Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Alaska: 17 Days with 5 Children

Our trip to Alaska sprang upon us suddenly one October day in the form of question and a happy answer.

"Will you marry me?"


And all of a sudden our vague thoughts of, "oh, wouldn't it be neat to visit Chris (my husband's brother) in Alaska someday?" became, "We're going to Alaska next summer!"

A view from Skilak Lake Rd in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge
Since we were making the effort to get all seven of us up there, it seemed reasonable to figure out how we could extend the trip beyond what was needed for the wedding.  My husband is a self-employed website developer, which means no paid vacation but it also means he can do his work from any location with an internet connection.  Matt and I have talked occasionally about combining travel and work, and this was a good opportunity to try it out.

Fireweed, gorgeous and incredibly common
We set some priorities for the trip, namely we wanted to be able to be up there for at least two weeks,  to spend some time at Denali National Park and on the Kenai Peninsula, and I wanted to do at least one thing outside that wasn't at toddler pace.  We wanted to visit at least one glacier and see some Alaskan wildlife like moose and bears.  We wanted to camp, but we not willing to camp for the entire time.  We wanted Matt to be able to work for part of the trip, but not all of it so he could have a vacation too.  We also wanted to minimize costs as much as possible, since we didn't have a lot of time to save for the trip.  This meant that there wouldn't be any flight seeing trips, hotels, nannies or long boat excursions.  We planned to eat out only during our long layovers at the Seattle airport.

Portage Glacier
We did very well with the plane tickets because we each signed up for an Alaska Air credit card and used the bonus miles and companion tickets to pay for most of the flights.  I believe we only had to pay for three full price tickets instead of six, which was a great help.  Surprisingly, the single most expensive part of our trip was our rental minivan.  We were able to drop the price by a third by continuing to shop around as the trip got closer, but it ended up being more expensive than the airfare!

A big horn sheep at the Anchorage Zoo
We spent the first part of the trip in Anchorage, where Chris lives and where the wedding took place.  We were able to stay in a rental house with Matt's parents, his grandfather, his other brother and his fiancĂ©e, and an aunt and uncle.   Yes, it was a full house - fourteen people in all!  I took over the cooking and a majority of the grocery shopping for our extended family, which helped a great deal with costs and with providing opportunities for the family to visit together.  Matt was able to work everyday, and on one afternoon my mother-in-law watched over the napping 20 month old and three year old while Matt and I took the older three on a fabulous bike ride along the Anchorage coastline.  (Yay, I got to do my one thing that wasn't at a toddler pace!)  I also took the kids to the Anchorage Zoo and the start of the wonderful solar system walk in downtown Anchorage, and as a family we visited the Portage Glacier and Whittier Tunnel, the Anchorage Science Museum, and took some walks along a scenic local greenbelt.

This is an amazing scale model of the solar system, where the sun (pictured) is in downtown Anchorage and Pluto is about 8 miles away in Kincaid Park.  They scaled the walk so that at a leisurely walking pace, each step equals the distance light travels in one second.

The bike trail that runs along the sound in Anchorage

After the wedding, Matt unplugged and we headed off to the Kenai Peninsula.  We had brought a huge duffel packed with all our sleeping bags and pads, as well as our backpacking stove, tent and cooking gear.  Because we were outfitted already for backpacking, our gear was small enough and light enough to be able to bring without too much trouble.  We did have to borrow two more tents from Matt's brother as well as an ice chest, but he was more than happy to help.  We spent three days camping near Kenai Lake in the intermittent rain and drizzle, but had one gorgeous day where we got to float the Kenai River on Chris' drift boat.  The three older kids got to try their hand at fishing for the first time, and we got to see a grizzly and many bald eagles.

Exit Glacier, from a viewpoint showing where the glacier was 200 years ago.  What I find even more amazing is that at the peak of the last ice age, this glacier filled that central bowl and only bit of the peaks on each side peeked through the ice.
The Kenai River - isn't that glacial blue amazing?
After the Kenai, we packed up and headed north.  When we first plannedour trip we had hoped to all camp in Denali, but after a difficult camping trip to Yosemite in May, we decided to split forces.  I stayed in Palmer at a rental suite with the younger three, and Matt drove north with the older two, planning to camp three nights in Denali National Park.  

Wasn't it considerate of this bear to pose so nicely along the river, just after the spot where we put in?
I had a great time with the younger three in the Palmer area.  The rental suite, being a little off the beaten path in Palmer, was reasonably priced (for an Alaskan summer rate, at least) and turned out to be a gem.  The weather was great (although it was funny to hear local kids complaining about it being "too hot" at a very pleasant 74 degrees!) and we visited the reindeer farm, a small local lake, a local park, went to Mass at the local Catholic Church and crashed their parish picnic and drove to the Matanuska Glacier.  On the way to the glacier I got to see a female moose and her calf, but unfortunately didn't have the presence of mind to take a picture.  I was too busy trying to make sure the kids were able to see it too!  This was, by far, the most restful part of the trip, and I relished the opportunity to focus on my younger ones and move at their pace without feeling torn between their pace and the pace of the older kids and my husband.  I taught our six year old to play chess, put littles to bed early and read Daisy Chain and enjoyed watching them interact with the beautiful surroundings.  

Trying to help two kids feed the reindeer and keep the food away from said reindeer and protect the shrieking 20 month old and take pictures at the same time was truly a comical experience.  I love this picture, although I didn't appreciate having to wipe reindeer slobber from my camera after the experience.
Temporarily dividing up the family ended up being a great choice, since Matt and the older kids had nothing but rain, drizzle and cold the whole time they were at Denali.  After getting back from a great but very damp tundra walk and finding a wet tent, they decided to throw in the towel and come back a night early.  Thankfully there was space (and a beautiful sunny day!) to dry all their things at the rental in Palmer, and we were able to spend some time together as a family at the rental and visiting the local musk ox farm.

Their undercoat is amazingly soft and warm, but it takes six hours to brush each musk ox in the spring!  And then the hair has to be cleaned and spun...  no wonder it costs $90 for a small skein!
And then it was time to head home.  We had fresh salmon for dinner on our last night in Alaska and I was able to take one last walk the morning before we left.  Our trip back was reasonably uneventful though long, and we were happy to get home again.  The younger kids missed their toys, and my daughter missed having a little more personal space and more crafting options.  I'm not sure I was all that glad to be back, but I think that's a good indicator of how much I enjoyed the trip.

The view from the parking lot at the Catholic Church in Palmer.
We're already talking about how we could go back to Alaska, and what we would do next time.  I'd still like to go to Denali, and I would love to take a boat excursion out into Prince William Sound.  There's also a longer hike up past Exit Glacier to the Harding Ice Field that caught our eye, as well as a number of other hikes on the Kenai Peninsula.  And with Chris and his new wife Shana intending to stay in Alaska, we have an even better reason to go back!  Maybe in another three or four years...


  1. Lovely photos, Amber. My best friend from high school lives in AK and is always inviting our family for visits. But with hubby's new job, it won't happen anytime soon. *sigh*

    1. Thanks, Lisa! Yes, it is definitely quite a big deal to get up there! I hope we can do it again before too many years go by, but coming up with the money and the time is no small undertaking. Without my bother-in-law getting married up there, I'm not sure when (or if!) we would have been able to do it. It sure was beautiful though, and I'm very thankful for the trip.

  2. Alaska has been on my bucket list for years, and thanks to you I have some new "must-see" places to add when we eventually get there! What a wonderful adventure you all got to go on.

    (Following you over from Celeste at Joyous Lessons)

    1. Thanks, Erin! It was such a wonderful opportunity. I hope you get to go someday too!

  3. Wow, what an amazing trip! The kids must have had such a great time on all your adventures up there. Beautiful landscapes!

    1. The kids really enjoyed it - it was so beautiful and we really enjoyed our time together as a family. I was really happy with how well it all went and I really didn't want to go home!