My son was about five when we decided to visit Anan Wildlife Observatory in the lush rainforests of Southeast Alaska. The hourlong boat ride deposited us upon a remote and rocky beach where a U.S. Forest Service ranger stood waiting, a can of bear spray strapped to her body. Anan is a naturally occurring sanctuary for brown and black bears, one of a few locations in Alaska where both species fish for salmon. It is raw wilderness, far from cell phone service, roadways, and, in case of emergency, assistance. The stern seasonal ranger made this perfectly clear.
“Before we leave the trailhead,” she said, looking at our young charge, “it is critical that you understand the risks of entering this area with children, and what they are going to take away from this experience.”
The experience at Anan included bears, of course. Lots and lots of bears. Bears crossing the trail in front of us; bears sleeping underneath the viewing decks where we stood; and bears catching fish for young cubs that bawled and growled at their mothers and each other. For three hours, our parental radars were on high alert as my husband and I kept one eye on our kindergartener and the other on North America’s largest land mammal.
What Does ‘Too Risky’ Mean?
Any wilderness experience includes some risk, especially in Alaska, where adventurous vacationers can combine wildlife and recreation to stretch their personal and intellectual boundaries, including those of their children. But how far is too far for visitors not accustomed to wildlife or weather, mountains or machines?
Alaska is 760,000 square miles of unadorned forest, tundra, and coastline, and each region possesses a unique profile of creatures and activities to inspire an adrenaline rush. Parents of Alaskan children largely accept this wildness, realizing that our kids must, to some extent, learn to live with and make decisions about animals crossing their paths or activities in which to partake. After all, if they do not learn to coexist with moose frequenting the bike route to school, or understand safe navigation to an alpine campsite, how can they become contributing members of a 49th state society known for its fierce independence?
The two million visitors who trek north to Alaska each year usually do so because they hope some of that spirit will rub off on them and their families. Kayaking through an ice-choked glacial passage in a driving rainstorm? You bet. Crouching on a beach in Katmai National Park so teenagers can witness a brown bear catching salmon? Bring it.
“But are you sure it’s safe?!” anxious parents ask me prior to booking tours that often require substantial investments of energy, time, and usually dollars.
Risk and real life constantly vie for the attention of visitors to the Last Frontier, primarily within the realm of wildlife and adventure-based recreation. For families, assessing that risk is based primarily on personal measures, but can be confusing when pitted against the wow-factor activities offered by tour companies.
Gauging Real Risk
As both an Alaska resident and parent of a son who embraces his Alaska-ness, I have come to a place of relative peace when it comes to decisions about family adventures, albeit only after several external questions are answered:
- Who is in charge? With respect to our Anan Wildlife Observatory experience, a U.S. Forest Service ranger collected our permits (required for entry) and conducted a safety briefing before allowing us trail access. Once on the platforms, another ranger rode herd on our group, prompting and reminding visitors about the rules of engagement with bears. It was clear and concise leadership, something parents (and kids) appreciate.
- Is it authentic? Taking a floatplane to a remote campsite or riding an ATV is a factor of Alaska life requiring little discussion among many resident families. The simple need to get from here to there requires it. The same can be said for activities like gutting a fish with a fillet knife or starting a campfire. These are survival skills that have been important for centuries. I look for experiences that will empower kids and foster a sense of independence both at the moment and when they return home.
- Are relevant safety procedures in place? I often do a bit of my own reconnaissance before embarking upon a new adventure, mostly because I’m the one harboring reservations, not my son. Kayaking that icy water? I listen carefully to guides discuss cold water immersion rescue tactics, and how they instruct kids in the party. I make sure personal floatation devices are sized for my son’s skinny frame. Nearly every Alaska adventure requires pre-check procedures of some sort, and if I don’t hear them, I ask why.
Most of all, though, I just trust, watching for the telltale widening of my now-tween son’s eyes as he learns new skills or tackles a challenging situation without my help. He is but one of the thousands of children who visit Alaska and are now stewards of its landscape and wild things, thanks to the experiences they’ve been afforded. It is a reminder of the degree to which travel can change people, not just perspectives.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska’s only family travel resource. She lives in Anchorage.
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