Alaska, One Humongous Zoo

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, Family Vacation Guide

Alaska, One Humongous Zoo
Where moose are on the loose, birds fly underwater, and otters pop up out of nowhere


Ten Perfect Days

Way to Go
Alaskan Tchotchkes

When it was time to have kids, my wife and I feared it might also be time to give up those wondrously easy leaps into the wilderness that are possible when you live in Alaska. No more sea-kayak trips along the outer coast or backpacking jaunts through the Wrangells. We contemplated a future in a diaper-laden car behind waddling RVs, queuing for space in roadside campgrounds beside elderly couples from Arizona.

But once our firstborn was three weeks old, we put her in a skiff and crossed the saltwater where we live to go camping. Emily spent a few days on the beach in a baby basket covered with a white muslin mosquito net. And we learned that tossing diapers and toys out of a skiff was not much different from unloading a station wagon.

So we started to go car-camping without the car. The past few summers, for example, we've flown with our two kids into glacier country, landing on a jade-milk alpine lake surrounded by ice-scraped knolls and carpets of blueberries. We pile our colorful stuffsacks on the beach, then turn to wave as the floatplane splashes off the water, floats dripping, and drops over a far ridge. Its echo fades and we are all alone. We carry our gear 15 yards or so, pitch the tent, and go exploring for a few days until the plane comes back to retrieve us.

It's your basic mountaineering base camp, only with Beanie Babies instead of carabiners. We loosen up, as we did in the old days. My wife starts calling me Natty Bumppo. Our hikes are treasure hunts. Around this particular lake we find a suspected bear den, coarse white mountain-goat hair, and an innocent scree slope turned to menacing quick-gravel by invisible flows of snowmelt. A pair of ptarmigans explodes from the willows with summer-brown backs and winter-white wings. When we descend into a glacial outwash valley carpeted with hot-pink dwarf fireweed, six-year-old Emily pegs it as the poppy field from Oz. Ethan, not quite three, rides in a backpack on the long hike, heralding our approach to black bears.

The kids seem to like it best when the cool shadows lengthen and we pile into our down-filled dome. They like it too much, in fact — the party is just getting started. The day of our big hike, it isn't until the northern darkness settles around midnight that Ethan finally snuggles up beside me, resting his head against the sweaty shoulder he'd clutched all afternoon. He closes his eyes, muttering, "Go bear. Go bear."

For some reason, the kids are not afraid. They seem to realize that the nearest people are some valleys away. But they are with their family, so for them that is just the way the world is.

We reassure them by hiding our occasional panic. We steer away from the crumbling banks of icy rivers. We've been lucky never having to deal with a sore-headed bear or a broken arm. Natty Bumppo likes to bring a two-way radio and sort through the bail-out options in advance. And we watch the weather, ready to scratch before a storm rather than risk a tentbound three-day game of Go Fish. We also bring plenty of car-camping gear in case Mother Nature's whimsies wear thin — there's no calling in an airdrop for colored markers or a six-pack of apple juice.

When Emily was three and we took her on a 10-day sea-kayaking trip, we loaded bags of snacks and lots of books and toys into the bow of a double Klepper, where she would be riding just beyond the reach of her father's rubber boots. Her lambie, Ziploc'd and dry, was ready for any emergency. Fortunately, the weather was good and our daughter proved seaworthy. Clad in yellow slicker and purple pile, she was content to perch on an extra life vest where she could watch for puffins and pulsing jellyfish. Only toward the end of the trip did she realize she could steer the kayak toward shore by announcing she needed to pee. She even figured out a way to make the kayak go faster.

Granted, our kids' everyday lives in semirural Alaska might be considered camping by some of their peers down south. They watch out for moose when playing in the yard. On winter nights when snowdrifts shut the road, they ride home in a sled, grocery bags wedged between their legs. Last fall, when we splurged on a weekend at a nice tourist lodge in the Kenai Mountains, they were surprised to discover that other guests had gone there for a rustic experience. We had gone to enjoy TV reception, a hot tub, and, well, toilets.

Our kids can balk, of course, especially when Natty gets a bit carried away. Fortunately, the wilderness has a way of providing happy surprises just when they're needed the most — like the afternoon our hike through a moss-laden coastal rainforest turned buggy when the wind died down. We turned back at the sound of whimpering, and were saved by the discovery that wood fairies had strewn Starburst candies along the trail all the way home.
— Tom Kizzia

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