KTDontheGO is a blog all about family travel in the 49th State written by Erin Kirkland. Each week she takes her family and yours to all the best spots in Alaska for fun, adventure and education.
HERE WE GO again. After a two-week hiatus from travel, our family is in the process of organizing and packing for another Alaska adventure. It’s been a busy summer for us with book research, while delightful in many ways, is also exhausting. The combination of endless reading, interviewing and writing, while managing the well-being of one busy 7-year old, not to mention nurturing a marriage full of hellos and goodbyes has left this lady bushwhacked.
Nonetheless, my excitement for this next trip is noticeably building as we count down the days. Sailing around the western coves of southeast Alaska between Ketchikan and Juneau will be lovely, of course. We’ll certainly enjoy various spa treatments, fine dining, and kayak excursions. We will, in fact, feel uncharacteristically like royalty. However, it’s not the fussing or pampering that has me all aflutter. It’s this:
I’m packing away the phone.
Twitter, I’m flying off for a week. Facebook, you’ll just have to deal with me later, profound apologies to our followers. With a few exceptions nearer the coastline, southeast Alaska is notorious for non-service of both phone and internet, leaving many cruise ship passengers, float plane flightseers, and whale-watching enthusiasts with no way to upload the awesome video of a breaching Orca or to change their profile pictures. Awesomesauce.
The longer I live here, the more I realize that Alaska lends itself to unplugging anyway. Really, the 49th state should be the place to consider tapping the “off” button, especially while oohing and ahhing over the fascinating sights alongside our children. I shamefacedly admit I am among those who has viewed unfolding events through the screen of my Android, frantically zooming in, leaving all peripheral activities aside, like my son’s incredulous expression at that breaching whale.
Not this time.
I’m only taking three cameras, three journals, and three pairs of binoculars through which our family will be able to record, in our own sweet time, the wonders of togetherness and the world in which we are so fortunate to live. Stay tuned...as soon as I find my pencil.
Erin Kirkland is the owner and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska. She lives in Anchorage with her family.
WRITING UTENSILS DO not have cooties, despite what your children may say upon the suggestion they pick up a pen or pencil and scribble something of substance over summer vacation. I can’t blame our kids for wanting a respite from the daily grind of careful printing or stylish cursive within the bounds of everyday school work, but a complete break from connecting the dots between brain and hand? Maybe not so much.
Fortunately, many popular visitor attractions in Alaska recognize both a children’s need for independent exploration and a parent’s desire for helping their children retain at least a few key points learned in writing class during the previous school year. In Alaska, where outdoor recreation sometimes trumps indoor learning, it’s easy to forget about the educational benefit of readin’ and writin’ within the scope of a vacation.
Dear diary, please make summer vacation never end. Yours truly, a Kid...
Here are a few educational and entertaining destinations that encourage the writing skills of kids preschool age and up:
1. Alaska Museum of Natural History, Anchorage. Located in northeast Anchorage, this little museum engages kids in writing and reading from the moment they walk in the front door. Grade-school children should grab a clipboard and take part in a seasonally-themed scavenger hunt, while younger kiddos can draw on the enormous chalkboard located in the classroom and dig pit area. Open year-round, suitable for all ages.
2. Museum of the North, Fairbanks. A bit more academic, perhaps, but perfect for kids age 9 and up, the Museum of the North is located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, and provides excellent opportunities for writing, reading and problem-solving through their education program and family events. Monthly free-admission evenings throughout the summer provide topic-specific sessions for the entire family. Open all year, but hours vary, so call ahead. 907-474-7505.
3. Juneau Douglas City Museum, downtown Juneau. We discovered this museum last summer and found its size and information to be perfect for our kindergarten student. With a short but informative kids’ guide (paper, not human), the museum seeks to interact with their young visitors through word searches, crosswords and other activity-based learning. We especially liked the Mining and Milling exhibit, where our son could pretend he was a miner headed into the depths of Alaska’s mountains. Open all year, free admission October through April. Kids 12 and younger are always free.
4. Junior Ranger program, National Park Service. There is no finer way to explore our national parks with kids than through the Junior Ranger program. With reading, writing, and a badge awarded at the end, kids three and up can capture the essence of each individual park, and have a free souvenir at the end. Pick up an age-appropriate Junior Ranger booklet at the entrance of any national park, or go online and become a Web-Ranger, the Park Services’ newest way to connect kids with our national parks even if they can’t visit in person.
5. REI Family Adventure program, nationwide. Join the thousands of REI member families who have experienced way-cool fun via the Family Adventure program. Kids can work in their Adventure Journal (find online or in stores), complete activity sheets, and gather valuable information about the world around them. We usually grab a stack of journals and complete one per trip, leaving our son with a legacy of family travel experiences sure to amuse him for years to come.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer, mom of two, and the owner/publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She lives in Anchorage and is already stocking up on school supplies.
OFF-BEAT FAMILY fun and Alaska history are alive and well in the small community of Talkeetna, an easy 120 miles from Anchorage and a popular year-round destination for southcentral residents.
It’s not a fancy place. In fact, Talkeetna prides itself on a decidedly simple format for attracting visitors. One store, a single museum and a roadhouse that serves only “Breakfast” or “Not Breakfast” on the menu. Oh, and did I mention that a cat is their mayor?
Yeah yeah, I'm the mayor. Can I finish my nap now?
Talkeetna residents thrive in this mountainside mecca and visiting guests will almost certainly be affected by its contagious energy. From would-be mountain climbers intent on testing their mettle upon the flanks of Mt. McKinley to scores of tourists from nearby corporate cruise-tour companies like Princess and CIRI Alaska Tourism, the town maintains a widely appealing authenticity not often found in popular destination communities. To truly experience Talkeetna, however, one must detach from the usual jet-boating, flightseeing, ziplining adventures and slow down a bit.
Grab an ice cream & chill out at Wildwoods Playground
Bike the Talkeetna Spur Road which starts at Mile 98.7 of the Parks Highway. A paved, mostly-level bike path winds from the highway into Talkeetna, passing homesteads and absorbing fantastic views of the Talkeetna, Susitna, and Chulitna rivers, with the Alaska Range in the distance. Bring bikes, plenty of water and bug spray, and plan to spend a day exploring. Talkeetna Bike Rentals also rents cruiser bikes and trikes for a very reasonable $20/three-hour tour. Most kids age seven and up can manage this two-wheeled trip to town and back, albeit with several breaks. Refuel at Mountain High Pizza with a slice of heavenly pie, or the historic Talkeetna Roadhouse and a lovely “Non-Breakfast” pasty or hunk of macaroni and cheese.
Ride to the water’s edge and view the braided streams of the Talkeetna River. Here, jet boats turn and burn on their way upriver and the Alaska Railroad chugs farther north after disgorging passengers at the tiny Talkeetna train station. On a clear day, Mt. McKinley towers over the scene, and eagles frequent treetop perches. Take a break here, or ride back toward the train station and Wildwoods Playground Park, built by the town and offering a fabulous selection of age-appropriate play equipment and activities.
For a glimpse into rural Alaska life, stop by the Talkeetna Historical Society’s museum, located at 22248 South D Street downtown. Housed in a little red schoolhouse with a few outbuildings scattered on the property, this museum offers a wonderful, real-life opportunity to learn about Talkeetna, its history and the town’s success due to mining, aviation, climbing and the railroad. Admission is $3 for adults, with kids 12 and younger admitted free. Want more information about Mt. McKinley and nearby Denali National Park? Stop by the Talkeetna Ranger Station, where all climbers must register and where maps, trail information and ranger-led interpretive programs are available. Find the station on B Street in downtown Talkeetna.
Fuel up before riding back to the car with a stop at Nagley’s General Store, where cool ice cream awaits and Mayor Stubbs rules with an iron fist, er, paw. Nagley’s store has provided visitors with many cats, in fact, and Mayor Stubbs has recently garnered the attention of national media and welcomes pats on the head from young visitors.
Some cats are trying to sleep here.
EVERY ALASKAN KNOWS a pilot. With one in five Alaska residents in possession of a valid pilot’s license, air travel up here is a near-constant state of taking off and landing. Midsummer is considered the busiest season for the FAA’s Alaska region and its 2,427,971 miles of airspace, with flightseeing, fishing and seasonal cabin transport in full swing.
To an Alaska visitor, the sight of so many colorful and interesting aircraft provides neverending eye candy. Day or night, one type of plane or another swoops across the Alaska sky, bound for adventure or business, engines roaring or propellers humming. Flying holds romantic value for many people, in addition to the heart-stopping beauty of seeing our state from heaven’s doorstep. But all this independent puttering around the sky comes with a price.
A small plane lands on the beach at Hallo Bay bear camp
Air travel is safe, but safety comes with myriad details and a strong sense of responsibility on the part of everyone who climbs aboard - passenger or pilot. In an effort to reduce aircraft accidents and encourage passengers to be their own best advocate for safety, the FAA has teamed up with the Medallion Foundation to create the Circle of Safety. A collaborative effort among air carriers, passengers, pilots, and the FAA, the Circle of Safety seeks to educate and empower everyone who rides in, or pilots, an aircraft.
I’ll admit, I’ve not been the strongest advocate for myself while sitting, knees-to-chest, in the back of a single-engine aircraft bound for a destination miles from assistance should things go wrong; nor am I the first to pull out that safety card at the beginning of a flight to the Lower 48.
Kids can be in the Circle, too, by locating exits and reading safety cards onboard!
Here’s what I learned about the my part to play in the Circle of Safety:
1. Pay attention during the safety briefing - on any aircraft with any destination. Do you know the nearest exit? Or how to open the door? Do you have a plan for children in your care? Knowing what to do, where, and when could possibly save everyone in the event of an emergency.
2. Know the location of safety equipment. Smaller aircraft place emergency kits in different places according to size and item selection. When the pilot tells you where the kits are, look and locate for yourself.
3. Ask if a flight plan has been filed. What is a flight plan? Every pilot must state, in writing, where he or she intends to go, how, and at what time. Don’t hesitate to inquire; even the shortest distance is worthy of a plan. It’s your seat aboard that airplane, and you have the right to know the trip is recorded.
4. Don’t distract the pilot during take off or landing. The riskiest moments of flight come at the beginning and end of the trip. Pilots need to concentrate on a variety of duties at this time; asking questions or distracting the pilot with photographs or other potentially dangerous activities should be avoided. You’ll have plenty of time for chatting while up in the air. Ditto for making requests for flying low just for the sake of a good photo op.
Flying around Alaska is one of the most wonderful ways to experience our state, but safety should always take center stage.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and author of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska.
WHEN WE FIRST launched AKontheGO in 2009, “AK Kid” was only four, and young enough to merely trundle into the car, airplane, or boat when we adults wanted to go somewhere. Considered old enough to carry his own luggage but not old enough to warrant an educated opinion about our destination, my husband and I simply went where the stories were. But things are different, this summer; Kid is now a grown-up 7.75 years old, and wants a voice about where we go, what we do, and how we do it.
Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned yet in the scope of family travel writing is being learned right now, tonight, as I sit across the hotel room from our leggy, almost-tween, hearing him snore with the enthusiasm of a lumberjack. His interests are not reflected in mine.
My son is now able to read a map and peruse a guide book. He loves museum dioramas and anything with wheels or a motor. Nearly eight, he enjoys nature movies and natural history slide shows when we stop at visitor centers, and loves to push all the buttons of interactive displays. He’s all movement, all the time, and if there’s no action, perceived or actual, then it’s no good. I get it. But I almost missed it in my hurry-up world of making sure I had my own bases covered.
Take a close look at the photo above. That’s our son after three days of ferry-riding, wildlife-cruising, trail-hiking, and Independence Day-celebrating in Valdez, where we are guests of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Yes, he’s tired. Yes, he’s also hungry. But he’s also had it with us. I think just after this shot, my kid told me to buzz off.
How could this be? We are a family of adventurers. Three people, one family travel blog, and six undeniably itchy feet. Four years of writing about Alaska has taken us to places near and far, toward breathtaking glaciers and among wild creatures; how could our dear child be so ungrateful, so, so, obnoxious? Haven’t we given him everything, everywhere, in Alaska?
I thought so, too. But in the seasons of exploring nooks and crannies of the 49th state, and immersed in the growing of a family travel website, producing a radio show, and digging up freelance gigs, I had forgotten about the most important maturation of all - that of my own progeny.
Happily, tonight we regrouped after a few hundred calories were consumed and we had reminded ourselves of one important family travel guideline: Everyone chooses. One individual activity, one family activity, depending upon time and destination. All hands on deck - everyone participates, everyone smiles, no one complains. Yes, even if it means going to the hotel swimming pool and playing Marco Polo. Quid pro quo, parents. You may have wanted to spend nine hours aboard a 50-foot tour boat looking at hunks of ice while standing in a rainstorm; the least you can do is take a time-out in another watery environment.
Humbled by an 7 year-old. God bless his little traveling heart. Now, I need to go to bed. The pool opens at 8 a.m.
Erin Kirkland is an Anchorage freelance writer and publisher of AKontheGO, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska. She lives in Anchorage.
May your journey be your joy.
I LOVE WATCHING the serious faces of travelers as they emerge from a labyrinth of airline gates at the Anchorage International Airport, vacation-bound in the Last Frontier, determined, it seems, to have fun, or else. Sometimes I lurk around the baggage claim, watching them collect their super-charged fishing rods, extra-cool gear, and wonder, will these people laugh at least once during their trip?
The irony of being so serious about having fun on vacation does not escape me, especially in Alaska, where visitors break piggy banks and credit card limits to see as much of the 49th state they possibly can in a short amount of time. Expectations are high, almost as high as Disneyland, and I’ve seen the resulting sad faces when a bear didn’t appear, a whale didn’t breach, or a fish wasn’t caught. But, friends, joy is everywhere in Alaska!
How do you find it? Stop looking so hard, for one. Honestly, we spend so much time searching for big show-stoppers that we miss the intricate details right under our feet. Or noses and chins, as the case may be. See this photo of my husband and son?
Yeah, dorks. Both of them. But look at those faces - two happy campers for sure, and all they needed was a handful of lichen from the forest floor. Lesson learned.
We’ve also learned how to laugh when times are difficult. Flights are weathered in, cars break down (ahem), plans change. Travel in Alaska can be tough, really tough, but the ability to maintain a sense of humor regardless of the situation is a valuable attribute, indeed. Make a silly video on the smartphone and send it to a faraway relative. Make up a goofy story and write it down, encouraging the kids to draw a picture to go along with it (because you will, of course, have crayons and paper handy, right?). Tell jokes. Sing. Smile at the people sitting next to you.
Getting his WOW on
Joy is a concept many people feel should be reserved for those “WOW” moments in life. As far as we’re concerned, every moment is a “WOW” moment, and should be treated accordingly. That’s why we travel, to find it. Or, to rediscover that we never really lost it in the first place.
Where’s your “WOW”?
Erin Kirkland's family travel and outdoor recreation website AKontheGO.com has an all new look! She and her joyful family live in Anchorage.
GIVEN ANY FORM of transportation, I still like driving the most. A sense of independence envelopes me as frost-heaved sections of Alaskan blacktop weave crazily beneath the tires in a road-trippy spiritual connection that causes spontaneous singing to music by Blondie and the B 52’s (don’t judge, I’ll bet you have a funky selection of travel tunes, too).
This is my car:
It's never a guten Tag when the car breaks
down in the middle of a trip
I desperately wanted to write about my beloved Volkswagen Jetta for this post, since it’s been a few days - weeks, really, since I’ve seen it. Alas, my little blue VW ceased to function since arriving in Homer sometime in early June, and I have yet to get it back (sob).
Summer is traveling time in Alaska - for fun, for work, and for the sheer joy of driving around corners and over mountains other people pay a fortune to see from the air. But driving Alaska’s roadways can prove challenging when, god forbid, something goes wrong. In the guise of confronting the difficult topic of “detours” this week, I thought I’d provide a tool kit for savvy Alaskan road trippers. As we all know, stuff can and does happen, but having stuff happen in the middle of nowhere can ultimately prove uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. Being prepared is not just for boy scouts, so pay attention, make a list, and embrace the wide-open Alaska road.
1. Communicate. Hand off an itinerary to someone; neighbor, family member, or friend. Be sure to include phone numbers, dates of travel, spare keys, etc. Just in case.
Be sure to leave a seat or two free for souvenirs!
2. Pack wisely. Leave room in your car for emergency supplies, including extra water, non-perishable foods, flashlights or headlamps (even in the summer!), cash, car jacks for recharging phones, duct tape, sleeping bags, trash bags, a small tool kit, your car’s manual (you’d be amazed how many people forget this), jumper cables, flares, and toilet paper. Parents should also consider adding some small toys, books, and/or activities. Trundle all this gear into a waterproof container or duffel, making sure it is easily accessible.
3. Have a plan, and review with kids. I love to plan, just ask anyone who works or lives with me. For all their teasing about plans A, B, and just in case, C, I know everyone in my family has a handle on what to do in the event of a fire, flood, tornado, or insect plague (okay, maybe not that last one). Do rehearse a “breakdown” plan with your kids. Who will stay behind? What tasks should be accomplished? Review the safety considerations; no one goes outside the vehicle without an adult, never open the car door to a stranger, even one flashing a badge. If you’re traveling by yourself with a child, stay together at all costs until help arrives (and it will).
4. Know your route. Even familiar roadways can quickly become unfamiliar during inclement weather or construction season. Check up on the latest road conditions with Alaska 511, a super website managed by the Alaska Department of Transportation, with up-to-the-minute updates for Alaska’s major roadways. Also consider purchasing a Milepost, a great mile-by-mile book for each of the highways and many side roads of our state. Known as “the bible” of northcountry travel since the late 1940’s, the Milepost can also be downloaded as an iPhone or Android app.
Travel wise, travel safe, and don’t forget the tunes. That’s how we roll, up here.
Erin Kirkland publishes AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska. She is currently working on a guidebook for vacationing families in Alaska.
It is a wise father that knows his own child.
- William Shakespeare
STANDING ALONG THE fringe of a decidedly warmer Pacific ocean than the one we had left behind 24 hours earlier, my husband and son stood hip-to-shoulder, surveying the sandy shoreline and topaz water. We had arrived on the Hawaiian island of Oahu after a nearly catastrophic year of accidents and illness, and we figured we deserved this 10-day respite of surf, sunshine, and family rejuvenation.
The decision to visit Hawaii together had been a plot hatched by my dynamic duo - the older (dad) had promised the younger (son) a trip somewhere warm after dad's arm and body had healed sufficiently from an accident that nearly claimed his life and left us flattened and battered like the bicycle laying on its side in the backyard shed. Hawaii, they believed, was the Promised Land of togetherness after 12 months of physical pain and emotional separation.
Sometimes, the mere act of packing up and moving on, however briefly, is all it takes to return roses to cheeks and light to a pair of eyes. I saw a slow but steady progression of both as days began and ended with sweet tropical scents, pounding waves and side-by-side footprints in the sand. The ocean, with its warm breath and peaceful color became a welcome ally, and we splashed within its coral-circled arms from dawn to dusk.
Our son, a timid swimmer in Alaska, made headlong rushes into the waves with his dad, wiry arms akimbo, shouting praises to no one in particular as he danced among the foamy crests. I watched their banter from the security of my grass mat, pretending to read a novel but more interested in the relationship rebuilding before my eyes. This was the missing piece, the part I had swept under the pillow with my nightly tears and daily medication lists and therapy appointments. I wasn’t about to let it fall by the wayside like I had so many other aspects of our life.
The remaining days were full of bold explorations and tentative moments of insight; my husband’s first overhand strokes 50 yards offshore in a triumphant return to ocean swimming, our son’s impressive dolphin kick while adorned with fins and snorkel mask, drinking out of a coconut, watching a rainbow form over our mountainside bungalow.
“Should we try to encourage him to talk about your accident?” I had asked my husband one night shortly after his return from the hospital.
“I don’t know,” he replied thoughtfully, curling the still-swollen fingers of his casted arm. “I think we’ll just have to watch carefully and show him everything’s going to get back to normal soon.”
I thought about that statement a lot during the course of our trip, and how, in his quiet way, my husband had indeed demonstrated courage and love and fatherhood to a seven year-old boy who, hopefully someday, will be able to return the favor to his own children.
My husband and I had hoped a trip to Hawaii would provide a needed diversion at best, and perhaps enable us to return home a stronger, more confident family. I’m glad it worked out that way.
Erin Kirkland is the author of AKontheGO.com, an Alaska family travel website and blog.
NEWSFLASH: IN CASE you missed this week’s Kids These Days! broadcast of Inside the Teenage Brain: Teens take risks! Yes, parents, grandparents, and guardians of anyone age 12 to 18, you’ll need this nugget of information while on vacation.
I’m thrilled to finally receive validation confirming the teenage brain is wired to do crazy stuff. In fact, I learned it aches to do stuff; wild, crazy and overly nutty stuff, especially while in the company of other brains with equal settings.
No wonder parents hear the whining, witness the iPod tune-out, and see the rolling of eyes while teens are pushed and prodded through museum after historical site after interstate road trip. Here’s the irony of traveling with teens - young people need to feel a bit out of control to be in control; of emotions, bodies, and other people, we adults included. A teenager, I’ve discovered, is happiest when barreling down a mountain on a bike so fast the wheels are practically on fire, even if mom or dad is standing at the bottom of the hill shielding eyes from certain inevitable calamity. A teenage traveler wants to feel the rush of adrenaline as much as a parent wants to feel none, and I can’t think of a better state in which to offer such experiences to a growing adolescent body and brain.
Alaska is perfect for teenagers. Enough mental and physical challenges are available no matter where a family decides to begin their travels. Below are a few excellent options that just might rate a “that’s cool!” statement when completed. Do double check age, weight, and ability requirements, however, before booking any challenging activity for your son or daughter.
Mountain biking. Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and Eaglecrest Ski Area in Juneau offer summertime mountain biking around the area’s slopes. Between the cool chairlift ride up and the screaming fast trip down, kids will feel the thrill of independence coupled with the knowledge that everyone is watching from the lodge and hitting “update status” on their Facebook app. For a longer, touring-type approach, try Sockeye Cycles in Skagway or Haines, offering multi-day trips as far as the Canadian border, all gear and bikes provided.
Zzzzzzziiipppping through Alaska's forests
Ziplining. Really, what could be more in tune with a teenager’s zen than a series of zips 100 feet in the air? From Ketchikan to Talkeetna, ziplining is fast becoming the activity of choice among the adventure-loving set. In southeast Alaska, try Alaska Canopy Adventures and their 11-zip trip set high among the hemlock and spruce trees. Talkeetna is the latest community to jump on the zipline bandwagon, with Denali Zipline Tours, slated to begin zipping through the trees sometime in July, 2012. Note: Most ziplining companies require participants to weigh between 90 and 270 pounds, for safety reasons. “Zippers” must also be able to understand and fulfill self starting/stopping procedures along the course.
Mountain adventures. Alaska possesses more glacial ice and rock than many other states in the Union, and much of it lies within easy access of the state’s largest community of Anchorage. Ascending Path guiding service leads day and overnight trips to remote areas of Alaska, with a ton of learning along the way. Want to climb a glacier? No problem, the Spencer Whistle Stop Rail and Ice Climbing trip combines a great trip aboard the Alaska Railroad with a little moraine exploration on the flanks of Spencer Glacier.
Teenagers want to show us they can, indeed, be “all that.” Give them the opportunity and see where it takes them, and you.
Erin Kirkland is the mother of two boys; one teen, one wanna-be-teen. Follow her crew’s Alaska adventures at AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel resources.