by Danielle Benson
What’s the best advice we’ve received since moving to Alaska? Get moving. Move all year long.
I will say, though, a road trip to the Kenai Peninsula was not the first thing that came to mind when folks told us to stay busy during the winter.
It’s dark in Alaska, the nuggets are in school, and our weather is unpredictable at best, dangerous at worst. Some people bundle up in blankets, pop extra vitamin D and do their best to survive the winter, but many Alaskans find a better way. Happy winter families know to experience, enjoy and embrace the abundant winter fun that this state has to offer, and we found that hockey families are winter fun experts. My twins play hockey together on a recreational team in Eagle River, and once a year, our little crew of hockey players commit to play in an out-of-town tournament.
For the past two years, we’ve spent one January weekend down in Soldotna playing in the Peninsula Winter Games . It’s always a great family weekend and a welcome break from winter’s post-holiday monotony.
This year we started our 170-mile trek down to Soldotna and nearby Kenai on Thursday afternoon, after the nuggets got out of school. The drive took about 4 hours from Eagle River, including a stop to grab dinner and gas. While the drive is normally breathtaking in the summer, it proved tricky in the winter. Long stretches were very dark and without streetlights or cell phone reception. Icy roads ensured we took our time, and drove below the speed limit for many miles.
The kids packed our winter car emergency bucket, and everyone had extra layers of clothing and blankets just in case we found ourselves stuck or broken down. While the Seward and Sterling Highways were still well traveled, our family was ready to have to wait for help if necessary.
The towns of Soldotna and Kenai had plenty of fun activities planned for the entire weekend. The hockey tournament started Friday morning and the Kenaitze Tribe’s Native Youth Olympics (NYO) held their opening ceremonies Friday night at a local elementary school. Last year, one of my kids competed in a local NYO event sponsored by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and loved every minute of it. It was a unique Alaska experience based on games played by past generations of Alaska Native people to demonstrate hunting, survival, strength, agility and endurance skills needed to thrive.
Friday evening our hockey team family drove out to a hidden treasure on the Kenai Peninsula. The Nikiski community pool was a 20-minute drive from our hotel in Kenai and a true winter oasis. The pool was clean, well-staffed and affordable. For $7 per person in 2017, our team was allowed access to the shallow kid pool, several swimming lanes, diving board, water slide and hot tub. We took the kids to the 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. session, but my nuggets were done by 7:30 p.m., exhausted and ready for bed.
Saturday was full of family activities, and they were all free. We had a hockey game early, and then stuck around the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex for a free lunch of corn dogs, fruit and snacks. The Free Kids Carnival handed out goodie bags to every kid entering the building, filled with knit hats and a pair of gloves, along with coupons to local businesses.
We spent the afternoon checking in on the various hockey games being played on the ice and exploring the rest of the fun provided, the nuggets bouncing happily from activity to activity. While my boys got a quick archery lesson and shot off a couple of arrows, my daughter was decorating sugar cookies. There were salmon-themed coloring pages, face painting and an area full of fun carnival games.
Outside we found small ice slide, fast enough to make my tweens laugh heartily and scramble back up for multiple turns. Kicksled races around the snow-covered parking lot were a hit, and my boys have requested kicksleds for Christmas next year.
Just as we were finishing up our second hockey game of the day, the carnival folks were plating up a free dinner of lasagna, mac and cheese and green beans. The family was full, happy and tired, and it didn’t cost us a cent. At 5:45 Saturday night, the parking lot filled with cars and truckloads of locals and visitors facing the nearby fields for the impressive fireworks show – just another reminder that some things are more beautiful in the dark Alaska winter than in the sun-soaked summer.
Heading home, we stopped at our favorite Soldotna bakery, The Moose is Loose , to load up on coffee and Moose Snacks, a donut bigger than my kid’s face. I justified boxing up two of their famous apple fritters as emergency food just in case the drive home got tricky, but they didn’t make it out of the parking lot.
Next time, we will…
- Try out some new restaurants. In an effort to keep our budget low, we brought along a lot of food in a cooler, but the area is full of fun eateries we would like to experience.
- Work our way over to the NYO events. They are so unique and we are always amazed. (note: the Senior NYO Games take place in Anchorage in April at the Alaska Airlines Center.