My parents were big fans of the "Let's go for a drive in the forest" club. Given a free day to load up our Volkswagen Bus with cooler, camp stove, stack of firewood and various members of the neighborhood, mom and dad would proceed to drive several miles or even several hours for a spontaneous party in the forest.
Sometimes it would be raining buckets of Pacific Northwest precipitation, causing our rubber boots to overflow because we stomped in one too many puddles, and our fingers to cramp with cold until we wrapped hands around tin mugs of hot chocolate. Other days would be calm, lazy and perfectly warmed from a midsummer heat wave that chased us toward an alpine lake for respite. We'd fish for rainbow trout, build forts in the woods, and paddle our trusty Grumman canoe before gulping down hot dogs and chips and running off again.
Occasionally a neighbor would call early in the morning and say "Breakfast outside?" Then we'd run to get dressed, mix the pancakes, pour orange juice into a thermos, and make sure my dad had the camp coffee pot. A nearby state park provided the perfect picnic shelter along a river, where we kids played tag and tossed rocks in the river, all the while smelling bacon frying and coffee boiling. There is nothing better than the smell of frying bacon in the outdoors, unless it's coffee.
As we grew up and free days became fewer and fewer, so did our spur of the moment field trips. Soccer games, school projects, gymnastics; it all took up time. We still camped and vacationed together in the outdoors, but somehow the spontaneity of going on a whim was missing.
Fast forward to 2016 and an early spring in Southcentral Alaska. Ice is beginning to clear from lakes, bicycles are now stored in the garage instead of a backyard shed and my own family is anxious to spend more time in the Alaska outdoors.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, while cleaning out the bins of gear left over from last summer's adventures, I came across the Coleman stove sitting in a corner of the garage, buried by a random collection of snowshoes we never used this past winter. I turned to my husband, bent over the Shop-Vac in an attempt to suck out the yard or so of gravel from the floor of the car, and said, "Let's go!"
"Go?" he responded. "Go where? It's almost dinnertime."
"Exactly," I said.
In less than an hour we had the stove, a camp table, German sausages, onions, peppers, buns, soda, chips, and a pineapple packed in the car. Tossing in a football and Frisbee, we drove south along the Seward Highway, looking for the perfect place for what we now called our "Pop-Up Picnic," or dinner al fresco, Alaska-style.
Pulling into Bird Creek Campground at Mile 101, we were thrilled to see that not only was the campground open for the season, but the day use area was empty. Quickly unpacking and setting up our temporary "camp," we attracted the attention of dog walkers and bicyclists utilizing the Bird to Gird trail nearby.
"A picnic?" one said. "How great!"
"Boy, those smell good," said another, catching a whiff of grilling bratwurst. "Looks like a good time over there."
We played catch, turned the sausages on the grill, sipped soda and admired budding birch trees overhead.
"This was the best dinner idea, ever," said my son, noshing on his second sausage. "Next time, let's take more people with us, though."
Excellent suggestion, kid. Pop-up parties are way more fun with lots of friends.
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. Her second book is due out in 2017.
Want to start your own Pop-Up party this spring? Its easy.
• Buy an Alaska State Park Annual Pass online (https://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/Passes.cfm), or purchase in person at the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers and both Anchorage and Fairbanks REI stores. At $50, a pass provides parking access all state parks in Alaska.
• Visit the Department of Natural Resources website for a listing of all state parks and recreation areas (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/). A nice bonus for springtime picnicking is utilizing campgrounds for day use, provided you remember to practice "leave no trace" principles by packing out trash and leaving the place cleaner than you found it. Be aware that you'll probably need to walk into the campground itself, so pack a wagon to make carrying gear much easier. Build fires only in designated rings.
• Pre-pack items in a plastic bin for easier, more-spontaneous access. Add pots and pans, utensils, cups, plates, paper towels, trash bags, water, and non-perishable condiments. Don't forget lighters or matches if you need to ignite a stove without an automatic starter.
• Keep picnic items in your freezer to grab on a moment's notice. We like sausages, chicken
burgers, pre-cooked taco filling, gyro meat (try the pre-sliced version from Mat-Valley Meats, it's perfect), buns, tortillas or pitas. Frozen foods mean skipping the addition of ice to your cooler, especially for shorter excursions.
• Let kids take part in the action by allowing them to help with set-up, cooking, and serving. Picnics are the best way to teach outdoor skills and kitchen responsibility.
• Plan to take a short hike or play a game together before eating (leave someone behind to prevent any unwanted animal visitors). Kids love scavenger hunts, tag, hide-and-seek, or just ambling the shoreline of a lake or creek. Remember to practice your best bear-aware behavior and make noise, travel in groups, and don't leave anything unattended in camp. Pop-up picnics are also great choices for birthday parties; ask guests to bring their bicycles for some free riding before serving cupcakes at a decorated picnic table. Easy and unique.
• Be prepared for all sorts of weather. But you knew that already. We take a camp shelter with us (hence the term "pop-up"), and make sure everyone has hats, gloves and boots.