Don’t Tell the Kids

Clouds as sticky as cotton candy clung to the edge of jagged mountain peaks.  Silver lakes pocketed a bumpy green carpet of trees.  Rivers braided and twisted in the sun.

The two-and-half-hour flight to Katmai National Park showcased parts of Alaska I had never seen before and yet I couldn’t stop worrying about a friend’s warning: “Don’t tell the kids where you are going.  I still remember when my parents left me at home.”

By the time my brother died at age eighteen of the same disease that would claim my mother, my parents had taken us rafting, horseback riding, and caving in nearly all the national parks in the United States except for the ones in Alaska.  I remember a mother who carried me out of my bed and into the backseat of her car padded with pillows and blankets.  She never left home without me, a legacy I wanted to leave my kids.

After I became a parent, I started to realize how difficult this tradition was.  Inevitably, Alaska presented opportunities like fishing on the ocean or snowmachining that Thomas and I would rather enjoy together than leave one of us at home with the kids.

This summer, a relative of mine gifted me a thousand dollars towards fulfilling my mother’s request that I visit Alaska’s national parks for her.  Ten years ago, Thomas proposed to me in Denali.  We cruised Kenai Fjords on that trip.  When we moved to Eagle River seven years ago, we drove through Wrangell-St. Elias.

Since then, we’ve revisited these parks with the kids (See Peaks, Glaciers, and Kids) but gave up on seeing the parks off the road system due to cost and logistics.  Owners of lodges in these parks regretfully admit that their price point is high (some visitors spend up to $40,000) because their business only runs 90 days a year.

Fortunately, companies like Rust’s Flying Service offer one day trips to Katmai or Lake Clark from Anchorage.  Rust’s Flying Service has been operating since 1963 and yet none of my local friends knew that they could leave Anchorage at 8am, spend four hours at Katmai, then return to Anchorage by 6pm.

The first question our pilot, Virgil, asked us was, “Where are you from?” He took a step back when he heard our answer.  “Wow, locals! Yeah, we don’t see many of you.”

While there is no age restriction on these trips, I was surprised to learn that young kids usually don’t accompany parents to Katmai.  As soon as we stepped off our floatplane onto the banks of Naknek Lake in Katmai, we were sandwiched by two brown bears, approaching us from opposite directions.  The park ranger that welcomed our party instructed us to be quiet and never run, two behaviors my kids would’ve had a hard time with.

Interpretive Park Ranger Jacqi Terry who manned the bear-viewing platform with her boyfriend said that in three years working at Katmai, she’s only seen about 2% children.  She said that the young kids usually can’t endure the long wait for a spot on the platform, which only accommodates 40 visitors at a time.


The week I weighed whether to take the kids, a black bear visited our front yard every evening.  Kyra and Ethan jumped up and down on our deck and made so much noise that the bear usually scampered off.  If the bear ignored us, then the kids paid attention to it for only a few seconds.

Even though the kids seemed more excited about having a play date with their babysitter, I didn’t stop feeling like I had broken my mom’s legacy until I stood a few feet above a 1,000 pound brown bear, which ripped apart a salmon in seconds.  A shower of guts pelted my skin as the salmon stubbornly flopped its tail even though only bits of flesh hung onto its bones.

Photo credit Chi-Heng Lu.

For an hour, we enjoyed seven of the largest bears we’ve ever seen fishing at Brooks Falls.  Battle scars rippled over knotted muscles.  Sharp claws scratched their bellies.  Pink tongues flicked across their moist noses.  Deep throated growls earthquaked the platform that allowed us to taste this raw power of nature.

Leslie and Thomas with Kodiak Bears

Photo credit Chi-Heng Lu.

Walking hand-in-hand on Falls Trail back to our floatplane, Thomas and I noted how we hadn’t seen any kids and how grateful we were that Rust’s Flying Service had encouraged us not to bring ours.

That evening after I paraphrased parts of Brown Bears of Brooks River by Ronald Squibb and Tamara Olson, Kyra pretended to be the brave yearling that dared to swat at Conan’s muzzle, halting the cub killer’s charge just long enough for Old Mom to intervene.  It was her favorite story because according to Kyra the Mommee bear saved the baby bear.

The kids counted fifteen bears in the photos and videos that we shared with them.  They rolled on the floor, held their stomachs, and laughed hysterically over the bear that scratched its armpit.

Photo credit Chi-Heng Lu.

Ethan fell asleep beneath the bear stuffed animal we brought home from Katmai, which Kyra proudly named “Diver,” one of the oldest and most dominant of all the male bears at Brooks Falls.

So far, the kids have not complained that we didn’t bring them along.


Rock Climbing to the Rescue – Part 2

About ten minutes into Kyra’s birthday party, the staff at Alaska Rock Gym equipped ten six-year-olds and one two-year-old with harness and climbing shoes.  Every kid, including Ethan, sat spellbound to the rock climbing wall where Carrie Barcom began her instruction: “This is not Bouncin’ Bears.”

She smiled reassuringly at the kids and repeated several times, “I know this is going to be really really hard, but please try not to run here.”

After some more safety procedures, Carrie rounded up three staff belayers and asked, “Who wants to go first?”

Without hesitation, four kids started to climb.  Kyra was one of them.  She had no expression on her face, as if she was simply executing a daily routine, like putting on socks.

All the parents looked in amazement at each other for none of these families had ever climbed before and yet, their kid seemed to handle the sport with ease.  First one up and first one down, Kyra landed on the mat and shrugged.

Remembering the first time I ever climbed and how worried I was about my performance, I showered her with praises.  Then, I asked her gently, “Did you have fun?”

She flashed me her trickster smile before joining her friends on the lower floor of the gym for more challenging routes.  With 6,000 square feet of climbing terrain in the Alaska Rock Gym, I lost track of the number of times Kyra climbed and swung her way down.

My attention was focused on Ethan.  At first, my little man could not wait to follow his sister up the wall.  With pudgy hands on his waist and his belly sticking out, his attitude seemed to say, Come on, what are we waiting for?

Ethan impatiently waits for Carrie Barcom to tie him in.

Ethan made it up about as far as Kyra and then he froze.  I noticed his lower lip drop and his head fold into his chest as he tried to hide the tears that dripped down his cheek.

Carrie said he did really well, but Ethan didn’t think so.  When he got down, he stuck his left forefinger in his mouth and stared at the floor, probably wishing he could bury his head like an ostrich.

Wrapping my arms around my son, I whispered in his ear, “Don’t worry.  You are just like me.”  In college, I rock climbed with a mountaineering club and nearly always felt like crying, baked under the sun with scraped knuckles, knees, and ego.

Siri said, “I believe that indoor climbing is a great way to not only gain strength and conditioning, but to also challenge yourself and overcome fears and inhibitions.  It is a great way for teens and adults to participate in not only the movement of climbing up the wall, but also the aspects of team and leadership through belaying and working with a partner.”

That afternoon, I witnessed Kyra’s friends and their parents conquering fears and inhibitions.  Many of the kids climbed just so they could leap wildly into the air and fling their limbs at gravity.  About mid-way through the party, most of the parents decided to give climbing a try too.  Carla, one of the belayers who has worked at the gym for the past five years, commented that rock climbing parties are more successful when the parents climb because then they realize that what they are asking their kids to do isn’t that easy.

When she said this to me, I wondered if I stopped rock climbing because I thought it was too hard.  After all, I never trained at a climbing gym.  I just threw myself on climbing trips and thought it would be a piece of cake.

At Kyra’s party, I climbed just long enough to get a photo of our family on the wall.  When the gym opened for regular business, I saw families trickling in and wondered whether I could convince mine to do the same.

Kyra and Ethan are having a ball with Mom and Dad on an indoor climbing wall. Photo Credit Lailing Green.

Relaxing on Kyra’s bed that evening, I tucked each kid on either side of me and asked them whether they liked rock climbing.  I worried that maybe I had inadvertently done what I swore I would never do to my kids: force them to do something I had failed at.


Driving her monster truck up and down my belly, Kyra did not say anything at first.  Then, she wrapped her whole body around mine and peppered my cheek with kisses.

“You are the best Mommee in the whole world.”


Ethan rubbed his nose against mine and said, “We love climbing!”


“You do?”


He nodded rapidly.  “I climb.  And then I cry.” He frowned, remembering that moment.  Then his eyes lit up, “And then I swing.  Daddee catch me.  My Daddee is strong!” He babbled on and on about how he wanted his birthday party at Alaska Rock Gym too until he fell asleep.


I slept pretty well that night, knowing that my kids were not too young for a rock climbing party and that they had gained confidence and surprisingly, so did I.  Confidence to rock climb again.  Confidence to throw kid parties that are not a bore for parents.  Confidence that I am not so bad at this parenting thing.

Rock Climbing to the Rescue – Part 1

I am happy to report that I survived Kyra’s sixth birthday.  For months now, it overshadowed other celebrations, like our wedding anniversary and my birthday, as we brainstormed ideas for the first party we’ve ever planned together.

She had had a whole school year of attending birthday parties for her classmates, so when May rolled around, she didn’t want her party to be at the same location as the others.  After days of research, I realized why parents did birthdays at Bouncin’ Bears or Blaine’s Art or Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Exasperated, I moved onto ordering a cake, hoping that some idea might be inspired by her theme.  When a cake designer asked her what she wanted, she tapped her chin with her forefinger as if she had pondered this important question at length, “How about Optimus Prime fighting Hulk, no wait.  Optimus fighting Wolverine and then I fly in on a dragon like Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon!”

When Thomas and I told her she could only choose one theme, she negotiated hard, “Okay, what about Lightning McQueen?”

“No,” we both snapped.  Thomas hoped she would’ve outgrown Lightning McQueen and developed an interest in Princess stuff by now.  I was tired of throwing one more party for my kids on this theme.

Kyra giggled.  “Can Optimus Prime transform into a truck and drive to visit Hiccup and Night Fury?  And Hiccup will say, ‘My goodness, you are here!  Let’s fight dragons.’”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said.  Thomas raised his eyebrows.

Ethan added, “And then, Buzz Lightyear came to save the day.”

One morning before the kids were up, an idea sparked.  At the Arctic Oasis Community Center, Kyra and Ethan often free climb a 30 foot horizontal boulder wall and drool over the teens scaling the 24 foot rock climbing wall.

I always tell them they are too little to climb, but after a conversation with Siri Moss, who opened Alaska Rock Gym in 1995 with three local climbers (her husband Charlie Sassara, J. Jay Brooks, Bruce Adams), I was delighted to discover that they have full body harnesses and climbing shoes that fit Ethan!

She said, “The belief that indoor climbing is a sport for everyone has been our over-riding philosophy from the very beginning.” Not only do they accommodate climbers who want their toddlers to start early, but they offer after-school, home school, and summer programs for kids and teens ages six to seventeen.

Carrie Barcom, Assistant Manager at Alaska Rock Gym, told me her kids started climbing here at age three and five.  Her husband, Mike, coaches the junior competition team. According to Siri, their kids grew up on the walls here and are now highly skilled climbers.  This past weekend, Carrie’s daughter placed ninth at the Sport Climbing Series National Championships. “Climbing has become a way of life for the Barcom family, and the gym provided the venue for it all to happen.”

What a great way I thought to get my kids away from screen time! Instead of their avatars climbing mountains on my iPhone while they grow fat on my couch, I imagined them developing into physically fit and strong individuals like Carrie and Siri climbing in Europe, the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, South America, Thailand, Mexico.

But before I got ahead of myself, I had to pitch the idea to Kyra.  I showed her several photos from Alaska Rock Gym’s web site and was about to lead with dragons scaling mountains and such, but before I even finished my sentence, she started to jump up and down and clap her hands.  “I love you Mommee.”

Ethan climbed onto my lap. Puffing his Superman “S” out on his chest, he pointed firmly at the photos of kids climbing and said, “I want to do this.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, glad that I had anticipated this problem and Alaska Rock Gym had offered a solution.

With this settled, all I had to do was figure out the darn theme.  Kyra was so thrilled with the rock climbing idea that she conceded to choosing one theme.  But after a week of taking Kyra and Ethan to at least ten party suppliers in town, we realized that Kyra might be the only kid in town interested in dragons.

So, we came home and I dug out a dragon stamp that I had bought years ago and engaged the kids in an art project.  While Thomas watched in amusement, I stamped the dragon onto a party favor bag.  Kyra sprinkled silver powder onto the stamped image.  Then, Ethan embossed the image with a heat gun.

With sweat trickling down the sides of my head, I said to Kyra, “Let this be a lesson to never give up on an idea.”

How did a kid’s birthday party become so complicated?  As our recent show American Kids pointed out, this may be the result of targeted marketing?  Tell me some obstacles you had to overcome in planning yours.


When You Know Your Kids are Alaskan

I woke on Sunday to the gentle staccato of rain against our tent.  A thrush trilled a greeting somewhere far away.  A squirrel answered.  Then, the wind worked its way through aspen and spruce, drum rolling the leaves, scattering dew, and rocked my sleeping family.

A big smile stretched across Kyra’s face, the only visible part of her body snug in her new 20 degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag, which she had waited months to test.  Ethan stroked my husband’s ear, rooting for comfort as he was too excited to sleep.

2 and 5 year old gear testers

At 4 p.m. yesterday, I wasn’t even sure we were going to make the four hour drive to the Denali Outdoor Center (DOC) in Healy.  It was harder these days to squeeze in at least one camping trip per year. Maybe, it was due to the kid’s busy schedules or after having kids, camping just seemed like a lot of work.

Our gear alone could barely fit in our truck.  Plus, Ethan was still too young to raft or kayak or do a lot of the outdoor activities Alaska offers (very frustrating for outdoorsy parents, who don’t own these fancy toys).

Louise, co- owner of DOC, tried really hard to make an exception for Ethan on her Scenic Wilderness Raft Trip.  Unfortunately, their insurance company insisted on a five or older age limit.

Having guided since the eighties, Louise took her son on the water when he was four.  Now as a nine-year-old, he mountain bikes, rafts, and kayaks with them.  She raved about the benefits of taking young kids on adventure travel and encouraged us to rent a canoe and take the kids onto Otto Lake.

Why can’t we go rafting?

Even though, we did not get a chance to raft or canoe and we had to set up camp in a downpour, I’m glad we pushed ourselves to drive so far. For a July 4th weekend, I was surprised that we had most of the lake-side walk-in camp sites all to ourselves.

As advertised, it certainly is the most private camp site you’ll find in Denali National Park.  I could hear no motorized vehicles or people milling about.  I could give my kids the backcountry wilderness camping experience I craved. And if I quieted my heart, I could even hear the lake lapping against the shore.

Kyra woke everyone around ten.  Fortunately, the rain had subsided enough for Thomas to build a fire and delight Kyra with s’mores.  She finished off the third bag of marshmallows I bought this summer and didn’t get a chance to roast due to weather.

By the time, the kids danced around the fire, tested our new cooking set, polished off a breakfast of freeze-dried lasagna and beef stroganoff, and helped us break camp, it was nearly 1pm.

While the kids made s’mores, these GSI insulated mugs with a sip-it lid kept our coffee warm and prevented spills.

We hurried across the street to Black Diamond Resort for our custom ATV side-by-side and Treasure Hunt Expedition and discovered to our dismay that we had missed our tour.

“Why can’t we go on the ATV?”  Kyra kept asking.  At first, I couldn’t answer her.  I had built up so much anticipation over the week, imagining the first-time my kids would ever get the chance to ride an ATV, that I felt crushed too.

Eventually, I snapped, “Next time, Mommy tells you to hurry up because you’re going to be late, and you dilly-dally and insist on throwing one more bottle of water onto the fire or complain ‘I don’t want to get dressed’ or ‘I’m busy playing with my cars,’ then you will miss your adventure and everybody’s sad.  Nobody’s going to wait around for “Princess Kyra!”

That squeezed a giggle out of Kyra.  Ten minutes later, she asked again, “So, we can’t go find treasures on the ATV?”

I sighed and said almost to myself, sometimes things in life don’t happen the way you planned it.

She stared at me with those big round eyes pooling with tears.

I looked at Thomas for help and he smiled and said softly to me, “I just set a low bar.  It’s Alaska!”  He reminded me about the time we spent lots of money on a king salmon fishing charter and came home with nothing.

Marilyn, the co-owner of Black Diamond, saved the day by getting us on their Horse Drawn Covered Wagon Adventure.  With a seven-year-old of her own, she offers plenty of kid-friendly activities, including miniature golf.  She built this unique golf course in 1995 with her sister on tundra with little topsoil and now employs over 70.


Kellen shows Ethan how to pet a Percheron horse. Ethan asks, “Ride horse?”

She said that this resort is mostly a hobby, but it’s a wonderful worldly experience for her daughter.  At the front desk, I chatted with Santana, a student from the University of Indies in Jamaica. On our Wagon Adventure, our guide Jan explained how he got here through a work study program from his Czech Republic University and Kellen from Massachusetts confided that he finished a job at a ski resort in Idaho, then flew up with some friends to Healy and got a tip about this job from a local bar.

After a ride on the covered wagon driver’s bench and a belly full of the juiciest barbeque chicken, salmon, ribs, and tri-tip steak, Kyra asked, “Now, do we get to go on the ATV?”

Hold on tight Kyra, here we go!


On our long drive home, I asked the family to tell me their favorite part of the weekend.  I cringed, hoping they wouldn’t bring up the ATV trip again.

Ethan blurted out, “The tent!”

Thomas said, “Sleep.”

Kyra chewed over her answer for a while, then whispered in my ear, “S’mores!”