WITH SUMMER VACATION in full swing, many parents are a wee bit reluctant to allow their youngsters to loaf away these next three months; sleeping in until noon, eating ice cream for breakfast, and allowing valuable brain cells to deteriorate. Thankfully, the scope of family vacations has swung toward teachable moments, summer break or no, and many tourism outlets are responding with more hands-on activities than ever before.
Or, "hands under" as the case may be...
Opportunities run the gamut from extreme marine science to self-guided tours expressly designed for younger visitors, each offering a unique Alaska perspective combined with some awesome entertainment.
Our best bets include organizations who offer not just an exciting few hours of Alaska fun, but a healthy dose of stewardship, history, and environmental awareness as well. Some attractions are geared toward the whole family, some place an intense focus on kids only, giving grownups a little time to pursue their own recreational bliss.
Below are some favorite indoor and outdoor options around the state:
• Southcentral Alaska, with its diversity of culture and environment, provides a wealth of opportunities. We like the Center For Alaskan Coastal Studies in Homer, with close-in and more remote sites for wilderness and marine science. Try the Wynn Nature Center on Skyline Drive, up above Homer, with kid-friendly trails, weekly nature programs, and a self-guided tour of this historic plot of land. Near the ocean, families can take a short boat ride across Kachemak Bay to the Peterson Bay Field Station, an on-site marine camp with incredible tide-pooling, hands-on science, and great hikes. You can even stay overnight in the yurt and look for otters, whales, and puffins from the front porch. Bliss. If you can’t swing a trip across the bay, check the center’s Classroom Yurt on the Homer Spit for summertime classes and opportunities for a little up-close viewing of the area’s creatures and plants.
See sea shells down by the (Homer) seashore...
• Interior Alaska has the benefit of the University of Fairbanks’ programs and events, geared toward all things Arctic. The Museum of the North features a new slate of exhibits that outline the history of our Arctic landscape, mammals, birds, and geologic formations, and engage school age kids, in particular, with a self-guided scavenger hunt and activity sheet. Ask about their periodic special events, too, when scientists from UAF are on hand to provide specific activities and answer questions. Teenagers and parents may enjoy the awe-inspiring Place You Go To Listen, a dramatic, real-time recording of Earth’s magnetic sounds that are almost impossible to describe with words. Don’t forget to walk the grounds outside, either, and savor that awesome view!
Exploring the Sitka Sound Science Center in southeast
• Southeast Alaska places a heavy emphasis on marine science, and understandably so, with so much of the area’s industry relying upon a healthy and sustainable oceanic atmosphere. Our family stumbled upon the Sitka Sound Science Center last summer, and were thrilled with this little powerhouse of marine ecology and education. Still undergoing growth but featuring a touch tank, interns, and outside hatchery ponds, you can find the center right across the street from the Sheldon Jackson Museum, overlooking the beautiful and salmon-rich sound. During our visit, staff and a host of young volunteers were in the process of putting together a complete whale skeleton to hang from the rafters, and we hear it’s complete and ready for exhibition. The Science Center is destined to be a community winner, and deserves support from visitors, so do check it out if you’re in Sitka this summer.
Parents, remember that all of these organizations provide classes, lectures, and updates for adults, too. Check websites for family camps, volunteer opportunities, and special events that involve everyone in the family!
Erin Kirkland is the author of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family-friendly travel and recreation in Alaska.