“Mama, I’m going to walk in front with the ranger! I want to hear her tell which berries I can eat. Oh, and did you see how big the bald eagle’s nest was?! I spotted the baby birds inside,” Daniel, my 13 year-old, rapidly informed me as he ran ahead along the beach path.
Our family was taking a ranger-led beach walk in Glacier Bay National Park (near Juneau, Alaska). As I watched my excited middle-schooler question the naturalist about a bright orange berry, I thought about the times I’d walked this rocky beach at low tide during the summer I worked at Glacier Bay during college.
This park was the final stop of our 2-week Alaskan tour. As I strolled along the water, I thought back on the traveling challenges we’d faced in this immense state, and the unforeseen gems we’d encountered. It had been a full trip – the kind you’re glad you did, but then need a vacation to recover from.
Living in land-locked Colorado, my husband Todd and I often take our kids to maritime places for vacations. For this summer’s trip, during our 20th wedding anniversary, we decided to return with the kids to some of the spots we’d visited on our somewhat atypical Alaskan honeymoon.
A Vast and Varied State
Travel within Alaska was as challenging this time as it had been 20 years ago. -Well, minus the sea plane which landed on a lake the size of a small ice rink when delivering us to our Arctic Circle kayak trip. You only need to do that once.
Our family packed for temperatures anywhere from 80°F and sunny, to rainy 40s. We were going sea kayaking so we also needed thick rain coats and pants, although one person chose not to bring his rain pants and received a natural consequence Alaska-style.
This was not one of those trips for which we packed clothing we never wore. More often there were chilly times when we donned more than one set of clothes – like the time a wake from a huge cruise ship that passed us 5 miles away was still big enough to wash over my kayak 10 minutes later and soak me.
Learning to Be Flexible
Midway into our trip, a big storm came through the small fishing village of Cordova on Prince William Sound bringing high winds that cancelled the daily ferry we were scheduled to take. This meant cancelling a kayak trip we’d planned the next day.
“It’s part and parcel of traveling in Alaska,” we reframed this challenge to our kids.
The train, ferry, bus and plane trips we took in Alaska were also a piece of the overall experience, helping our kids comprehend how massive the state is.
We saw nearly as much wildlife from trains, buses and ferries as we did from sea kayaks.
Science in the Great Outdoors
As luck would have it, our son Daniel was accepted into a 5-week summer camp on climate which took place before we left for Alaska. He was therefore introduced beforehand to some of the glaciers and climate change indicator species we’d see in Alaska.
For each of our kids, this Alaska trip brought textbook lessons to life. They’d learned about the life cycle of salmon in school, for example. Up there we sea kayaked to a river at the edge of the ocean where pink salmon furiously swam upstream in 8 inches of water to spawn. They reminded me of middle-schoolers cramming and jostling into narrow hallways between classes.
“They really do die after they lay their eggs,” Annie said looking at the dead salmon touching her rubber boot.
“Sure smells like it,” her 15 year-old brother Stephen chimed in as he kept an eye out for the brown bears we were warned about.
In Glacier Bay, Todd and I showed the kids glaciers we’d seen 20 years ago that no longer met the ocean, though we saw others which were still calving huge chunks of sky blue ice into the sea.
Unexpected Takeaways from Alaska
I figured the wildlife and wildness of Alaska would make an impression on my children, as it had for me as a 19 year-old. But there was an unanticipated occurrence for my kids as well. They met people doing jobs that they could envision themselves doing some day. This experience was vastly different from having their parents tell them about an interesting work opportunity somewhere they’d never been. On our trip, the kids met fascinating people doing exciting things they’d never heard of.
When we were at Ballard Locks in Seattle (prior to leaving for Alaska), Stephen told his dad, “I might want to work here someday.”
We spent quite a bit of time with rangers at Denali and Glacier Bay national parks. Daniel, our nature boy who says all he needs to be happy in life is a well-placed hammock, realized he had a skill for spotting wildlife. Then talking to naturalists with varied specializations excited him about the possibility of doing this work someday.
“I think I could spend a winter in Denali patrolling by dog sled,” Daniel told us after attending the rangers’ dogsled demonstrations there.
“I’d like to take pictures of Humpbacks’ flukes in Glacier Bay,” Annie, now 10, pronounced.
Since each Humpback’s tail has unique markings, a group of marine biologists has photographed them to track the different whales for over 30 years now.
“But if I couldn’t do that, I’d work as a waitress in the Lodge like Mama did. That would be fun too,” Annie mused.
Overheard in a conversation between 2 of our kids in the fishing town of Whittier while we did our laundry next door to a salmon cannery: “I’m never working in a cannery. I don’t care how much money they say you can make in one. I couldn’t deal with the smell.”
“If I don’t work at the locks, I might guide sea kayaking trips,” Stephen declared as we trekked the rainy mile to Mendenhall glacier within Juneau’s city limits.
It was so gratifying to watch my kids imagine different work experiences they might pursue when they got older.
My Lesson Learned
Walking back from exploring tidal pools at the end of our beach hike, Daniel asked our affable ranger how one gets a job like hers. She was full of helpful suggestions. As they spoke, I was reminded that when you travel, it’s not simply the scenery and wildlife, but interacting with the people who know it and love it, that makes a lasting impression of a place.
What were your unexpected takeaways from this summer’s travel near or far? Leave a comment below!