Raspberry picking, fireweed harvesting, Fourth of July hiking & location scouting. This summer is rounding out quite well, but I have a feeling it’s going to run short this year.
All the more reason to take advantage while it’s here.
Making and Doing since 2010
I’ve never been to the mall of America, but I imagine that if I did visit, and only stepped into one or two shops, I’d be disappointed at the missed opportunity of enjoying the scope of its offerings. It would definitely be a challenge to visit all the stores in a day, but with some work and a weekend, you could probably see a few things, right?
Denali National Park is a lot like that.
First of all, personal vehicles are only allowed in the first 15 miles of the park. Buses shuttle visitors beyond that guarded mile post, and back country permits are required for anyone camping beyond Savage River (located around mile 15). In a day, an avid outdoorsman could probably take on several shorter, lower elevation hikes before that mile post. But to really comprehend the beauty and vastness of Denali National Park, several weeks, maybe months or years of exploration would be required of a visitor. It’s cruel how little of the nation’s greatest national park we can see in a short weekend visit.
I’m still in the throes of a DNP withdrawal, obviously.
Beyond mile 15, all the way to mile 92 (an end point I may never see), endless mountains roll along the horizon. Snow melt and rain water dribble to the valley floor, tumbling into icy rivers varying in width and current.
Wildlife freckles the landscape; a few branchy antlers poking up from a riverbed — a resting caribou herd, white dots drifting over a grassy knoll — dall sheep traveling, a lanky, lumbering animal crossing the road — a hungry moose grazing; all normal sights in DNP.
After a day of travel and visiting the entrance trails at the Park, we all checked in at Denali Cabins, 8 miles north of the DNP entrance. My in-laws had the cabin next to ours, and volunteered to watch the kids for Isaac and I while we grabbed a hot meal at the on-site restaurant Prey.
Traveling with our kids’ grandparents was great. I don’t think I changed a single diaper the entire weekend, and entertaining the littles was completely taken off my to-do list. It was a wonderful break from my normal duties, especially since I’m currently back to single mom life while Isaac is working in Mongolia for a few weeks.
Vegan food was not hard to come by in the local restaurants, thankfully, and I think Margot had a nice break from the vegan cheese I give her — as evidenced by how quickly she downed vegetarian mac ‘n cheese.
Our cabins were comfortable, with wonderfully upscale linens, and thick blackout curtains (something we still need to invest in to block out the midnight sun in Fairbanks). By the way, travel with kids is not easy, but Isaac and I have fallen into a travel rhythm of each co-sleeping with one child in a bed, and compromising their bedtime and ours at a middle-ground of 10pm. It’s not a perfect system, but it works.
Our second, and final day at DNP was well rounded out. Starting off with the creature comforts of lattes and hot breakfasts at the Black Bear Coffee Shop, we headed into the Park for a leisurely two mile hike along the Savage River. The alpine hike towered above, almost disappearing into the rain clouds at times.
After a fierce debate with Isaac the day before, on whether or not we should take the Mount Healy trail four miles up into the stratosphere, I finally convinced him there were plenty of opportunities for us to hike strenuously in the future. Following a long car ride with two unpredictable kids, rainy weather, and in-laws on vacation was just not screaming we must summit! to me. I’m going to go ahead and assume I saved us from a bear encounter, or a really bad leg injury with that call.
The sled dog tour sounded appealing to all, so we hiked Savage River and made our way to the shuttle bus stop for a ride to the kennels.
To see real dogs doing real jobs was a little bit of a disappointment, only in the sense that I couldn’t help but compare my senior beagle Sally to this pack of working dogs, and let’s be real — Sally is a lazy non-dog with a serious superiority complex by comparison.
Denali Sled Dogs travel hundreds of miles in the fierce Alaskan winters to patrol the park from poachers, to rescue citizens in distress, and to deliver goods to rangers in the back country. My Sally won’t even go outside to pee if it’s raining or cold.
But I guess if you put a raucous sled dog in my house for a day, I’d seriously appreciate how laid back and content my shelter pet is.
After a busy day on the trails, and at the kennel, we popped over to the 49th State Brewery for libations and grub. Christie sat with a sleeping Margot in the van while the rest of us ate inside. Heavy rains and then hail fell in a downpour while we were in Healy, but it dried up enough on our two hour ride home to let us all snooze if only for a bit.
Sally welcomed us home with whiny excitement, and I’d like to say the kids settled back into a routine, but Margot asks to go hiking or camping on the reg, and Woods is keeping me on my toes with his wild sleep patterns and calamitous teething cries. Both are soothed by long walks outside.
When Isaac comes home from Mongolia, we’re going back out for more.
I’d like to go back in time to last summer and smack myself upside the head for camping while pregnant, with a toddler, without a camper. What was I thinking? Such an unnecessarily uncomfortable experience, although it was fun and rewarding at the time.
Isaac and I have been looking at campers since March, and going by the towing capacity of our Toyota Sienna (minivans rule!) we narrowed down our wish list to a pop up camper with an 8-10 foot box. Local sale listings came and went (sparingly), usually selling before we even had a chance to respond. Some had roof rot, and nearly all campers in great condition were far out of our price range. Our sales page diligence paid off when we spotted this 1990 Coleman Columbia on Craigslist. It was within our budget, and appeared to be in fair condition. We contacted the seller just hours after the listing posted, and secured the second appointment to view it. I was sure we were going to miss out since these campers tend to sell the same day when they’re in good shape and priced fairly. Fortunately, the first buyer passed and having sold our old utility trailer the same day, we went to check out the camper with cash in hand. The camper was in amazing condition so we bought the pop up and towed it home the same day. After the kids went down for bed, we popped open the camper on the driveway and clinked beer bottles at the dinette, excited about our upcoming trips.
It was a stroke of genius to invest in a pop-up camper, and an incredibly lucky break to snatch one for sale in the Fairbanks North Star Borough where there typically two or fewer for sale at any given time. This year we have two littles we want to share the outdoors with. Camping with two tiny kids and two tall adults in a tent, on the ground, surrounded by mosquitos, under the Alaska midnight sun was not going to work for us. Sorry tent camping and backpacking purists, we’re a young family with many needs. We are the first to admit — we are sell outs.
Our camper has a two stove burner, two full size beds, and a sweet dinette that folds down into a twin sized bed. Although our coleman has a sink, we did not camp with full water and electric hook ups, and we didn’t rely on battery power. This was our maiden voyage and we needed it to be as primitive as possible for our own adjustment from tent camping to glamping.
Having a place to hang out, away from the mosquitos, while still catching a summer cross breeze was glorious. Our kids were able to bounce around like normal, the dog had a spot on the floor to nap, and I had kitchen space to whip up some hot chow. Vegan chow, no less.
And blackout curtains! Wonderful, gracious, functional blackout curtains! We don’t even have those up at home yet.
Our site was in the Chena Lakes Recreation area just outside of North Pole, close enough to home for us to bail in the event of some crisis, and close enough to town for us to run and buy more diapers, or whatevers that we may have forgotten.
I’m not one to toot my own horn, but TOOT! I did an excellent job packing up for the camping trip, bringing along all the necessities, and even some creature comforts.
Isaac is already brainstorming on how to rig some golf batteries to a solar panel to create super efficient energy for our camper. I need a water holding tank so I can stop going outside to wash dishes. And the kids need a few more blankets to keep cozy when the nights plunge into the high 30s like they did this weekend. We were warm enough, but not as comfortable as we could have been. Electric blankets might be in our future, if Isaac can somehow harness the power of the sun. I still can’t believe electric blankets are even an option for camping. Is it still camping? I’m having some doubts on the legitimacy of glamping, but I just remembered I don’t care.
We spent our days exploring the Chena Lakes area. Towering birch forests enveloped us on our nature walks, and the views from a 40 foot retaining wall were humbling. Snow capped hills rolled on to infinity to the North, and to the south, the Alaska range jutted into the sky, faded in appearance by the miles of atmosphere in between.
Our wildlife sightings were limited, fortunately. While we do carry bear mace on our outings, I have no idea how to use it, so we would likely be in a world of trouble if we came upon a sow and her cubs. On our first night out, there was scratching under my bed, and a low rustle in the brush nearby. A raccoon? A fox? We speculated on what it could have been, but never landed on any conclusions about our mystery visitor.
Camping is great. It’s a free pass to not clean, and to be disorganized. But despite my best efforts, I still tried to reign in the chaos, stuffing gear into our storage boxes, delegating chores to Isaac and even snapping at the dog to eat up food bits that fell to the ground. There were still diapers to be changed, mess kits to be cleaned, and trash to be taken out. Par for the course.
I do believe our Coleman Pop Up Camper will see much use this summer. Alaska’s brutal winter is in the rear view mirror, and the midnight sun is hovering on the horizon (all night long).