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.
HEAD HELD HIGH with a new backpack secured on his shoulders, my son marched confidently into the first day of second grade this week. Carefully placing his belongings away and settling in at a desk, the newest chapter of his educational journey began calmly, without a bit of fanfare.
I love back-to-school season. I love the rituals, the shopping, and the slightly anxious feeling that comes from entering a new realm of learning and growth. Hmmm, sounds a little bit like travel, doesn’t it?
Our family spent the summer, as we always do, on the move. On a quest to explore as much of the state’s family-friendly destinations as possible for my upcoming book, AK Fam (as we're known on AK on the Go) went in all directions between May and August, and had a blast. But we’re not done yet, and yes, I will be pulling my son out of school. Next week, in fact.
The decision by parents to travel during the school year is full of goods and bads, depending upon who you talk with. From a strictly practical standpoint, trips after Labor Day typically bring special offers and lower airfares, critical for many of us budget-conscious Alaskans. Crowds are decidedly slimmer, as well, especially in the high-traffic areas of Denali National Park, the Kenai Peninsula, and southeast, so why not pack up and enjoy the essence of Alaska without the jostle of a million other people?
How do you say 'shoulder season' in European?
It’s not that simple, however. Schools have attendance policies, homework ramps up as kids progress, and some teachers absolutely refuse to step out of the box for missed assignments or make-up work (although so far, we’ve been pretty fortunate). Can this potential tension be mitigated? Below are a few tips for discussing the idea of a temporary absence for travel - with your child, his or her teacher and, even, the principal.
1. Plan ahead. Set up a meeting with teachers, outlining the dates, destination, and making a polite request for assignments. Consider your child’s progress, too, before setting final plans. If he/she is already struggling, ask yourself if being absent for a few days will make things worse, and be prepared for residual struggles upon your return.
2. Set up a learning objective. Work with teachers to establish goals for your trip outside the daily work that might be sent along. Is there a daily list of new words he/she can find and write down? Could your child plan to give a photo slide show and presentation to the class upon returning? Perhaps the older child can create a budget for the family, and accomplish some math work. The point is to show a committed, cooperative effort in tandem with class objectives, and a firm willingness to spend time with your student during the trip.
3. Ask your child how he or she feels about missing school. As kids grow up and begin to establish friendship groups, it becomes more and more important to be at school. Not for bookwork, mind you, but for the social opportunities. Respecting your child’s desire to stick with his buddies, while balancing your own family’s plans, is critical.
Just like peanut butter & jelly, learning & traveling make for perfect partners
Ultimately, it’s open and honest communication that creates a successful school-year adventure. The key is remaining actively involved in your child’s education, whether in school or while sailing the Seven Seas. Travel is an opportunity to experience new cultures, new environments and new routines. Doing our part as parents to facilitate this plays an enormous role in creating a worthwhile experience for everyone.
Erin Kirkland is the owner and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel. She is currently writing her first book, Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State With Children. Her youngest son attends a charter, language-immersion school in Anchorage.
INTRODUCING OURSELVES TO fellow passengers aboard the Wilderness Discoverer last week, we received a few looks of disbelief. As Alaska residents, our family of three certainly bucked tradition by climbing aboard a 100-foot ship to explore the nooks and crannies of southeast Alaska with the good folks of InnerSea Discoveries.
Alaskans don’t, as a general rule, take cruises, preferring to avoid the perceived crush of out-of-towners, jewelry stores and too-short shore excursions to places they think they’ve already been. We were members of that club, too, pooh-poohing the hordes and laughing at the “cattle call” style of large ship cruising. Until we took this trip.
Clear your minds of any pre-conceived notions about cruising. Take away the formal wear, motorcoach tours, and disco nights. Welcome, instead, images of kayaks, trekking poles, and science experiments. Parents, imagine opportunities for daily experiential learning and solid friendships built upon interactions with like-minded families. Alaska residents, meet the un-cruise.
Like camping... with cruise ships
It seemed to us that InnerSea Discoveries works hard to build their tours around an intimacy between people and nature for all their trips (the company also operates in Mexico, Hawaii, and the Columbia/Snake River areas of Washington and Oregon). Based in Seattle, InnerSea Discoveries sails a variety of itineraries around the Inside Passage from May to September, offering endless opportunities for family recreation and education in a most Alaskan sort of way.
Operating small boats that can nose into secluded coves and along rocky shorelines, InnerSea Discoveries sells not just cruising, but Alaska, and we were able to engage our senses on a daily basis. Blessed with a captain who also spends winters in Hawaii researching humpback whales, our family saw groups of bubblenet feeding giants, observed fluke and flippers, and listened on a hydrophone to the magnificent trumpeting of these marine mammals. You can’t find that stuff in Anchorage.
Having a whale of a time...
Recreation was encouraged on a daily basis. Kids ranged in age from 6-16, and every single one of them took advantage of kayaking, paddle-boarding, skiff tours and some pretty fascinating intertidal hikes. Clad in rain gear, boots and hats, kids climbed, paddled, and dug their way toward a deeper understanding of Alaska’s environment and how people play a critical role in preservation for kids of the future.
One foggy, drippy afternoon, I stood on shore waiting for my bushwhacking hike to commence through a stand of Sitka spruce and devil’s club. Off in the distance, I could hear my son laughing with his dad as they paddled around in a bright, red kayak. Far off in the deep water of the channel was a ghostly white, enormous cruise ship sailing toward Juneau. My cohorts and I stood silently for a minute, looking first at our little green and white boat anchored nearby, then at the bigger ship in the distance. We smiled at each other and entered the cool, dark forest, where no one had been before.
For more about cruising Alaska-style, visit Erin's travel website - AKontheGO.com.
I KNOW THE power of modeling and introduction of new experiences in the development and growth in our boys' lives because I have had a front row perspective in watching it happen as the Olympic flame continues to burn strong in our home - and especially brightly in our 4-year old son.
The Olympic activities and events are creating quite an impression on his young life! Our mornings now start in the blocks as we race down the stairs to start the day. “Daddy you are Turkey and I am Jamaica.” I have yet to win gold but I have been assured that silver is a good finish too.
Runners take your marks...
I wanted to harness this excitement for different countries so I purchased flags of the countries we has been to as a family. They arrived in Olympic-speed for getting to Alaska so I was surprised to see them in our home just a couple of short days after I clicked purchase. Our son couldn't open the package fast enough as soon as he realized what the mailman had delivered. He was pumped and jumping with excitement!
“China! Mexico! Canada! USA!”
USA! USA! USA!
Since these flags arrived in our home four short days ago much of our conversation is revolving around what flags he would like to see the mailman deliver the next time. “Daddy, we should visit France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, and Porto Corsa, Italy. Then I could get those flags too!” This wish to visit other countries quickly led to a conversation about how much Mom and Dad love to travel but the reality is that traveling costs money. Additionally, through these multiple conversations, his mother realized that we've been to Jamaica, too, but forget to get one of those flags. Obviously this will be next flag that arrives unless I want to continue hearing about how he needs it.
La bandera de Mexico!
This modeling and exposure to the world through the Olympics is quickly returning learning and new knowledge dividends. Two days after these flags arrived in our home our son took one to his class for Sharing Day. When I picked him up from the day his teacher said: "Meade's enthusiasm about geography made me pull down the globe and talk about different countries with the kids today." This positive feedback from someone within our child’s circle of life is empowering. It is also a reward to the consistent efforts we take to being positive models constantly working to expose him to something new while harnessing his excitement.
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.
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!
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.
WHILE ON HER solo journey to New Zealand, Aviva learned that she'd won a scholarship from the Coca Cola Scholars foundation which included a weekend with her fellow honorees in Atlanta. (Due in part to a story she produced for Kids These Days! radio, listen here.)
Listen below to hear Aviva's stories about flying cross country to be part of an elite group of young leaders in Atlanta, all teens who've done extraordinary things from cancer research to creating their own non-profits.
Aviva (front row, 4th from L) and her fellow Coca Cola Scholars
Exploring the Coca Cola museum
One drop creates a ripple!
Future leaders of the US
"...we really did have a nice bonding moment," Aviva said of meeting Morgan Freeman at the Coca Cola Scholars banquet. "He kissed me on the hand and that was nice."
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.