I took the dog for a walk through Anchorage's Campbell Tract last week and noticed three things.
• The wind was light and warm, perfect for kite flying or leaf chasing.
• Several mosquitoes buzzed around standing water, which by now is pretty much everywhere.
• Everyone was outside. I mean everyone, from parents toting kids in carriers to trail runners and groups of friends chatting amiably as they skirted puddles and muddy patches.
The sun was shining and people were smiling in anticipation of another Alaska spring, when we can shake loose the remnants of winter's gray-and-beige color palette and look ahead to the green vibrancy of summer.
Families in my tribe of friends know to start paying attention each spring when I say "Let's go!" because it usually means an adventure, and this year, we're starting early. With the sloppy, slushy weeks of breakup appearing to be over, it's time to hit the road for a few experiences that won't break the family budget.
Day cruising for gray whales
The annual gray whale migration from warmer waters of Mexico back to Alaska is underway, and early reports from Seward suggest some excellent viewing opportunities. The grays aren't in Southcentral Alaska for long, since they need to move farther north to their preferred feeding grounds, so right now is the time to make reservations.
• Major Marine Tours offers a spring fever package that includes a four-hour tour around Resurrection Bay, a night at the recently-renovated Harbor 360 Hotel and admission to the Alaska SeaLife Center for $109/per person double occupancy. And parents, the hotel has a swimming pool, a bonus for families traveling with kids. (majormarine.com)
• Kenai Fjords Tours is targeting those who can't spend the night in Seward. Kenai Fjords offers a four-hour tour of Resurrection Bay, lunch, and free admission to the SeaLife Center for a low $89/adults, $44.50/kids 2-11. New to Alaska or the concept of day cruising? This is the tour for you, as the short length is a perfect way to explore the beauty of Resurrection Bay without an all-day or overnight commitment. (kenaifjords.com)
Whichever company you choose, remember to bring plenty of books, small toys or other tools smaller children need to stay occupied for four hours, because some kids won't take standing along the outside railing of a boat watching for spouts longer than 20 minutes. Trust me on this. Dress in warm, waterproof layers, and add hats and gloves. It's chilly on deck.
Soaring the skies above Anchorage
Ever see your city from above? How fun it is to identify your local grocery store, school, or even your neighborhood from a few thousand feet. Rust's Flying Service on Lake Hood can show your family some spectacular urban and wilderness scenery in 30 minutes via floatplane. What's typically a $110/per person trip, is 15 percent cheaper in April, and if you have kids who love to fly, this is an excellent introduction to Alaska's most popular form of transportation. What I especially like is the proof this trip affords that yes, Anchorage is near the wilderness. We just have to look beyond the bustle of everyday life to see it. (flyrusts.com)
Spring can be the best time for weekend getaways, before lodges and hotels are booked solid with summer travelers. Summit Lake Lodge at Mile 45.5 of the Seward Highway opens May 6, with cabins 30-40 percent off per night. Alaskans can also take advantage of a "locals' deal" with two nights for the price of one. If outdoor adventures are on your list this spring, Summit Lake is a great jumping-off point. With snow melting fast, trails should be accessible for hiking. Summit Lake also provides great access to places like Hope and Seward for easy day trips. (summitlakelodge.com)
Sheep Mountain Lodge is still open for overnight stays even though the popular restaurant is closed for renovations through mid-May. But with a $50 discount per night to make up for it, a stay in the cozy log cabin, with miles of trail access is well worth bringing your own food to this beautiful property along the Glenn Highway. (sheepmountain.com)
Camping or picnicking
On a whim last Saturday, I packed bratwurst, a portable grill, chips, soda, and the family, and drove about 30 minutes south along the Seward Highway to the Bird Creek Campground and day use area, located at Mile 101.2. In the presence of filtered sunshine, playing kids, and warm temperatures, we had an impromptu dinner picnic that ended only when darkness crept upon our little campsite. Bird Creek Campground is one of the few Alaska State Park sites open this early in spring, and plenty of people were enjoying the snow-free sites, access to the Bird-to-Gird bike-and-walking trail and amazing scenery of Turnagain Arm. Both tents and RVs are welcome at Bird Creek's 28 campsites, and at $20 per night, it's a great deal. Bring the bikes or scooters, hiking poles and binoculars, and see what adventures your family can create a half-hour from home. Tip: It's chilly at night, so be sure to pack the snow suits and gloves. Also remember that a state park pass or day-use fee must be paid if you plan on staying longer than 30 minutes at the day-use area, for those who can't spend the night.
Spring is more than muddy boots, dusty roadways, and bipolar weather. It is a season to embrace what we're given, and I, for one, intend to make good on it.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska on the Go: exploring the 49th state with children and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a family travel resource. Her second book is due out in 2017.