Tuesday, November 30, 2010

All is Calm. All is Bright.

As a family travel writer, it is no secret our crew gets to head to some pretty terrific places. But now that winter has us hunkering down a bit more, AK Fam finds itself searching out a more local approach to family togetherness.

We've always been fans of zoos. Big zoos, little zoos, doesn't matter. We like 'em all. Helps that AK Auntie worked at the Woodland Park Zoo once upon a time and allowed Wolf and I to see and hear and experience many animals up close and personal. I learn much about a zoo's conservation and preservation efforts by getting to know staff, and luckily enough, Alaska happens to have such a place right in our backyard.

The Alaska Zoo is a 25-acre forest that happens to house animals who thrive in northern-type climates. Nestled in a suburban (for Alaska, anyway) area, its winding trails are the most kid-friendly, nonzoo-ish I've ever come across. No pavement, no hawkers selling popcorn and peanuts and no blaring speakers; the Alaska Zoo is a oasis for both animal and human, and they've thought up a way to cater to both this holiday season.

Taking a cue from Lower 48 zoos that put on light spectaculars each Christmas, AK Zoo folks thought they'd make up one of their own displays with a little help from local artists and businesses. Since the Development Director was a guest today on the Alaska Travelgram Show, I figured I'd best check out the lights so I'd know what I was talking about.

Off Yukon, Bear and I went last Saturday night, Zoo Lights-bound, not sure what to expect since this is a new deal. We walked in just as a few flakes of snow fluffed their way down from the heavens, and settled on the backs of a floating harbor seal nearby. With hardly any people on the grounds (we went early to beat crowds, smart mommy, aren't I?), the little gray seal looked steadily at us, with huge eyes, until a gasp from Bear sent him darting underneath the smooth water of his tank.

As we wandered among the canopies of twinkling lights in the forest, it became clear that we were privileged visitors. Animals who normally sleep during the day were up and about, feeding, and in the case of a rescued brown bear cub who looked like a big hedgehog, play-chasing Bear back and forth as we walked near his enclosure. So close we could hear his warm breath, the little guy placed one foot, then the other upon the bars and nosed his way toward our Bear. A keeper nearby said "Go ahead, run along the fence line, he loves to play." Bear did so, laughing as he and the cub entered one another's world as children, racing back and forth and back again before they both finally collapsed on the ground in their respective spots, heaving; their breath sending puffs of icy smoke into the otherwise crystalline night. A few more snowflakes fell upon both Bear and cub, and all was right with the world.

The lights were great. But the bright was better.

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