Erin Kirkland’s work as an Alaska travel wizard is centered not on outsides, but on Alaskans themselves. But she doesn’t stop there. She’s got an extra focus on the state’s future stewards: kids. As the founder and author of AK On the Go, she’s also worked on guide books focused on traveling the state with kids.
In this episode Erin weighs in on how playing outside makes us better as people and families, plus advice on traveling the state for residents and visitors.
Things mentioned in Episode 09:
Erin’s favorite outdoor gear:
A rain jacket — variety depends on the conditions.
Erin’s most essential outdoor gear:
Teton Sports backpack: https://amzn.to/2wnkwEJ
Find Erin’s website social media
AK On the Go: www.AKontheGO.com
AK on the Go Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/akonthego
Amy Bushatz: Alaska family travel expert and the owner of AK On the Go, the website and resource for families who want to explore the last frontier, Erin Kirkland is more than just a travel expert. She’s a wizard. She’s authored several books and is highly respected as an expert on all things travel and Alaska. Erin, who thinks being called a wizard is funny, welcome to the Humans Outside Podcast.
Erin Kirkland: Thank you. Great to be here. And I like being called a wizard, Amy.
AB: Yes. Well, I have to say, I have used your books myself, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. As always, we start the show imagining ourselves having this conversation in our guest’s favorite outdoor space. Where are we with you today?
EK: So that’s fun. It’s kind of an indoor/outdoor space. I love Alaska’s public use cabins. So right now we are sitting at one of the cabins at Kesugi Ken up in Denali State Park, which has a very cozy little atmosphere in the winter and a beautiful outdoor view in the summer, staring at Denali. The birds are singing, mostly because it’s minus 10 right now, so I’m envisioning summer. And it’s just unbelievably peaceful But what I hear are lots of kids playing and families running along the trail that goes nearby. It’s pretty idyllic.
AB: Beautiful, love it. And I’ve been there and I can confirm, it’s beautiful up there.
So I’ve had quite a few Alaskans on this podcast because of course, Alaska is where I call home and where I spend the majority of my outdoor time. But I find that most people weren’t born here who I talked to, they have an interesting story of how they got here and it almost always involves loving to be outside. Or if they were born here, they have a compelling reason why they stayed. So tell us about you. How did you end up in Alaska?
EK: So this is my 14th winter. We came shortly after Christmas in 2005. We were just talking about this. My husband is a federal employee, so this was kind of our next duty station, if you will. We had lived in Charleston, South Carolina for two summers, and I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. And I felt so out of place. It was really challenging for me mentally and physically as someone who, you know, when the sky got blue, my mom would kick us outside and say, “Don’t come back until dinner.” In the South, you really can’t do that. I mean, it’s so oppressively hot that I just struggled a lot. And so my husband, bless his heart, agreed that maybe it was not the place for us. So we looked at other places to go and an interview came up in Alaska, and I said, “Please, please, please, please!” And he got the job. So we moved here three days after Christmas. It was probably about the temperature it is now, and while we knew we were in the right place, we did have some challenges adjusting here.
AB: Like what?
EK: So I had a toddler and a tweenager, and there really weren’t a whole lot of resources like there are now for parents. There was no Alaska parent magazine. Facebook hadn’t really taken off as far as being a resource for finding things to do for parents. I mean, there’s groups everywhere now. And so the interesting thing about Alaskans is that, you know, we all just kind of know what we know. If you’re new here, it takes a little while even now to break into finding out all the secret spots and all the fun things. So it was so cold and I hadn’t quite adapted yet. My kids hadn’t adapted yet and I wasn’t sure – can I take a toddler out at 10 below? So, that was kind of the biggest part, I think. But once we just started going places, we figured out pretty quickly that there were lots of other people that were out there too. And then that’s kind of what snowballed literally into the AK on the Go concept.
AB: Can you take a toddler out in 10 below? We must know!
EK: Of course you can!
AB: No bad weather, just bad clothing.
EK: So here’s the interesting thing. And you alluded to it, a lot of people that you’ve talked to now, we’re not born here. So we’re entering into this new demographic of Alaskans who were not born and probably not raised here, either. So if you’re born and raised in an environment where your parents just consider the weather part of everyday life, because think back 100 years, it was. You just acclimated to that right away, it became part of your daily life. So if you come from somewhere else or you were raised somewhere else, it feels like a big hurdle to jump over. Like what do I need to know? You’re afraid of it. I think there’s a lot more emphasis now on the fact that kids are so adaptable as long as we provide them with the tools, the mental tools, to get out and enjoy it. And heck, yeah, I mean, the less fuss I make about it, the less fuss kids make about it.
AB: It’s so true. It’s very windy here today, where I live. Yeah, it’s not so cold. It’s 12 degrees, but it’s very, very windy. So of course with wind chill, it’s a lot colder. Anyway, my sons headed out to the bus this morning without their snow pants on. They’re just wearing their normal clothes and you know, they had a jacket, they’ve got hats and gloves. And I’m thinking — what are they doing? You know, I wouldn’t be caught dead outside without an extra layer on my legs today. It didn’t occur to them to put on more. I’ve watched middle schoolers walk by my house every day with shorts on.
EK: So, my son is now a freshman in high school. And these last couple weeks, this has been our first foray into truly the teen kind of way of dressing in the winter. And he didn’t wear a coat. He said, “No, I’m good.” Well, okay. You’re old enough to know. You’re not waiting for a bus. So, okay. But that’s isn’t that great? Natural consequences are an amazing thing.
AB: They are. And it’s wonderful to have kids that are old enough to inflict natural consequences on without feeling like you might be hedging into child abuse.
EK: Yeah, no, totally. Yeah, it’s all him.
AB: So you know, you’ve mentioned your family and you’ve used them of course, as inspiration for your work and family-friendly travel. How did you fall into doing that? Did it really come from this — I want to get out. And I don’t know how to do that without my kids and I’m going to learn on the way?
EK: So it’s kind of been an interesting road to that as well. I have always been a writer, you know, not necessarily a published writer, but always been writing my whole life. I did dabble in it a little bit before we moved to Alaska. I was working for a local nonprofit as their communications director, so it’s always been kind of an integral to what I do.
But really, when I was freelancing for a small freebie magazine here, Coast Magazine, I noticed there really wasn’t anything about getting out with kids. And so I pitched the the publisher at the time and said, “Can I just write something about going somewhere with my family?” He’s like, “Sure, go for it.” And the response was so positive. In fact, I remember people saying, “Gosh, finally somebody is tackling this.”
I queried a friend and said, “Hey, you want to help me build a website?” Actually, I said a blog, because this was when blogs were huge. So we launched it 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago now. And again, immediately people said, “Oh my gosh, we’ve been waiting for something like this.” So it fueled me up to get going. And then of course, the more places I went, the more places I wanted to go. Someplace like Alaska, that is so huge. I realized pretty quickly that Alaskans haven’t explored all of it. I mean, I’ve been doing this for a job for more than a decade and I still haven’t seen everywhere I want to go. So there’s always going to be stuff to write about in Alaska and I love it.
I love the storytelling. I love the people that I meet. Some of the kids that I’ve met in rural villages just kill me. They’re just amazing, outdoorsy kind of people and their parents raised them that way. And then I’ve met kids in urban Anchorage that have never been for a hike at Glen Alps. So it’s become kind of this mission to get kids who are in one section of Alaska to visit other sections of Alaska and kids that don’t go outside to go outside in the first place in their backyard.
AB: How does working on that sort of outdoor-minded, outdoor-centric space for other people fuel you?
EK: Totally fills me up, and I tell people that all the time. I don’t know what it is. I mean, I was raised that way. So it’s inherently part of my DNA, I think. But it’s more than just the getting outside to play. It’s helping kids understand how this can make them better people, better stewards of Alaska. I think with where Alaska is right now, with so many issues surrounding the environment and industry, that they need to understand what is happening in their own home. Whether they know or not, they’re going to be a steward of Alaska.
And then when I see them, like, have that aha! moment about something happening in the natural world, or they spotted wildlife, or they learn to identify a bird song, it’s incredible. It really is. And you know, it sounds trite to say that, but their wow moments become my wow moments, and that’s the stuff that fuels me up.
AB: So much of the work you’ve done is about families getting outside together. I’ve been working on a project for a couple of years now, where I personally am spending 20 minutes outside a day every single day, and often my kids are with me as part of that, because you know, it’s part of the package. But we do things as a family. And I’ve noticed that doing this has changed, or at least has had an impact on, my relationship and my spouse’s relationship with our kids. How do you think the outside is a part of that? Is that something that you’ve noticed in other families?
EK: I don’t know if it’s something I’ve directly noticed. But now kind of pondering this, as you say it, I think when we’re outside together, and when any family’s outside together, you become kind of the center of your own universe. Humans are naturally distracted. But these days we’re 110% distracted all the time by media and just general day to day busy-ness. When we’re all outside together, we’re able to focus on each other in a cohesive family unit kind of way. The outdoors sometimes has become like the dinner table of how we grew up. Kids are off, you know, running to this team or that sport. People don’t really sit down and have dinnertime conversations. But when you’re hiking a trail, you’re kind of having that same sort of situation – whether you’re cross country skiing or you’re at a picnic or whatever, you know, so I think that’s that’s helped us – especially now parenting a teenager. Because the last thing they want to do is sit down at the dinner table and have their parents say, “So how’s your day, buddy?” But when you’re walking along and you’re all kind of parallel conversing with each other, it’s really good stuff.
AB: Sure, that makes perfect sense. I’ve noticed that I have this experience when I’m skiing with my kids, in particular. And I think it has to do with the fact that we are all on the ski lift together. I don’t have my phone out. I’m sitting on the ski lift. I’m afraid of dropping my phone. Let’s start there. I don’t take it up. It’s also too cold. And so I feel like this has become my special time with my son in a way that I don’t have, even maybe the rest of the year. And I almost considered the cost of the ski lift and this ski pass to be the price tag on having this special one on one time with my kid. I love it.
EK: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. And again, especially with boys, you’re not staring directly at him, so you’re just kind of like – sidebar conversation.
I have definitely noticed that over the years. We love to go on road trips together, my son and I. We have some pretty good times, just kind of hashing out what’s going on in his world. When you’re 15 years old, you know, you don’t want to talk to mom a whole lot. So it’s kind of cool.
AB: It’s funny, because he’ll say to me, “Why don’t we meet at the bottom and talk again?” You know, like it’s this revolutionary idea. I’m like, “Great idea. I’ll see you there.”
And I have my, like, sort of parents’ internal cackling that he has fallen to my maniacal plan to have long conversations with him. I feel like I’m now a wizard, so I’ve joined you in wizardom.
You’re now, by the way, the Alaska State Parks’ first-ever ambassador. Am I remembering that correctly? I’m pretty jealous of that. What a cool job.
EK: Yeah, well, it’s all volunteer. Just let me clarify that – it’s all just because I love state parks. I love what I do. And it seems like a great way to parlay everything that I like to do, and get more families outside to explore parks. And so I’ve gotten to see some pretty good stuff.
AB: What’s your favorite park that you’ve seen as sort of result of this expansion? And I know you’ve spent a lot of time in the parks already. So what’s something that you’ve done as part of this that maybe wasn’t something you had done before?
EK: You know, it’s really funny, and it’s just about 20 minutes down the Seward highway. We held one of our Families to Parks Days that we do every quarter; we held it at the Beluga Cabin at Bird Creek Campground. What a great place! I’ve driven by for years, and I never stayed there.
It is the perfect getaway. The cabin is delightful. You look out over Turnagain Arm. There’s a great firepit up front. And it was one of the most successful events we’ve ever had. We just had a blast. And I lead a 4-H club too. We took them out there for a field trip this fall, because you remember how gorgeous fall was. We spent three hours out there on a school afternoon and these kids just made forts and walked along the path and watched the trains go by. It was amazing.
AB: That’s great. I have to admit I’ve never been there, either. I’ll definitely check that out. Thanks for the idea.
EK: You should do it. The great thing about these cabins is that they’re open all year. So I have friends that spend Thanksgiving down there every year and I was like, “Wait, why do you do that?” And now I get it. It’s so close. It’s so easy to get to.
And that’s the big thing — showing parents that you know, yes, you can do this. And here’s how close of an opportunity it can be.
AB: People think we’re crazy, but we spend a lot of time camping just up the street at a campground on Finger Lake, literally like two and a half miles from my house. I say, “Oh, we’re camping this weekend.” Well, what we’re doing is spending the evening and the night at the campground and then going about our day the next day. So, it sort of redefines how we spend our weekends in the summer, it shifts our focus to being outdoors-centric, and it’s so accessible. I think people maybe make camping or being outside more complicated than they have to be. Do you find that?
EK: Yeah, I do. And I think the other thing too, is that once you kind of gather your toolbox of gear that you need and you have it organized, it’s just easy, right? So we need this, we’re going to grab this tub, we’re going to grab those sleeping bags, and then we’re out the door. Once you get to that point, it’s actually pretty easy to do.
I’m the editor for Outdoor Families Magazine, also, and we have these Camping 101 checklists that people can print off and tape to the garage wall. Once you get organized, then it becomes easier. But you have to put in the time to prep for all this stuff, and I think a lot of families just feel overwhelmed by that.
AB: Yeah, I’d agree with that. We have like three or four tubs in our garage. And when it’s time to go camping, I put them in the car and when it’s time to come home from camping, I take them out of the car and that’s really the end of that. With the exception of maybe doing some dishes and putting away the food.
EK: Yeah, I did a solo road trip, just me and my dogs this past summer, all around the whole loop between the Glenn Highway to Richardson, and then down from Fairbanks on the Parks. I was surprised at how simple it was, because I had done that. I thought — okay, I’ll just unpack, pack, and then put it away. It was great.
AB: How does it desire to connect yourself and your family to the outdoors play into your work?
EK: Well, I mean, it’s everything, but it’s become so focused on family travel that relates around the outdoors. Now remember, we’re in Alaska and pretty much everything does. But I realized how much better I feel when I’m outside, how much better my son is. My older son is grown and on his own, but you know, we bring a lot of friends with us, and they all have a great time. So it kind of fuels all of my writing and all of my work and that’s the stuff I think that’s really been, you know, super successful for AK on the Go.
AB: We are talking a lot about Alaska, but of course the Lower 48s are out there being jealous of our lives. But I find that people think that we can be outdoors because we’re in Alaska, discrediting their own ability to use their own state parks. What do you tell people about what we here in Alaska refer to as the outside? What do you tell them?
EK: I tell them the same thing I tell Alaska families. So just, you know, narrow your focus. If you’re very new to getting outdoors and exploring the outdoors, start in your backyard, start at your neighborhood park.
The Kids to Parks Trust is a nationwide initiative that hosts Kids to Parks Day every May. I think it’s two weeks before Memorial weekend, and it does exactly that. It encourages kids to get outside in whatever public land space they have around them. And they have noticed, you know, hundreds of thousands of kids participating just locally in their own neighborhood – hop on their bikes and go to the park.
But if you look at the local park with a different focus than just the playground, you are probably going to see some other stuff and then to build on that it’s a series of smaller steps. So we’re also seeing a generation who doesn’t raise their kids in the outdoors, because they were not raised in the outdoors. So, you know, these are now parents that didn’t have those experiences, so they’re not going to pass those skills on to their kids. So the Kids to Parks Trust and the things that I do with state parks, it’s bringing the whole family, the adults and the kids, and giving them all the confidence to be able to recreate outside. Hopefully, when these kids today become parents, they’ll have a different sort of appreciation, because they’ll have done it.
AB: I want to talk about traveling around Alaska, because it’s always such a big topic and that of curiosity, especially for people who don’t live here. So, in your opinion, what’s the best way to come up here? What’s the best way to see Alaska?
EK: Well, there’s no stock answer to that and my response to everybody — in fact, right before you called, I was working on an email to someone who says, “I have your book, but I’m so lost. I don’t know where to start.” I always ask what they want to do, and I base their trip around what interests they have. Because if they have no interest in salmon fishing or halibut fishing or going on a boat, then one area like Kenai Peninsula might not interest them that much. But if Denali, if seeing wildlife, if getting out into the rugged Alaska wilderness interests them — a lot of times, they’ll say, “I want to go to this place.” And they show me a picture of the Alaska range like, well, you don’t want to go down to the Kenai then and you don’t want to see the southeast, so let’s go up north a little bit. So I focus on that first.
AB: What’s the biggest mistake you see families traveling from outside Alaska make when they come visit here?
EK: They try to see everything in a week. You can’t even do it. You can’t see everything in a month. People try that sometimes. But they try to see too much, and what happens with kids of any age, not just littles, is that it’s exhausting. I mean, you’re just spending one night at each place and you’re not seeing anything. You’re just kind of capturing this surface-level viewpoint without getting out and immersing yourselves in it. And I think that’s a huge mistake and a waste of money.
AB: You know, it’s funny because I have sort of the same view about people who go to theme parks and they try to do seven theme parks in seven days and I’m just so exhausted just looking at their itinerary. That doesn’t sound fun.
EK: Yeah, and that’s a really good comparison. Because Alaska really is one big outdoor theme park. There are so many things to do, and you’ll wear yourself out.
AB: I think I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before, but we have a program up here called Becoming an Outdoor Woman, which I just love. And I actually have encouraged people from outside to come up and to do it. I’ve met two people there who have come up to do it from outside.
EK: It’s a nationwide program. So I want to go down south to take it because I think that’d be really interesting.
AB: Absolutely. But you can sign up for dog mushing at this. Yeah, you can sign up to learn how to trap, which may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely interesting. Alaska is the last frontier for a lot of things and that might be increasingly one of them. Right? So it’s a great way to get that.
EK: Yeah. If it didn’t fill up so dang fast, I’d be right there.
AB: Gosh, don’t I know it. For our listeners, it filled up this year in four hours.
EK: They have winter and summer ones. So I mean, there’s several. But I feel like I need to give people who haven’t done all those things a chance to do those things. I’m very jealous; I’ve always wanted to field dress a moose and, you know, do all that.
AB: I learned how to do some skinning and hide prep at one. And the most important takeaway I had was that I do not ever want to have to do that myself again.
EK: That’s one of the greatest things about that is that you understand how much work that is to prepare an animal and a hide. And then you think — wow, 9,000 years ago, you know, our native Alaskans were doing this. I mean, that was their parka, that was going to be the top of their home. They had to do this. We do it because it was something novel and fun. But when your life depends on it, wow.
AB: Yeah, absolutely. So what about for those of us who are locals? What’s the best way to do Alaska with kids?
EK: So I would say, and I was just talking about this on my radio show yesterday, I would say the best thing for Alaskans to do is get in their car and just do a big road trip. We don’t have a lot of roadways in Alaska, but the ones that we do are an incredibly scenic, very diverse landscape. And take your time. I mean, Alaskans consider our roads, as you know, as I’m trying to get from here to there. So the kid has a hockey tournament in Fairbanks, so we’re going to drive up and then drive back and we’re not going to take any extra days. Oh my goodness, you should take the extra days. Drive the Denali Highway for crying out loud. Or go down to the Kenai Peninsula down to Homer and cross Kachemak Bay. Go over there. So go someplace you’ve never been.
The other thing is that I want all Alaska families to take their kids to Juneau. That’s our state capital, you know. So my son, in eighth grade, I had him ask his classmates and out of I think 40 kids at the school, there were maybe two that had ever been to our state capital. I think that’s a really important thing — so many of us grew up doing a field trip to our state capitol, wherever that would be. Because of the geography, it’s just a little more challenging and we tend to fly over Juneau instead of stopping in Juneau. I think every kid from South Central or Interior or Far North should get down to Southeast and really dive into what our legislative system looks like, and feels like.
AB: Alright, so we’ve come to the part of our show where we do a little lightning round, which is of course, mostly just questions that I want to know the answer to, but don’t really fit anywhere else. So tell us what is your most essential outdoor gear?
EK: My most essential outdoor gear is probably my rain jacket because it can fold up pretty small, but it’s great when the weather shifts — because it does that here. And all but the coldest days, it’s going to at least provide some protection for me. And the other one would be my water bottle.
AB: Good stuff. What about your favorite outdoor gear?
EK: Right now, my favorite outdoor gear is my Teton sports backpack that I got several years ago. Yeah, and it goes everywhere with me. It has enough pockets. I do a little guiding for a small cruise ship company called UnCruise down in Southeast and I’m back and forth in the summer. When they have a lot of kids, they bring me on board and so I take like this whole treasure chest of supplies down with me. I need a backpack when we’re out on the shoreline exploring. I have plastic bags, I have snacks, I’ve got all kinds of bear spray. So I bring this pack from Teton Sports.
I love Teton Sports because it’s affordable. It’s a great brand out of Salt Lake City. I can pack so much junk in there. And then when the weather shifts, especially down in Southeast, it’s got this cool little attached like rain fly thing- a little pack cover. It’s the best. I have been down in some drenching rain in Southeast and everything stays dry. Which, as you know, if you’ve been backpacking or camping in the rain, you get to your destination and your stuff is wet – the whole day is ruined. So I kind of am in love with that backpack and it’s probably time for me to get a new one but it knows my back and yeah, I love it.
AB: Talk to us about one of your favorite outdoor moments. Describe that for us.
EK: There are so many! One of my favorites — I think we were sailing down in Glacier Bay. I was with UnCruise, the summer before last. Most ships that go into Glacier Bay just kind of do a flyby. They go in and they look at the glaciers. They spin around a couple of times and then they head out. But with UnCruise we were able to, with our permits, get off and get on the ground. So we skipped to the shoreline and we hiked up on this ridge. The lupine is my favorite Alpine flower. It was blooming everywhere. It was June. The water of Glacier Bay was just this turquoisey blue and the purple of the lupine — and I had a pack of kids with me, actually my son was with me, too. So it was just like one of those moments. Alpine hiking is my favorite way to hike ever. If I didn’t have to go up so much I would probably do it more. Anytime I can get up high enough, I love being able to see everything that’s around me. I just had this moment the breeze coming up and then I said what my son says now I drive him nuts with; I’m like, “You guys, we get to be here!” I say this all the time to families — remind your kids that they get to be here. You get to wake up every morning in this place. And so now I drive everybody nuts with that — you get to be here.
AB: No, but that’s so true. It’s such a good thing to remember.
EK: I remind kids especially of that. Especially on this trip, I said to my son, “Buddy, we are on this boat, with people who have saved up, maybe their entire adult life, to come to Alaska for the few days that we’re here. So we can’t discount the fact that we are here, right here. We are Alaskans.” So it’s a really powerful and empowering thing and responsibility, I think, that we have.
AB: Yeah, I think that’s true, too, in a way, no matter where you are, or what outdoor space you are using. We have this incredible privilege, whether that’s finances or just being in place, just whatever it is, that put us in that moment of getting to be there. To be distracted or not in that moment, or not using it for everything that it has, is really almost an act of being ungrateful.
EK: Absolutely. And again, it doesn’t matter. Like you said, it doesn’t matter where you are. Every outdoor space has value and I’ve learned that whenever we leave Alaska to go travel somewhere else. Every outdoor space has its own special unique attributes.
And that’s part of the other cool thing about being Alaskan is that when we leave, we’re wowed by stuff like the deserts or the flatness of the Dakotas. We did a road trip with Great Alaskan Holidays between Iowa and Alaska a couple years ago, and we took a kid with us who had never really been out of Alaska. Watching his mouth drop for we drove through the Dakotas and he’s looking at all this farm equipment. He’s like, “Whoa, I can see like till tomorrow.” Yeah, there’s no mountains here. That was equally impressive.
AB: Exactly. Thank you so much for being on the Humans Outside Podcast today. I really appreciate it.
EK: Of course, this was delightful!