FAIRBANKS - One of the toughest parts of living in Alaska is being away from family. Many of us moved here from somewhere else, leaving our families behind to explore a new life in the North. The longer you stay, the harder it gets.
When I moved to Alaska more than 26 years ago, for example, most of my nieces and nephews weren’t even born. As a result, I haven’t gotten to know them very well. The only time I see them is when I go back to the family dairy farm in New York once every two or three years, and, even then, they’re usually too busy working on the farm to spend much time with their Alaska uncle.
It’s a well established fact that Mowrys don’t come to Alaska much. My parents have come to visit eight or nine times while my sister and two dairy-farming brothers have each ventured to Alaska just once.
You would think that having a family member who lives in Alaska would be a good excuse to come visit The Last Frontier, but that hasn’t been the case.
So when my nieces, Jaime, 19, and Brittany, 17, announced they were coming to Alaska for 10 days at the end of June and in early July, it was big news. The question was what to do with them?
Even though they have been raised and worked on a farm all their lives, neither Jaime, who just finished her freshman year at Cornell University, or Brittany, who will be a high school senior, are what you would call outdoor types.
They spent a lot of time outside, but it usually involves feeding calves or driving a tractor, not hiking through the wilderness, fishing for salmon or paddling a kayak down a river. It didn’t help matters, either, that both my wife, Kristan, and I had to work during much of their stay. Or that my mother-in-law was in town at the same time.
But we made the best of it and tried to show them what Alaska had to offer.
My 13-year-old son, Logan, led them on an 8 1/2-mile hike from Angel Rocks to Chena Hot Springs Resort the second day they were in town. It was the longest hike either had ever done and Brittany was pretty much at the end of her rope by the time she reached the hot springs.
It was a cloudy, overcast day, but the girls were impressed with the views of the Chena River valley from the top of the ridge. The highlight of the hike was when a cow moose with a newborn calf crossed the trail in front of them near the end of the hike. It was their first-ever moose sighting.
Two days later, we loaded up the Dodge Caravan and Honda CRV and headed south on the Richardson Highway. Our plan was to drive down to the Klutina River, camp for a couple of days and fish for red salmon. After getting a late start, we camped at Paxson Lake our first night and cooked marinated salmon steaks on the grill for dinner and s’mores over the campfire for dessert.
The girls, with a little help from Logan, pitched a tent for the first time and experienced first hand — and butt and feet and arms and legs — just how thirsty Alaska’s mosquitoes are. It would be safe to say that Jaime and Brittany used more bug dope in 10 days than I have in the past 10 years.
“Do we have bug spray?” Brittany asked before we went pretty much anywhere.
We made it to the Klutina River on a Friday and spent the afternoon and evening, as well as part of the next day, fishing at the campground. Unfortunately, I was the only one who caught and landed a fish — a runt of a red that I probably would have thrown back had I been dip netting at Chitina.
Kristan hooked two fish, one of which she pulled up on the bank and was getting ready to wallop in the head when it flopped back into the river, much to her dismay. (It was my fault, I was told, because I wasn’t there at the time to help her.)
Jaime, who wanted desperately to catch a salmon, came close when she snagged one in the tail and reeled it in, only to have it break free at the last second. She was devastated and near tears until I told her we would have had to release it anyway, since it was snagged.
Our original plan was to drive across the Denali Highway from Paxson to Cantwell, camping along the way, and to climb Mount Healy on our way back up the Parks Highway.
We ditched that plan when it started raining and retreated to Fairbanks, where it was warm and sunny. The next day, we loaded up our raft and three kayaks and drove out Chena Hot Springs Road for a day trip on the upper Chena River. My favorite quote of their trip to Alaska came from Brittany as we were pumping up the raft at the put-in at 44 Mile.
“I think we’re going to die,” I overheard Brittany say to Jaime, who didn’t seem nearly as worried as Brittany, even though she was the one who couldn’t swim.
They didn’t die, though were a few tense moments at the beginning of the trip. (Let’s just say that both Jaime and Brittany found out firsthand how cold the water is in Alaska.)
We sent the girls down to Denali National Park and Preserve and they rode a shuttle bus all the way to Wonder Lake and back. The weather wasn’t great but they did glimpse the top of Mount McKinley and saw 20 grizzly bears, in addition to caribou, Dall sheep and moose.
They went whitewater rafting, too, but I think the highlight of the trip for them, at least for Brittany, was visiting all the shops along Glitter Gulch.
When it came time to put the girls on the plane for home, I definitely felt like I had gotten to know them better, but I couldn’t really tell what they thought about Alaska, or whether they had fun while they were here. They told us they had a blast and thanked us for everything before getting on a plane and heading back to the frying pan that is the Lower 48.
A couple days later, my brother, Will, called to thank us for hosting the girls. I told him it was a pleasure and they were welcome back any time. When I told him I wasn’t sure if they had fun and I wished we could have done more with them, he told me he had asked Jaime how the trip to Alaska rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.
“She said it was a 10, which is saying something for Jaime,” Will said. “She’s never happy with anything.”
I hung up the phone. Even after getting chewed up by mosquitoes and not catching a salmon, my niece thinks Alaska is a 10. How cool is that?
Maybe she even thinks her uncle is cool for living here.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.