where Kids and Critters Can Converge

WHILE ALASKAN CHILDREN may be complacent about some wild critters with which they share their outdoor space (I’m thinking of one large ungulate in particular), their fascination with animals, their habits and haunts is ever-present, at least in my house. Many’s the evening we’ve scanned the rocky flanks along Seward Highway for sheep, or carefully watched the dark waters of Turnagain Arm for the serene Beluga whale. Animals, big and small, are a major factor in any Alaskan adventure, and teaching kids the science behind their existence is important to foster an attitude of respect. Fortunately, three southcentral organizations believe this, too, and offer activities for the whole family to get up close and personal with Alaska’s beasts and birds.

1. Hordes of children visit the Alaska Zoo, and most parents have that little key chain tab for membership admission. It’s a delightful zoo, full of woodsy walkways and interesting animals well-suited for their northern environment. After 42 years, the Alaska Zoo is still the only zoo in the state, and with programs like their Discovery Tour, visitors can capture even more wild information. A very reasonably-priced tour at $15/kids, $25 adults (including admission), visitors will go behind the scenes over a two-hour period, stopping by a few popular animals for a bit of immersion into their lives. Appropriate for kids aged 4 and up, the Discovery Tour leaves the front entrance every day at 12:15 p.m., and no reservations are necessary. Arrive before noon to secure your spot and bring the camera; the close-ups are incredible.

2. Anyone who’s attended an outdoor event in Anchorage has experienced the wonderful Bird Treatment and Learning Center. Whether it’s releasing rehabilitated birds back into the wild, or teaching a classroom of kids the intricacies of eagle feeding, Bird TLC is a stellar example of the balance between nature and creature. Staffed almost entirely by volunteers, Bird TLC is everywhere in Anchorage, including the second Saturday of each month through July at their “Second Saturday” events. Held at the Alaska Heritage Museum (in the Wells Fargo Building, 301 W. Northern Lights Blvd), Second Saturday this week will feature “Crazy About Corvids”, with chatty magpies, muttering ravens, and croaking crows on hand to amuse and educate those of us who consider them rather a nuisance. This free event from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, July 9 is suitable for the whole family, and I’d highly advise getting there early to secure a front-row seat to the crow’s antics.

Visiting Snickers the Porcupine at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

3. Finally, who could resist coming nose-to-nose with Jack the Moose or Snickers the Porcupine at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center? Sitting on 200 acres south of Anchorage in beautiful Portage, AWCC is ready to break out a new discovery tour of their own soon, going even further than before to enlighten visitors to the lives of the large animals calling the facility home. Dedicated to saving animals who have been abandoned, injured, or orphaned, AWCC will soon provide guests an opportunity to go around the usual enclosures and into the “back forty”, where interns will invite questions and offer insight into the Kodiak brown bear cubs, black bears, elk, moose, and yes, maybe even that darling Snickers. Call the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at 907-783-2320 for information on the new tours.

Kids who learn about animals are less likely to be frightened by them, and more likely to show compassion toward the multiple species residing in Alaska. Providing them the opportunity is so much more than a field trip, it’s a lifetime tool for conservation.

Patrick on the Edge: Back in the US of A

I WISH THE BEATLES had written a song Back in the US of A instead of Back in the USSR because now I can be singing that. These were my thoughts as I was shuffling in the customs line with 200 other Americans radiating their Red, White and Blue glow (not bleu, blanc, et rouge).

I listened to the customs agent yelling out into the crowd, "No phone use, no texting, no headphones, earplugs, iPhones, Blackberrys, iPods, i-whatevers. Your thumbs will not be used on a keypad or touchscreen while you are in this line. Welcome to the United States."

And at that last, curt, sentence, the realization washed over me with a soothing warmth I hadn't felt in too long: I was finally back home in the United States.

Not that I didn't like France, quite the contrary. France is a beautiful place full of beautiful countryside, beautiful works of art, and of course, beautiful women. They have great, fine food, and even better cheap wine (so I've heard). But, they don't have the thing that I now know is the most important thing. More important than the food, the people, or the land - it's the language. While I can butcher my way through most French novels (with the help of Le Petit Robert Dictionnaire and an enormous grant of patience), French is not English and so I'm not at ease.

Until you have lived - truly lived - in a foreign country, you will never know two things: 1) You won't know how big of a part language plays in everyday life until it's gone, and 2) You won't know how many every day things you take for granted until you're stuck without them.

When I stayed in Marsielle for ten days with a French family, I became French. I ate French, I drank French, I spoke French, I thought French, and I even dreamt French. In short - I was French. And during this Frenchification, I realized just how big of a part language plays in day-to-day life. Want to go to the beach? Go in French. Want to make a snack? Make it in French. Want to know what this weird green stuff on your plate is? Find out in French. It's amazing to me that anyone in the U.S. can live here and not speak English (unless they live incredibly sheltered lives) because at every turn they'll be confronted by something that they cannot even begin to understand.

When I originally boarded Condor Airlines' flight bound for Europe, I guess I didn't know how good I had it up to this point in my life. I live in a nice house, have my own room, eat food I like, and have a spacious bathroom at my disposal. When I flew over the Atlantic Ocean, all of that changed. I was thrust into a country with different language, food, living style, and personality. I felt like the Fresh Prince when he says "my life got flipped turned upside down." Except I wasn't a prince. It was great to see how another culture lives, but even better to realize everyday, that there's something that you would have at home, but not here. It's interesting and humbing at the same time.

This trip was one of a lifetime. As I thought to myself throughout, 'When else will I be in France?' and so I tried to sieze every opportunity I had to do something new. I cliffdove into the Med, ate all types of baffling food, and tried to get as much culture as I could. All the while, though, I was thinking about what sort of stuff I was missing back home in Alaska. I missed the mountains, the all-day sun, and even the inescapable damp that was our summer last year. Of all the new things that I learned or realized while abroad, one thing towers above all the rest: There's no place like home.

Talking about raising Alaska's future today!

Mental Health & the Alaskan Family

Being Young in Rural Alaska





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