Happy 100th, National Parks

Moi, in Alaska, a few days before the whale.

Moi, in Alaska, a few days before the whale.

It started as a rustle. Then, sniffing, lots of sniffing. By the time I heard the snorting on the other side of my canvas tent, I was pretty certain my early-morning visitor was a bear.

The problem, of course, was that I was in the middle of nowhere, kayak-camping on Strawberry Island, one of the Beardslee Islands at the mouth of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park. Despite all of the warnings about not camping alone, I was out there all by my lonesome. Just me and the bear.

So at 3:14 a.m., I started reading Allen Ginsberg poems. Really loudly.

Eventually (maybe it was “Please Master”), the animal retreated back into the woods. When he left, I broke camp faster than I’ve ever broken a camp in my life, stuffed it all back into the kayak, and paddled like an Olympic rower out of the cove. About 100 yards from shore, I spotted my black ursine friend, clearly curious about the disappearing poetry. I stopped paddling just long enough to mutter the words, “Holy shit.”

Five minutes later, I was greeted by yet another animal; this time, a 50-foot humpback, which surfaced just off the port stern.

The whale signaled its arrival with a blow—I was so close that within seconds I was enveloped by the moist stench of rotting fish. Then it dipped beneath the water line out of sight.

I knew it wouldn’t go far—I had studied humpbacks for most of my 20s and knew that a lone humpback hanging out during summer in Alaska was either feeding or sleeping or maybe a bit of both. So I took my paddle out of the water and waited.

Two minutes later I saw the leviathan again. This time it announced itself with a flash of white down below—undoubtedly a flipper or maybe the underside of some tail flukes. Then, closer to the surface, just beneath the boat, I spotted the animal’s eye. Looking right at me. So close I could practically reach out and poke it.

The whale hovered below the kayak for a few moments, staring at me. The animal dwarfed me and all of my poorly packed possessions. It surfaced with a blow, then dived and hovered again.

Surface, dive, hover; again. And again.

After about five cycles, it hit me that this animal wasn’t going anywhere. I’m sure the whale was just curious, probably thinking, What the fuck is this guy doing in his kayak at 4 a.m.? Of course in my sleep-deprived mind, I convinced myself the whale somehow knew that bear had scared the shit out of me and driven me from my tent. I kind of thought the whale was hanging around to protect me.

We floated together for what seemed like an eternity. Surface, dive, hover. Surface, dive, hover. I didn’t even realize I was crying until I tasted my own tears.

I’m not a religious guy (that’s another subject for a less public venue). But in that moment, on that night in Glacier Bay, I had the most spiritual experience of my life. When the whale finally got bored with me and my kayak, it pumped its flippers and waved goodbye with a raise of the tail flukes before diving to the depths. The image of those flukes, the quiet with which they slipped beneath the water as the giant animal disappeared forever—those details will be among the last things I remember on this Earth. They’ll be right there with the births of my girls, my wedding day, singing with my high school choir at a wood stave church in Norway.

And the whale encounter never would have happened without the national parks.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, our country’s greatest invention. I can’t help but remember that fateful night without thinking of the parks. The open space! The untrammeled landscape! The fact that I was the intruder! That I was able to have this experience is reason enough to celebrate the parks. And when you consider how many lives the parks have touched in similar fashion over the years, you recognize what a big deal this centennial really is.

As of this summer, the only national parks my girls have visited are here in California—Yosemite and the Presidio. Someday, I’ll take my them to Glacier Bay and introduce them to the wonder and beauty of it there, too. I know I can count on the Beardslees being just as great down the road as they were back in 2003.

And so, to the National Park Service (and the federal government, really), I say this: THANK YOU. And Happy Birthday, indeed.

New effort to stock airports with kids’ books

The Read on the Fly team, with Erin Kirkland in blue

Read on the Fly, with Erin Kirkland in blue

Family travelers get shit done. How else to explain the latest exploits of my buddy Erin Kirkland, the woman behind the travel blog AKontheGO?

Erin, who lives in Alaska and is a fellow member of the Family Travel Association, recently kicked off Read on the Fly, an initiative to stock boarding areas at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (TSAIA) with a library of children’s books. As Erin explains it in a post on her blog, she was inspired to start the program after cleaning out books from her son’s closet and realizing the books could be put to good use in a second life.

The goals of the project are to promote literacy and keep kids happy while they’re waiting to travel with their families. As of right now, the program will maintain six different mini libraries in the Anchorage airport, and will stock these libraries with books suitable for children ages 0-16. When kids are flying with their parents, they can either borrow books to read at their gates, or take books from the shelves and bring the books with them on their respective journeys. The hope is that kids will return the books they borrow. If they don’t, Erin plans to collect donations to keep libraries robust.

(Airport officials actually gave Erin security clearance so she can tend to the libraries whenever she likes. How cool is that?!?!)

Erin notes that Read On the Fly is truly a collaborative effort among AKontheGO, Alaska Airlines, and TSAIA, not to mention the long list of individuals and businesses who have offered books, time, space and effort to push this project to fruition. She adds that the bookshelves were designed by volunteers from the Alaska Aviation Museum, and likely will be built by those folks, too.

Eventually, the plan is to expand Read on the Fly to other airports. For now, however, the focus is on Anchorage. If you want to be one of the founding donors, click here. You also can email the Read On the Fly team at readontheflyak@gmail.com and let them know how you want to contribute. FWIW, I’ll be shipping some books north next month.

Oh, and if you’re as eager as I am to see the program in action, Erin says it launches formally this June.

Back in action

Site for sore eyes.

Site for sore eyes.

Just about the last thing a family travel writer wants to hear from his kid is a request for a year off from flying.

Yet this was our reality in August of 2014, after we followed up five months of living abroad (for the last half of 2013) with family trips to Hawaii and Walt Disney World, and the Big Girl informed us that she needed a break.

Powerwoman and I wanted to be sensitive to L’s wishes; as major travel advocates, the last thing we wanted was to push our daughter to the point of resentment.

Still, we were bummed. Handcuffed, really. And concerned.

We responded by emphasizing road trips to local national parks and elsewhere around the state, as well as a greater frequency of daytrips to destinations less than three hours from our Northern California home. For a while, this strategy worked. But (being the inveterate travelers that we are) we yearned for more.

Then a funny thing happened. I went to Maui on behalf of the Expedia Viewfinder blog. I called home with reports every day. When I returned in person, I regaled the kids with stories of smooth flights, and the neat new personal entertainment devices passengers can rent aboard Alaska Airlines planes.

And, unprovoked, L declared that if she could have her own device, she was willing to shorten her moratorium and agree to fly again.

We were stunned. We clarified her statement four times to make sure we heard it correctly. We had.

Then, of course, we did what any travel-obsessed parents would do: We got out the laptop, pulled down the calendar, and started booking trips. When the hour ended, we had purchased plane tickets for the whole family to spend a long weekend (reporting some stuff) in Los Angeles. We also bought plane tickets to convert our full-on road trip from home to the San Juan Islands and back into a halfsie road-trip from Portland, Oregon, to the San Juan Islands and back to Seattle.

In all, we’re taking three separate plane trips as a family this summer, making the absolute most of the extra three months L gave us by rescinding her ban.

In short, thanks mostly to L, we’re planning to fly again this summer. And it feels good to be back.

Dream family travel destinations, by RV

One potential set-up (thanks, GoRVing.com, for the photo).

One potential set-up (photo from Go RVing).

Summer is road-trip season in our family, which means we’re in the midst of planning where we’d like to drive this year.

Considering the breadth and depth of this planning process, when Go RVing (and my friends at Scholastic Parent & Child magazine) recently asked me to blog about RVing, I jumped at the chance. The only problem: I’ve never actually been anywhere in an RV. So instead of writing about adventures I’ve taken in a recreational vehicle, I decided to write about trips I’d love to take.

No. 1 on my list: The Alaska Highway, the 1,700-mile road that connects the contiguous United States to Alaska through Canada (by way of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, both in Canada). This road, also called the ALCAN, has intrigued me since I got my driver’s license back in 1992. Scenery is spectacular. Wildlife is abundant. And side trips—to places such as the otherwise-inaccessible Tok!—are second to none.

Obviously this would be the choice if time were no object. It also would be a heck of a lot easier if the girls were a bit older; the trip is beautiful but can get monotonous at times.

Another trip on the list: Interstate 10 along the southern part of the United States. This drive, which stretches (west to east) from Santa Monica to Jacksonville, Fla., is another one I’ve just always wanted to do—since it spans a number of states neither I nor my daughters ever have visited (namely, Mississippi, Alabama, and New Mexico).

It’d also be a great opportunity to introduce the girls to New Orleans, and beignets.

Finally, of course, is a drive MUCH closer to home; a drive I’ve actually done before: the California Coast. I’d start in the north, near my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and work my way south, past Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz and Monterey.

From there, we’d hit the central coast, stopping to check out Hearst Castle, to see friends in San Luis Obispo, and to marvel at the big boulder in Morro Bay (which, by the way, has a great tidal flat).

We’d end our journey in the heart of SoCal, with family in the San Diego area. Before returning the RV, we’d spend a day at the world-famous San Diego Zoo, and at least a day at LEGOLAND California, which my LEGO-obsessed daughters would love.

Sure, these destinations would be *part* of the fun. But because we’d be in an RV, the real joys would be in the journey—in driving leisurely to enjoy the sights, in spending nights at parks and campgrounds, in having the opportunity to bond as a family in style. Yes, we can do these things on a road trip in Powerwoman’s Prius. I just think they’d be more fun in an RV.

Where would you go if you had an RV and one month worth of vacation time?

%d bloggers like this: