HALLOWEEN FALLS ON a Wednesday this year, so many organizations are holding celebrations this weekend rather than fight a school-night schedule. With crisp temperatures (okay, downright freezing), and clear skies forecast for Saturday and Sunday in southcentral Alaska, this might be the perfect Halloween for a little outside time with your young princess or hardy Avenger.
• Saturday & Sunday in Eagle River: Eagle River Nature Center is hosting its annual weekend o’ spirited activities for both younger and older kids. The Enchanted Forest involves a daylight, non-spooky walk to the Classroom Yurt for stories, snacks, and games with a very friendly
witch naturalist. Perfect for pre-schoolers, this activity is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 27.
Big kids will convene at the nature center Saturday at 2 p.m. for an Old Hallow’s Eve hike down the Rodak Trail (3/4 mi) to the Halloween Yurt for games, tricks, and treats.
Both Saturday events require reservations and tickets, so call 907-694-2108 and secure your spot. Old Hallow’s Eve will repeat on Sunday, October 28 at 3 p.m. due to high demand by the adoring public. Each event is $5/pp, $20/family.
Exploring at the ERNC...
Sunday also brings the Witch and Her Owl to ERNC, with volunteer Ginamaria Smith speaking to kids and parents with her Great Horned Owl, who is always thrilled to be the center of attention. Psst: he loves it when kids come in costume, by the way.
• Saturday in Fairbanks: Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks welcomes all kids and parents to Creepy Critters on Saturday, October 27, from 12-4 p.m. Stop by the Farmhouse Visitor Center for crafts, snacks, and activities around the theme of Strange and Creepy Ice Age Animals. Ewwwww. Don’t forget to encourage costume-wearing, of course. Free.
• Anywhere outside: While your family is hiking around this weekend, see if kids can spot the following spooky items, in honor of this wonderful holiday:
Erin Kirkland is owner and author of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family-friendly travel and outdoor recreation. She and her family live in Anchorage. Visit the AKontheGO calendar of events for more Halloween-themed family fun.
THERE'S ALWAYS A crowd at Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks; just not always the human type. Located on 2,000 acres of woodland, wetland, and pastured landscape, Creamer’s Field is a local treasure to waterfowl, wildlife, and people of Alaska’s second-largest community. Flush with a bright and chattery spectrum of bird species and a similar demographic of local families, Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge is the perfect spot for a daytime breakaway, an evening stroll, or a bit of midwinter solace. It’s peaceful, it’s beautiful, and every time our family visits, we come away with a greater appreciation for the multiple layers of flora and fauna provided by mother nature.
The farmhouse visitors' center is an easy-to-spot landmark...
The Refuge is easy to find; the big, white barn is a Fairbanks landmark along College Road, and no matter the season, residents and a multitude of out-of-town visitors can be found walking, skiing, or peering through spotting scopes at the latest feathered friend to appear on the seeded fields. The barns, historic farmhouse, and 12 acres of land near the entrance are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to farmers Belle and Charles Hinckley, who settled the property in the early 1900’s after a trek from Nome aboard a sternwheeler. They sold the land and buildings to the Creamer family in 1928, and the dairy operated successfully until 1966. With subsequent development and partnership of the Friends of Creamer’s Field group, the property shares responsibility for thousands of migrating birds each year, including leggy Sandhill cranes who yack and yodel and dance around the ponds and fields each August. There’s even a festival celebrating the event.
Skiing on a warm-for-Fairbanks day - just 19 degrees!
Creamer’s Field is also home to a lovely array of kid-friendly trails, perfect for young hikers. Level and full of interpretive opportunities, the fields and surrounding boreal forest possess a rich texture of nature-made differences and similarities, and make hiking tons of fun for children of multiple ages and abilities. Besides simply wandering the beautiful expanse of pastureland, the Boreal Forest Trail is an excellent place to spend a few hours of wooded exploration. A 1.5 mile loop of completely accessible trail and boardwalk, the Boreal Forest Trail winds through noble stands of birch, swampy wetland, and surprisingly dense spruce, with signs posted along the way to explain various points of reference. A large platform on the loop’s backside provides a bit of elevation to the hike, with great views of nearby swamps, and occasional glimpses of wildlife. While upon the platform, take a minute to simply listen. Traffic noise is gone, and all one hears is the chirping of birds and the whisper of wind. It’s an amazing moment of appreciation for nature’s music, and our son liked the song so much he decided to do a “quiet walk” along an adjoining section. See if you can give it a try, too.
Wintertime brings snowfall and a season of outdoor recreation that includes Nordic skiing or snowshoeing. Parents and kids will enjoy the thoughtful grooming of trails and ease of access when the temperatures drop. The same Boreal Forest Trail we enjoy so much during spring, summer, and fall now turns into a beautiful link to cold-weather fun. The Farmhouse Visitor Center frequently hosts wintertime walks on weekend, with hot chocolate at the end; a welcome way to celebrate the long, dark, and frigid Fairbanks winter.
Informational kiosk at the field...
Creamer’s Field posts a full schedule of events on the organization’s website; from Winter Solstice celebrations to periodic family activity days throughout the year, the property is definitely worth stopping by, any time.
Erin Kirkland is the owner and publisher of AKonotheGO.com, a website dedicated to family-friendly travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska. Visit her blog and post your own photos of nature time with kids in the gallery.
IT WAS A chilly morning last March when our family hauled bags of food from the car, shouldered skis and snowshoes, and trudged across the Alaska Railroad Depot parking lot to a snaking series of passenger cars, bound for paradise. Anxiously waiting for this day since the previous October, it was finally time to ride the Ski Train!
A signature event since 1972, the Ski Train is part vacation, part outdoor adventure, and a whole lot of fun. Organized by the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage, and meant simply to transport skiers and snowshoers with a serious case of the winter blahs to a remote destination for a few hours of breaking trail. Back then, the Ski Train cost a mere $5, and gradually grew into a standing-room-only wintertime event that attracts outdoor enthusiasts of all ages and abilities. For the past two years, we have joined the circle of intrepid backcountry explorers for a day in historic Curry, 110 miles from Anchorage near the boundary of Denali National Park.
It’s decidedly cool, this trip. Worried slightly about our son’s ability to ski through untracked, ungroomed spring snow with little or no assistance, we were still confident enough to purchase our $100 tickets on October first, as members of NSAA (non-members pay $140 and must wait until November to purchase their tickets). Departing Anchorage at 7 a.m. and returning at 8 p.m., the Ski Train is indeed a long, exhausting day for most kids. However, the excitement of a four-hour train ride coupled with a rousing ompah band and 600 or so other excited souls eating and drinking and singing, more than made up for mild crankiness caused by a lot of exercise, food, and sun.
Kids are always welcome to participate, but for those wondering if the hefty ticket price is worth the effort, check out the NSAA Ski Train page on the organization’s website. Full of “need to know” stuff like a seating chart, timeline for the day, and suggestions for activities, this is a great guideline to follow in determining your family’s plan for take off on Saturday, March 23, 2013. You’ll also need to consider the following points, as well:
Bring food. Unlike many AKRR trains, there is little food for sale on board the train, so plan on bringing breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We filled soft-sided coolers with wraps, smoked salmon, gourmet cheeses, sandwiches, and hearty muffins. Don’t forget water, either.
Bring the good gear. The Ski Train itself usually remains in Curry for the duration, allowing access to bathroom breaks and warm-ups. The sun shone brightly in 2012, but I do not expect such luxury in 2013, so pack hand-warmers, extra socks, mittens, and layers. Also bring extra clothes for the ride home, and a blanket or pillow for tired kiddos.
Know your family’s abilities. The great thing about the Ski Train, we’ve learned, is the access to all sorts of outdoor fun, not just Nordic skiing. This is ungroomed skiing, so consider snowshoeing or sledding, or just playing in the snow for a few hours if ability is an issue.
Ask questions, and buy online! Beginning October first, NSAA members will be able to purchase Ski Train tickets online eliminating the long lines and confusing paperwork. Go this route and pick your seats, too. Questions? Call the NSAA office at 907-276-7609.
Erin Kirkland is the owner and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She lives in Anchorage with her husband and youngest son.
THIS IS A busy time of year for many Alaska families. Kids return to school, the calendar is filled with scouts, swim lessons, or PTO meetings, and - boom! - everyone is running in different directions. In no time at all, autumn will be over and the first flakes of downy snow will cover the grass you forgot to mow one last time. Sigh. How about a family getaway?
I relish weekend trips during Alaska’s fall months. Between late-August and mid-October, scenery is at its most magical, the visitor hotspots much less crowded, and prices noticeably lower. Before switching over to studded tires and snow pants, consider a few of our favorite 49th state destinations for a mini-vacation that just might recharge your parental batteries for a long winter ahead.
Having a whale of time in Sitka...
Southeast Alaska: I do believe Sitka is a fabulous city for families. With a very walkable community layout and lots of attention to history and culture, kids and parents alike will enjoy a few days learning and having tons of fun, too. Walk the waterfront pathway and explore the beautiful Sitka National Historical Park and adjacent beach. Older kids may enjoy the Sheldon Jackson Museum and thousands of artifacts discovered by Dr. Reverend Sheldon Jackson during his explorations of the far north.
Trying to outrun winter on Homer's beaches...
Southcentral Alaska: The Kenai Peninsula town of Homer is one of the most kid-friendly communities I’ve ever visited. With a brand-new playground that sports a million-dollar view, miles of beach, plus excellent lodging and dining options, Homer can amuse kids of any age for days. Grownups, too. Stop by the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies for a guided hike, and don’t miss the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center along the Sterling Highway in town where they offer excellent classes and presentations during the early fall months.
The Murie Science & Learning Center at Denali National Park offers hands on exhibits for families...
Interior Alaska: Did you know Denali National Park stays open during the fall (and winter) season? True, there are far fewer services and interpretive activities, but families can still enjoy autumn beauty of the interior by hiking trails close to Park Headquarters, and investigating the awesome Murie Science and Learning Center also doubling as the Park Visitor Center during the winter. Lodging options include Riley Creek Campground, or the community of Healy, where several small hotels stay open all year. Visit the Denali Chamber of Commerce for fall/winter lodging ideas.
Travel Tips: Make the most of airline miles by signing up for mileage plans with regional or national airlines, and make sure you’re on the e-newsletter lists for the same. Use those miles to travel within the state; in many cases, it’s the cheapest way to travel around Alaska. Major lodging and tour companies also publish e-newsletters with greatly reduced packages for Alaskans looking to escape for a few days. Don’t forget the Alaska Railroad; residents always receive 20% off full-fare tickets.
Erin Kirkland is the publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She lives in Anchorage with her husband and youngest son.
LAST WEEKEND WE challenged our 4-year old with a 2.5 mile hike - starting at 1800 feet down to nearly sea level. Yes, it was downhill, but this was still a formidable challenge for young legs. We told him this was the activity for the day and we were going to do it as a family. He accepted that and was ready to go.
Up the tram to start the downhill hike
This event has been on my partner's "to do adventures list" since the summer began. Each of us had a role in this family outing - my partner had the duty of carrying all 25+ squirmy pounds of our youngest son down the mountain, while my job was refreshment and comfort, cheerleader, and lending a guiding hand in the final .25 mile - a bit easier on me but still neccessary to the experience!
The weather that day cooperated with high overcast clouds, moisture-free air and mountain high temperatures in the high 50’s, warming as we descended back to sea level. The trail conditions were snow free, almost mud free, and surprisingly dry. Lil’ Cub greeted the steps with jumps and happily plodded along at a faster-than-I-would expect pace, experiencing the first hour of the trail with gusto. Shortness of breath was not a factor as his running commentary (mostly about animated-movie monsters) was constant, letting any wildlife in the vicinity know that we were there.
Juice boxes this way
During the second half of this downward trek the impatience started. “When are we going to be at the bottom?” and “My feet are getting tired from standing!” became more frequent. Our praises of, “you are such a great hiker” became more frequent in order to combat his waning enthusiasm for what was becoming an uphill battle. During the final 300 yards of the hike his whines of tiredness were impossible to combat, which is when I offered my hand to help him along. With 20 feet to go his weary legs tripped over a rock and he skinned one of his hands. He finished the hike in tears, yes, but he finished the hike. We had a juice box staged for him to celebrate this moment of completion, but he was just ready to sit and veg out with an iPhone.
Are you coming?
The advantage of young inexperience is that our son had no true concept of what this event would mean to his body and how long it would take. He knew where we were starting as he has been there many times. He also knew that we would be taking a hike through the woods and this would be a family endeavor. Beyond these small clues of our day together he had nothing to worry about or fear as he was ready to go. He knew enough to be excited and not enough to worry or fear. This is one of the many beauties of young innocence, the not-knowing that makes kids brave...until they tire.
His mother and I were proud of his perseverance and effort that day; we were relieved that the experience, his first long-ish hike, had gone so well but, looking back, we should have celebrated his efforts more than we did at the time. I think that one of the many pitfalls for me as a parent is missing that a particular moment is significant for whatever reason and then celebrating it accordingly.
THIS PAST WEEKEND was one of my favorite events of the year: the all-school camping trip. Every summer, the school where I work has a campout for all the students and their families, and it is always a weekend of fun and food. Saturday night is the campout potluck and there are always many delicious treats to choose from. Cooking space over the fire can be a little tough to claim since there are so many chefs needing to cook all at once, so I decided to bring something I could make in advance at home - pasta salad. Here is the recipe for this yummy and simple side dish.
Colorful Campout Pasta Salad
Boil the pasta by package directions minus a minute or two if you are not planning to eat the salad right away - if you are planning to store the salad for the next day, it is best to leave it a litte extra chewy because as it sits in the dressing, it will soften. When the pasta is done, run it under cold water to stop the cooking process and keep it from getting sticky from the starch. Set it aside to drain.
Chop the bell peppers into approximately 1/2" pieces. Mince the red onion finely, and chop the green onion into thin rings. You can add more veggies if you like. Chopped carrot and broccoli go nicely in this salad, too. In a large mixing bowl, combine the pasta and veggies, adding the Italian dressing as you mix. You may want slightly more or less dressing depending on your taste and the type of Italian dressing you chose; some are stronger than others. You can serve the salad right away, but it is best if it sits for at least an hour to let the flavors of the onion and dressing permeate the pasta. Enjoy!
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.
THINK OF HIKING in Alaska and steep treks up craggy mountains come to mind, maintaining careful footing on ridges and days-long journeys in untouched backcountry. Whoa - settle down! Alaska's trails aren't all meant for Denali climbers in training. Because sometimes you want to push a stroller in nature, here are five Alaskan hikes to do for the scenery, exercise and fresh air...
1. In Juneau, try the flat-out beautiful Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei trail.
"A wheelchair-accessible trail that follows the Mendenhall River greenbelt area, starting at Brotherhood Bridge off Glacier Highway. The name is Tlingit for "going back clearwater trail." Expect a lot of traffic, including some bikes and horses, on this zero-elevation-gain hike. The trail features access to fishing holes in Montana Creek, vivid wildflowers including Siberian Irises, and scenic overlooks." (Source)
2. Great scenery outside Anchorage at Thunderbird Falls Trail.
At mile 25 of the Glenn Highway, take the Thunderbird Falls exit to access an easy, 1-mile hike much of which takes place on a boardwalk. "Birch forest on steep hillside overhanging Eklutna Canyon. Views of 200 foot high Thunderbird Falls." (Source)
3. Urban Anchorage's Coastal Trail offers 10+ miles of paved strolling.
For gorgeous views of Knik Arm, Cook Inlet, Westchester Lagoon, Sleeping Lady and guaranteed bird sightings, get on the Coastal Trail with your stroller or bike trailer. All paved, you can hop on this trail from three points - from the South access descend from Kincaid Park to the coast, from the North access start downtown on 2nd Avenue, or start in the Middle at the Point Woronzof overlook where you can spy both gorgeous sunsets and spot low-flying planes. (Source)
4. The Eagle River Nature Trail makes for a great day trip.
At the end of 12-mile Eagle River Road (about 40 miles from Anchorage), you'll come to the log cabin visitor center at the Eagle River Nature Center. A number of trails start behind the building - try the easy 3/4-mile Rodak Nature Trail that leads to a beaver and salmon viewing deck, or opt for a longer stroll on the 3-mile Albert Loop trail if it's not too muddy. (Source)
5. Calypso Orchid Nature Trail near UAF is for botany lovers.
This exotic-sounding loop near UAF campus, Creamer's Field and Georgeson Botanical Gardens gets its name from the orchids that bloom along the trail in spring. Just under a mile, take it slow to read all the interpretive signs. If you want more trail afterward - check out the Vireck Nature trail on the UAF campus. (Source)
Have fun and as always, be Bear Aware!
WHEN THE PRODUCER asked me to talk about spring skiing, the first thing that entered my mind was “Really?? One of the snowiest Alaskan winters on record, and you want me to try and sell parents on skiing - Just when we’re all dreaming about flip flops and shorts??” Couldn’t I talk about something else? Something, perhaps, with a sandy, surf-y, decidedly un-winter-y feeling to it?
March and April are often difficult months to encourage outdoor recreation with kids. Snow is either melting, or, as is case this year, still falling, even as the weather warms up. Most parents are truly weary of snowsuits, soggy boots, and misplaced mittens. Even the name for this season is a downer: Break Up.
But enough whimpering. Let’s go skiing. Snow fell, and now it’s lying all over the ground in record amounts. We might as well go outside and enjoy ourselves.
To be perfectly honest, if ever there was a favorite time to ski with my kids, it would be during the spring season, especially in Alaska, and especially this year.
I love to step outdoors just about now, and feel the difference between winter and spring. Snow is softer, a bit tired-looking, but still gracious enough to welcome my skis upon its grainy surface. The air is fresh with the scent of spruce tips, and the sky, on a bluebird afternoon, looks like it was painted that way, just for me.
Alpine skiing families can take advantage of spring specials around the state, making deals on everything from lift tickets to rentals to lessons. Kids are less likely to freeze fingers and toes on the chairlift, too. Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and Eagle Crest in Juneau both offer great lesson/lift packages that often include the gear. We also have spent a fair amount of time at Arctic Valley Ski Area, on an alpine hilltop above Anchorage. Arctic Valley loves spring skiing, too, so much that they throw a big party each year to celebrate, calling it the “Merry Marmot Festival” and offering tons of family fun, this year on Saturday, March 31.
Nordic skiers definitely should find a delicious-looking trail, groomed to cordoury perfection, and head out to become one with the forest and their children. Whether it’s the wide expanse of Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks or the forested loops of the Campbell Tract in Anchorage, an adventure among the dripping, sweet-smelling trees and chattering chickadees is a blessing, indeed. We’re actually packing for an epic day trip aboard the Nordic Ski Association’s Ski Train, departing tomorrow morning for historic Curry near Talkeetna, twelve hours of kid-pleasing exploration and a train ride.
Go outdoors for a change of scenery. Go outside because it’s springtime and snowy.
Go - because this is Alaska.
Follow the Kirkland family’s springtime adventures at AKontheGO.com.
HEAD INTO ANY elementary school at this time of year and the chances are pretty good that you’ll find a classroom with a windowsill full of cups of dirt with green shoots poking up. The daylight is back, stores are full of gardening supplies and for many Alaskans, getting seeds started is one use for all that “spring fever” energy.
As KTD contributor Jessica Cochran tells us, kids, dirt, and seeds are a natural combination.