SEWARD — Is the glass half full or half empty? We've all heard this proverbial phrase, a litmus test for determining if someone's world view leans toward optimism or pessimism, and a camping trip a few weeks ago illustrated to me the importance of having a positive attitude in certain, if not all, situations.
My wife, two daughters and I found ourselves in Seward, a city that offers much to like. From the magnificent murals of puffins several stories tall, to the old-timey main street with everything you need laid out in one convenient strip, to the SeaLife Center where you can literally shake hands with an octopus, to the numerous still-snow-crowned mountains in town rather than looming on a distant horizon.
It's a gorgeous and welcoming place, but summer in any city is usually not my first choice, particularly when camping is involved. I've always preferred to pitch a tent somewhere remote, away from people and the places where they shop, work and live.
However, my oldest daughter — technically a host daughter, here for a year from Indonesia — was scheduled to participate in one last blast for all the kids taking part in this particular foreign exchange program before departing Alaska. The organizers reserved space in Waterfront Park, a campground run by the Seward Parks and Recreation Department that holds more than 1,000 sites for tent and RV camping.
Hundreds of campers
A 1,000-site campground in the middle of a manicured lawn, in the middle of Alaska's 18th-largest city (of 148 listed by the U.S. Census Bureau), didn't sound like much of a camping trip to me. It sounded more like sleeping outdoors in a crowd. But as anyone with children will attest, we often endure things for our kids we would never consider otherwise.
We pitched our portable shelter on the edge of our group's rented site, due to the likelihood of putting our 3-year-old to bed long before the teens would fade. Adjacent to us was a couple with a toddler of their own, and the family Labrador in tow. I shot them a friendly wave, which wasn't reciprocated.
A few hours later, dinner eaten and our sleeping gear unfurled, we decided to make the most of our surroundings. We walked the few yards to the edge of Resurrection Bay and sat on some of the stool-sized chunks of stone lining the shoreline. Within seconds, we were greeted by numerous wonders of the natural world.
An adult bald eagle, as majestic as a national emblem should be, stared intently at the silty sea from its perch high in a weatherworn cottonwood tree. Periodically, the bird of prey stretched its 6-foot wingspan to swoop down to the water's surface after catching a glance of a sea-bright salmon swimming by.
We also saw harbor seals effortlessly slipping through the chop, and even a few bulky, brown Steller sea lions also on the hunt for a fresh-fish dinner. By far though, the biggest treat was witnessing humpback whales breeching and whirling in the middle of the bay. The white of the undersides of their heavily grooved chins, bellies and massive flippers contrasting with the gray of the water and sky socked in with heavy, low-hanging clouds.
After an hour or so, in the fading light, my wife and our youngest retired to the tent and fell asleep to the splendid symphony of the whales' powerful exhales. The older kids stayed up a bit longer, softly playing guitar and giggling till just about midnight. It didn't keep us up, but in the morning we found not everyone could say the same.
I saw the wife of the couple on our far side packing up. They seemed to be scowling in our direction, so I walked over and asked her if she had a pleasant night.
"It was a nightmare!" she shouted at me, and then proceeded to angrily explain how the teens had kept her and her family up "all night," which wasn't what they had come from Anchorage to do. I remained apologetic, and after she stormed off and sped away in her family's Subaru, I checked in with a couple of the parental chaperones who had stayed up later than we did. They informed me the couple had actually called the police, who showed up, but left when they were unable to find any real disturbance.
On the long drive back to my home in Kasilof, I mulled over the last 24 hours and decided I felt no sympathy for the woman. After all, I've been in real "nightmare" camping scenarios.
I've spent a sleepless night in campgrounds where the party next to me reveled all night by blaring heavy-metal music, hooting and hollering, with two drunk guys ending up fist-fighting and rolling around just outside our tent. Another time, deep in the woods, easily 15 miles from the closest trailhead or road crossing, and completely unarmed other than my 2-inch camp knife, my wife and I had guys ride in on horseback and shoot guns into the air, yards from us, for most of the evening in what was clearly a sadistic attempt to menace us. Another time, weary from backpacking all day, I made it to a rugged mountaintop with only a handful of flat spots for setting up a tent, only to find someone had dropped a 9-inch turd right there.
Those are "nightmare" scenarios.
But beyond this contrast, being away from the sprawl of the city, spending an evening together with your family, in a surprisingly wildlife-filled outdoor setting, and slumbering to the sounds of whales — whales for Pete's sake! — how could that not be enough to soothe any soul, or make a moderately annoying situation more bearable?
The answer: attitude. This woman obviously saw the glass as half empty, which was too bad because there was so much to drink in if she took the time to see the fullness of it all.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and their daughter, Lynx. Joseph's first book, "Life with Forty Dogs," published by Alaska Northwest Publishing, was released in April.