Tiptoeing out of my warm room, I slip onto the porch and brave a few daredevil mosquitos at 4:30 a.m., hoping that the other guests at Kennicott Glacier Lodge would still be in bed.
A large raven zips by, followed by a curious violet-green swallow. In a nearby spruce, a veery trills a ripple sound. The first explorer to discover this area must’ve held his breath like me, enjoying a private moment with this view. Now the largest national park in the United States, six times the size of Yellowstone, Wrangell-St. Elias contains nine of the sixteen highest peaks in North America and the nation’s largest system of glaciers, superlatives that seem inappropriate for exploration with young kids.
For Memorial Day weekend, even at this hour, I am pleasantly surprised that I can’t hear a whisper of human activity. Apparently, this is a good time of the year for locals to enjoy McCarthy-Kennecott before the tourist season. There is a relaxed attitude at play, where it is easy to erase from the scene the restored mine buildings painted in red with crisp white trimmings, the “No Parking” sign, the half-buried giant metal wheels that once crushed copper ore, even the windows that I peer through occasionally to check on my snoring family.
Kennicott Glacier sweeps down from 16, 390 foot Mt. Blackburn to carve this U-shaped valley. Rocks and debris from the surrounding army of peaks and valley walls coat the jagged ice in shades of blacks, grays, and browns.
Barely visible against the white clouds in the north, Stairway Icefalls, a massive frozen cascade feeds Root Glacier. St. Elias Alpine Guides co-owner, Gaia Marrs, suggested that it might be fun for Kyra and Ethan to hike with crampons on this glacier later today.
I am a firm believer that having kids should not change your life. However, pacing the porch this morning, I worry that I am a bad mother for equipping my five-year-old and two-year-old, who crash into each other and do face plants every few steps, with crampons.
Yesterday, I didn’t see any other kids staying at the lodge. I got the feeling from chatting with locals that parents with kids around the age of mine usually don’t vacation here. It could be due to the eight hour drive from Anchorage with the last sixty miles rumored to be a 3 hour ordeal negotiating a graveled McCarthy Road sprinkled with washboard, potholes, and railroad spikes. A neighbor of mine who has a six-year-old and four-year-old twins thought that you still had to cross the Kennecott River by hand-operated cable tram.
So far, I am happy to report that our adventure to McCarthy-Kennecott offers a mother with young kids:
- Rest. In 1997, a footbridge replaced the hand-operated cable tram allowing more visitors to access Kennecott and McCarthy. However, most visitors stay put, since there are limited shuttles that run between Kennecott and McCarthy and it costs about $5 per person, one way.Last night, relaxing on lounge chairs just outside the lodge while my kids played nearby on a plastic adventure playset, I realized that nearly every day we are driving back and forth between Eagle River and Anchorage for school, swim, or ballet lessons. We never really pause to enjoy our surroundings. And even when we do, there’s always the rev of engines rushing by.On our porch in Eagle River, I often ask my kids to close their eyes and tell me what they hear. Before they mention the river or a bird or squirrel, they answer “car” or “airplane.” Here, the birds and insects drown out everything but the soothing roar of National Creek and Kennicott River.
- Enrichment. Out of more than 200 games on our iPhones, my kids spent most of McCarthy Road snapping photos of each other.“Smile,” Kyra ordered.“Say Cheese!” Ethan said.
And when Ethan fell asleep, Kyra stared at the landscape speeding by and then quietly typed away on the Notes app. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “Mommee, I’m writing about our trip. How do you spell Copper River?”
- Reflection.At Chitna before we started the McCarthy Road, we lost cellular service. With no computer, television, phones, or Internet access in Kennecott, I could finally hear my own thoughts. The kids didn’t bombard me with questions or demand that I play with them. Nature occupied them with unlimited stimulation and, best of all, absorbed their squabbling. They spent hours hopping after a Junco or battling each other with sticks or throwing rocks into the river.Being disconnected from the rest of the world also forces me to turn inward. Without emails to check or phone calls to make, memories of my summer working at Glacier National Park return, reminding me that I had once thought rangers and expedition guides had tempered the best quality of life. Most importantly, I found time to check-in with the wild part of myself that had to take a backseat when I became a mom and gave it some room to breathe.