by Danielle Benson
It is inevitable. Shortly after the Christmas decorations are packed up and stowed away, we start the slow crawl towards more daylight, and my nuggets start asking, “When are we going camping?”
This year I was one step ahead of them. Our first overnight backpacking trip was on January 1, 2017. I would like to insert a mic-drop right here, because it turned into a brilliant and easy family adventure. In early November, I booked a single night stay at one of the Eagle River Nature Center yurts for a New Year’s Day winter backpacking and camping experience. ERNC is only a 20-minute drive from my front door, but to walk past the viewing decks and backcountry– Alaska unfolds in all her glory.
To be honest, winter camping in Alaska was a terrifying thought for me, especially with children in tow. Many things can go wrong while summer camping in the Last Frontier, so adding darkness, extreme cold and snow did not exactly fill me with confidence. Then one of my friends who happens to have four small children, told me she and her husband had loaded up a sled and ventured out to the ERNC cabin last Christmas Eve. I am not a fan of freezing to death, but the promise of a semi-permanent shelter, warmed by a woodstove, and supplied with firewood encouraged me to take the chance.
Eagle River Nature Center has a wonderful list of things to offer adventurers of all ages and skill levels. As a family we have been members of the organization since we moved to Alaska. A one-year membership ranges from $30-$75, and includes at least one parking pass that covers the normal $5 parking fee, and discounts on classes and rentals. My oldest son recently spent three separate afternoons in an Outdoor Teen Survival class provided at the Nature Center, and he had a blast. With our membership, the yurt only cost $60 for the night in 2016.
I selected the farthest yurt out from the Nature Center, Yukla Yurt, and was glad it could sleep our family of five. I wanted the nuggets to feel like we were really getting out there, so the 2-mile hike was a perfect distance. It was an easy walk for everyone, but we felt like we had escaped civilization. The mood was especially jolly since our packs were filled only with minimal supplies and no tents.
Each of us carried our own packs, with sleep mats, sleeping bags, extra long underwear and socks, a headlamp, a knife, emergency blankets, a full water bottle and small snacks. I had the SPOT Satellite Messenger, which felt like a security blanket in case disaster struck.
We probably carried more than necessary, but I encouraged each kid to think of possible scenarios and tools we could use to help us in the backcountry. They came up with very creative potential problems and solutions. “I’m going to bring extra rope just in case there is an earthquake and the yurt falls down.” Better to be safe than sorry.
At the last minute, we bought a multipurpose sport sled, normally used by fishermen, hunters or with snow machines, to haul some of our load. I had called the Nature Center a few days before our hike to inquire about access to river water. The volunteer who answered said gaining access to the water was possible, but not easy and probably not very safe. The snow and ice cracks in the river were high above the flowing water level. He suggested we bring as much water we would need, instead of depending on filtering water out of the river. As backpackers, we knew water was heavy, so throwing our 2 gallons in the sled saved a lot of weight in our packs for this winter camping adventure.
Also, one of my nuggets had just had minor surgery on a finger 3 days earlier, due to a car door accident. He was healing well, and off of all his pain medications, but I wanted the sled if he felt like throwing his pack in to lighten his load. He was a trooper, and insisted on carrying his back the entire trip.
We hit one small hiccup involving the outdoor temperature. The weather app forecasted clear skies and a high of 24 degrees. For January, that sounded comfortable and mild. We pulled out of our Eagle River neighborhood, and my car thermometer read 14 degrees at noon. Twenty minutes later, pulling into the Nature Center parking lot, the temperature reading said 1 degree. The sun was already tucked behind the mountains, and we all started to get a chill while throwing on our packs. Weather forecasts, especially in Alaska, should be taken as a guideline. We planned for a large range of temperatures, and it saved the trip. The next morning we each hiked out with one more layer on than the day before.
We spent our yurt time playing card games, telling stories around the cozy, glowing woodstove and sipping hot chocolate and cider. The nuggets explored the riverbed and played with walkie-talkies while enjoying the snowy forest. It was the best way for our family to kick off our 2017 adventures.
Next time we’ll try…
–Dutch oven cooking. Due to its heavy weight, Dutch ovens aren’t often associated with backpacking trips, but with a sled, it would have been easy to bring out during our winter camping weekend. A large pot of hot caribou stew for dinner or a breakfast of warm baked French toast would have been luxurious.
-Staying two nights and venturing out farther for a day excursion. Winter’s limited daylight isn’t conducive to hiking out past Echo Bend with kids. With an extra night at the yurt, we would have happily explored farther down the trail.
Danielle Benson is an Eagle River mom, AKontheGO contributor, and outdoor enthusiast.