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.

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.

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!

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.

Love + eMotion: When You Know Your Kids Are Alaskans

I woke on Sunday to the gentle staccato of rain against our tent. A thrush trilled a greeting somewhere far away. A squirrel answered. Then, the wind worked its way through aspen and spruce, drum rolling the leaves, scattering dew, and rocked my sleeping family.

A big smile stretched across Kyra’s face, the only visible part of her body snug in her new 20 degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag, which she had waited months to test. Ethan stroked my husband’s ear, rooting for comfort as he was too excited to sleep.

Gear testers in training.

At 4 p.m. Saturday, I wasn’t even sure we were going to make the four hour drive to the Denali Outdoor Center (DOC) in Healy. It was harder these days to squeeze in at least one camping trip per year. Maybe, it was due to the kid’s busy schedules or after having kids, camping just seemed like a lot of work.

Our gear alone could barely fit in our truck. Plus, Ethan was still too young to raft or kayak or do a lot of the outdoor activities Alaska offers (very frustrating for outdoorsy parents who don’t own these fancy toys).

Louise, co- owner of DOC, tried really hard to make an exception for Ethan on her Scenic Wilderness Raft Trip. Unfortunately, their insurance company insisted on a five or older age limit.

Having guided since the eighties, Louise took her son on the water when he was four. Now as a nine-year-old, he mountain bikes, rafts, and kayaks with them. She raved about the benefits of taking young kids on adventure travel and encouraged us to rent a canoe and take the kids onto Otto Lake.

Why can’t we go rafting?

Even though, we did not get a chance to raft or canoe and we had to set up camp in a downpour, I’m glad we pushed ourselves to drive so far. For a July 4th weekend, I was surprised that we had most of the lake-side walk-in camp sites all to ourselves.

As advertised, it certainly is the most private camp site you’ll find in Denali National Park. I could hear no motorized vehicles or people milling about. I could give my kids the backcountry wilderness camping experience I craved. And if I quieted my heart, I could even hear the lake lapping against the shore.

Kyra woke everyone around ten. Fortunately, the rain had subsided enough for Thomas to build a fire and delight Kyra with s’mores. She finished off the third bag of marshmallows I bought this summer and didn’t get a chance to roast due to weather.

By the time, the kids danced around the fire, tested our new cooking set, polished off a breakfast of freeze-dried lasagna and beef stroganoff, and helped us break camp, it was nearly 1pm.

While the kids made s’mores, insulated mugs with sip-it lids kept our coffee warm and prevented spills.

We hurried across the street to Black Diamond Resort for our custom ATV side-by-side and Treasure Hunt Expedition and discovered to our dismay that we had missed our tour.

“Why can’t we go on the ATV?” Kyra kept asking. At first, I couldn’t answer her. I had built up so much anticipation over the week, imagining the first-time my kids would ever get the chance to ride an ATV, that I felt crushed too.

Eventually, I snapped, “Next time, Mommy tells you to hurry up because you're going to be late, and you dilly-dally and insist on throwing one more bottle of water onto the fire or complain ‘I don't want to get dressed’ or ‘I'm busy playing with my cars,’ then you will miss your adventure and everybody's sad. Nobody's going to wait around for Princess Kyra!"

That squeezed a giggle out of Kyra. Ten minutes later, she asked again, “So, we can’t go find treasures on the ATV?”

I sighed and said almost to myself, sometimes things in life don’t happen the way you planned.

She stared at me with those big round eyes pooling with tears.

I looked at Thomas for help and he smiled and said softly to me, “I just set a low bar. It’s Alaska!” He reminded me about the time we spent lots of money on a king salmon fishing charter and came home with nothing.

Marilyn, the co-owner of Black Diamond, saved the day by getting us on their Horse Drawn Covered Wagon Adventure. With a seven-year-old of her own, she offers plenty of kid-friendly activities, including miniature golf. In 1995 she and her sister built this unique golf course on tundra with little topsoil and she now employs over seventy people.

Kellen shows Ethan how to pet a Percheron horse. Ethan asks, “Ride horse?”

She said that this resort is mostly a hobby, but it’s a wonderful worldly experience for her daughter. At the front desk, I chatted with Santana, a student from the University of Indies in Jamaica. On our Wagon Adventure, our guide Jan explained how he got here through a work study program from his Czech Republic University and Kellen from Massachusetts confided that he finished a job at a ski resort in Idaho, then flew up with some friends to Healy and got a tip about this job from a local bar.

After a ride on the covered wagon driver’s bench and a belly full of the juiciest barbeque chicken, salmon, ribs, and tri-tip steak, Kyra asked, “Now, do we get to go on the ATV?”

Hold on tight Kyra, here we go!

On our long drive home, I asked the family to tell me their favorite part of the weekend. I cringed, hoping they wouldn’t bring up the ATV trip again.

Ethan blurted out, “The tent!”

Thomas said, “Sleep.”

Kyra chewed over her answer for a while, then whispered in my ear, “S’mores!”

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