Alaskan Cruise with Kids – Part 4, Sitka

Day 4

Sitka, Alaska. We pulled into port at about 7:00 am and readied ourselves for a whirlwind tour of Sitka.

The thing about cruising is that you really don’t have that much control over your time when in port. You have to make sure you’re back for ‘all aboard.’ If not, you will be left behind. Our style of travel (explore where the wind blows you) doesn’t fit well with this schedule, but we took the experience for what it was worth and booked an excursion that introduced us to the Alaska Raptor Center, Sitka National Historical Park (part of the National Park Service), and a cultural presentation by the native Tlingit people at the Naa Kahídi Community House.

Alaska Raptor Center

Our first stop was the Alaska Raptor Center, where they care for injured bald eagles, owls, and other raptors. We saw up-close some of these beautiful birds and met some of the people who care for them.

Alaska Raptor Center
Bald Eagles in the flight training center – almost ready to re-enter the wild.

We saw a presentation that introduced us to Spirit, a young bald eagle. She won’t get the recognizable white head and tail until she is five years old.

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Spirit, a young, injured bald eagle

We also explored the outdoor areas and spied some more beautiful raptors.

Alaska Raptor center

Unfortunately, we did not have long to explore, before being ushered on to our next sight of interest.

Sitka National Historical Park

Our family loves the National Park Service and could have spent all day exploring Sitka National Historical Park. Once again, that would have to be saved for our next trip to Alaska.

Sitka NHP was a beautiful sight, featuring walking trails, wildlife, and amazing totem poles. We took a short nature walk, encountered a couple of totems, and earned our Junior Ranger badges.

Sitka National Historical Park
On our nature walk, we saw many interesting trees.
Totem Sitka National Historical Park
And saw some awesome totem poles.
Sitka National Historical Park Junior Ranger
And we can’t forget about our Junior Ranger Badges!

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Naa Kahídi Community House

Next, we saw a cultural presentation by representatives of the native Tlingit tribe. These fine people introduced us to the symbolism of their culture, taught us a few Tlingit words, and performed several dances and songs. It was truly enjoyable and educational.

Naa Kahídi Community House

Naa Kahídi Community House
Beautiful stage and performers.
Naa Kahídi Community House
Performers in native attire.

Lunch

Yes, we did all of that before lunch. Needless to say we were hungry and exhausted, but we had a few hours until we had to be back on the ship. So we intentionally missed the bus back to the boat in favor of exploring Sitka for a while. (This bothered my son to no end. He was so worried that we missed the bus and couldn’t figure out why we would intentionally do so!)

Anyway, we explored the town, the local bookstore, the local Ben Franklin, and found a little cafe in town. We had some vegetarian raviolini soup, bagels, and soft pretzels. And topped it off with some frozen yogurt.

After exploring a bit more, we took the free shuttle back to the boat and continued our cruising experience.

Check out Part 5 here. Follow our adventures from the beginning here.

Alaskan Cruise with Kids – Part 3, Glacier Bay National Park

Day 3

Cruising through Glacier Bay National Park. I have to start this post by stating unequivocally that this day was filled with unparalleled natural beauty, the likes of which I have never before experienced in my life.

Additionally, what made this day truly spectacular was that my husband and I were able to observe the quiet, serene beauty surrounding us at our leisure while the children hung out in the boat’s kids’ club with a National Park ranger and a representative of the native culture. The kids learned about the park and were read a story about the Tlingit culture. They even took the kids outside to do their own glacier viewing. And after all that, they earned Junior Ranger badges! We love the Junior Ranger program offered by the National Park Service.

Quiet reflection gave us the following moments:

Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park

Calving Margerie Glacier Bay National Park
Margerie Glacier Calving
Glacier Bay National Park
Payful sea otters.
Glacier Bay National Park
Curious Arctic Terns (I think) – some idiot was feeding them from their balcony and got called out on the loudspeaker by the captain. Seriously, what’s wrong with people?
Glacier Bay National Park
And hungry children who didn’t want to stay still for a picture.

We ate lunch with a glacier right outside our window. After lunch, the kids were much more chill.

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Oh, nothing. Just hanging out in Alaska. You?
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Oh, nothing. Just giving myself a ballet class on the deck of a ship in Glacier Bay National Park. You?

Check out part 4 here. Follow our adventures from Day 1 here.

Cumberland Gap and Vicinity

This spring break we decided to head down to Kentucky to spend a few days checking out Cumberland Gap National Historic Park and whatever else we could find in the area. We made our home base Pine Mountain State Resort Park and explored from there.

Cumberland Gap

Pine Mountain State Resort Park
View from our hotel room

Day 1 – Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

We spent our first day exploring the visitor’s center at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, where we learned about the 300,000 pioneers and settlers who traveled through this part of the country in the 1800s. We also learned that, although there was no battle fought here, Civil War soldiers used the Cumberland Gap as a strategic point.

After checking out the museum and the informational movies at the visitor’s center, the kids were all set to fill out their Junior Ranger activity books and earn their badges from this ranger with the coolest beard ever.

Cumberland Gap Ranger
Ranger with cool beard who gave us a helpful hint in case we were confronted by a black bear – rattle a plastic shopping bag. The noise scares bears! Who knew?

After the kids became official Junior Rangers, we embarked on a hike down Object Lesson Road and up Tri-State peak. The latter half of this hike was way more challenging than we had anticipated, but it was worth it.

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Object Lesson Road
Object Lesson Road
Hiking down Object Lesson Road

At the top of Tri-State Peak we got to sign the registry (like REAL hikers) and had views of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.

Tri-State Peak
One foot in Tennessee
Tri-state peak
One foot in Kentucky
Tri-state Peak
One foot in Virginia

After that exhausting hike, we drove up to Pinnacle Overlook (also at Cumberland Gap) for an overview of where we were.

Pinnacle overlook

Day 2 – Gatlinburg, TN

The next day, we took a 2.5-hour drive to Gatlinburg, TN. We didn’t realize how touristy this place was — very.

I like to do things in locations that you can’t do anywhere else, so I didn’t want to visit the aquarium or any of the other touristy things around. So we decided to take the Ober tram up the mountain for lunch.

After lunch, we rode a ski lift up Mt. Harrison for a beautiful view of the Smoky Mountains. And we rode a mountain coaster down the side of another mountain. The kids loved it.

Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg smoky mountains

Day 3 – Cumberland Falls

On day 3, we took an hour and 15 minute drive to Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin, KY, to check out the “Niagara of the South.” Well, I can easily say that this was one of the best hikes we’ve ever been on. And the waterfalls (especially the one you reach via Eagle Falls trail) were very impressive. I recommend a walking stick, a snack, and plenty of water for this hike.

Cumberland Falls

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Cumberland Falls

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Day 4 – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We were totally exhausted from our amazing hike the day before, so we decided to take another car trip to check out the visitor’s center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This visitor’s center was totally crowded and the informational movie wasn’t working. And the kids had little motivation to pursue getting a Junior Ranger badge here (they were exhausted from the previous day’s hike as well). FYI: you have to purchase a Junior Ranger workbook at this location.

After checking out the museum at the visitor’s center, we decided to take a drive down the main road through the park to take in the sights without getting our sore legs out of the car.

We stopped for a quick pit-stop along the way and just happened upon a trailhead to the Appalachian Trail. None of us could pass up the opportunity to hike the Appalachian Trail (even just a tiny bit of it). So, with our daughter in the lead, we embarked on the trail.

Appalachian Trail

We weren’t prepared for a long hike and the hour was getting late, so we convinced our 7-year-old that we needed to turn around and head back to the car. She was reluctant to stop because, as she said, even though her brain said to stop “my legs just want to keep going.”

Maybe someday we’ll hike all 2,175 miles of it.

Appalachian Trail
Appalachian Trail. Maybe someday we’ll hike all 2,175 miles of it.

Appalachian Trail

 

Day 5 – Big South Fork National Park

On our last day, we took a day trip to Big South Fork National Park in Tennessee. We went out there to see the Twin Arches, two grand sandstone arches formed by thousands of years of erosion. It was a truly awesome sight to see.

North Arch Big South Fork National Park
North Arch Big South Fork National Park
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Searching for a signal in the middle of nowhere.

Twin arches big south fork

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Close-up of a sandstone arch.

 

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore – Maple Sugar Time

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is part of the National Park System. Being from the Chicago area, I’ve been visiting the Indiana Dunes since I was a kid. This year, we took the kids to Chellburg Farm (part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore) for Maple Sugar Time, where we learned first-hand how maple sap is harvested and turned into maple syrup.

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We started with a ranger-led hike down a trail from the visitor’s center. The ranger made sure we all understood how trees got their nourishment. Early spring is maple sugar time because the trees have sucked all the nourishment from the ground and haven’t used it yet to make leaves or start growing in the new season.

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Continuing on the trail, we saw a demonstration of how Native Americans made maple sugar from the sap of the maple tree. They would tap the tree with a wooden spigot and collect the sap in a bark basket. The sap would be transferred to a rock with a bowl-shape, into which a fiery rock would be submerged to boil off the water, leaving the syrupy sap behind. This was further processed into dry sugar for easy transport.

Bark basket

charred wood

Further down the trail we saw how early settlers boiled the sap down to syrup in a succession of hanging cauldrons.

maple sugar time

We were then given an opportunity to “tap” a tree just to see if we could do it.

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We then visited the boilery that the Chellburgs used to process the sap into maple syrup. They used a succession of metal pans.

In the Chellburg farmhouse, we were given a taste test to see if we could tell the difference between real maple syrup and the fake stuff from the grocery store. We could definitely taste the difference!

After learning all about the process of making maple syrup, the children earned their Junior Ranger badges.

Junior Ranger Indiana Dunes

And the family took a hike to enjoy the natural beauty and history of the Indiana Dunes.

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Epic Antietam, The Bloodiest One-Day Battle

Our next stop was Antietam National Battlefield. Though much smaller than Gettysburg, Antietam was no less powerful.

Our visit started with a movie about the battle. We then went up to the viewing room where we got an amazing view of the battlefield. We also visited the small museum in the visitor center.

This is what we learned:

The battle at Antietam is known as the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. According to the National Park Service, “23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of savage combat on September 17, 1862. The Battle of Antietam ended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into the North and led to Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.”

“23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of savage combat on September 17, 1862. The Battle of Antietam ended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s first invasion into the North and led to Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.”

Before embarking on our auto tour of the battlefield, we collected our Junior Ranger activity books. The kids love working on earning their Junior Ranger badges at the National Parks that we have visited.

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Dunker Church, Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, MD

It’s easy to see why this could have been a very bloody battle. The terrain here is very hilly and sightlines are extremely poor. A soldier could not have seen the enemy until he was almost right on top of him.

Our family did an experiment. Dad walked ahead off the trail of Sunken Alley (otherwise known as Bloody Lane). The kids and I stayed behind. It was not too long until he disappeared from view into one of the shallow valleys. Just like that, we had zero visibility of him even though he was relatively close.

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The hills and dales of Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, MD
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Sunken Alley (Bloody Lane), Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, MD
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Burnsides Bridge, Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, MD

Nothing stimulates the appetite of little ones more than a little learning about the Civil War and a little hiking on a beautiful day. The same holds true for Mom and Dad. We, luckily, met up with a cyber friend who recommended going to Sheperdstown, WV to find some food.

Maria's Taqueria, Shepherdstown, WV
Maria’s Taqueria, Shepherdstown, WV

We had a delicious lunch at Maria’s Taqueria. We recommend this quaint little restaurant highly.

Epic Gettysburg – Day 2

On day 2 of our Gettysburg stay, the weather turned windy and cold. We decided to explore the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center and Museum to stay comfy and warm. But we did have a few more landmarks we wanted to see around the town.

More Landmarks

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Viewing Amos Humiston’s memorial, Gettysburg, PA

The first landmark was a memorial to Sgt. Amos Humiston, the only infantry soldier to have a monument dedicated to him at Gettysburg. My son has been intrigued with the story of Amos Humiston for over a year. Humiston was shot and killed on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The memorial stands where he fell. His body was found still clutching an ambrotype of his three children. The picture of his children was published in several newspapers and, from this, he was subsequently identified by his wife.

 

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Lincoln arrived here by train

The other landmark we were interested in seeing is not too far from Amos Humiston’s monument. It is the train station where Lincoln arrived when he traveled to Gettysburg to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

Museum and Visitor Center

After seeing these sites we went to the visitor center to explore.

First, we watched a 20-minute(ish) movie about the Battle of Gettysburg. Then, we were ushered upstairs for a view of a cyclorama painting. What is a cyclorama? you may ask. Well, I certainly had no idea. My husband thought it sounded like work (I think he was thinking of a spin class at the gym).

A cyclorama is a very large painting that is designed to be viewed from the center. It wraps around 360 degrees, so everywhere you look there is a different vantage point. Pretty cool, actually.

The cyclorama at the visitor center was painted by late 19th-century painter Paul Philippoteaux, and depicts Pickett’s Charge on the 3rd day of the Battle of Gettysburg. According to the Gettysburg Foundation, it “measures 377 feet in circumference and [is] 42 feet high. Longer than a football field and as tall as a four-story structure.” Light and sound effects, as well as an accompanying life-size diorama, add to the experience.

We then explored the museum, which was set up chronologically from events leading up the to Civil War to the aftermath.

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Reflecting in a Civil War soldier’s mirror
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Looking at Lincoln
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Resting by the battle of the ironclads.

Junior Rangers

After that, we visited with a park ranger to have some questions answered and pick up our Junior Ranger activity books. As always, the ranger was very helpful. And the kids love the Junior Ranger program. The activities help them learn about and grasp the difficult concepts that they’re seeing around them. And the ceremonial oath they have to take after completing activities makes them feel important, knowledgeable, and responsible. I can’t say enough about the Junior Ranger programs at the NPS parks. They’re great.

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Working on Junior Ranger activities. This one was really tough.
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Being sworn in as a Junior Ranger.

After exploring the museum and earning our Junior Ranger badges, we had one more very important landmark we wanted to see, back at the cemetery. We had to find where Amos Humiston was buried. Our trip would not have been complete without seeing it and being on the Earth in the same place that he was.

With help from the ranger, we found it:

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Sgt. Amos Humiston’s grave marker at Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Epic Gettysburg – Day 1, Part 2

After lunch, we headed back to the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center to get our bearings and figure out how to make the most of our time there. It was really important to us that we see the historic sites that were so important in this battle–a great turning point in the Civil War.

The National Park Service offers a map for a self-guided auto tour of the battlefield. We figured this would be our best option because we would want to spend more time at some sites and less time at others. There were a few specific sites that my son wanted to see, as well. These included Little Round Top, the location of Pickett’s Charge, and the Wheatfield.

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With the Patricia Bauer and David Geister, author and illustrator of “B is for Battle Cry”

While we were at the visitor center, we saw that there were some authors present for a Civil War book signing. And we noticed that one of the books that was represented was a favorite Civil War book of ours called “B is for Battle Cry,” written by Patricia Bauer and illustrated by David Geister. (We offered this book on our list of resources for a Civil War road trip in a previous post.)

The view from the point of view of an artillery soldier
From the point of view of an artillery soldier.

Well, we could not pass up the opportunity to meet the creators of this very special book. We had a lovely conversation and even got a quick lesson in drawing. Not to mention that we were gifted an original sketch by the very talented illustrator. You never know who you are going to meet on a road trip!

After our brush with literary fame, we climbed into the car and began the 24-mile auto tour. The tour lasted a couple of hours and took us all around the battlefield. The scope was absolutely amazing. You really don’t realize how epic this battle must have been without seeing the battlefield for yourself.

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Interacting with the landscape and imagining what it must have been like for those involved in Pickett’s Charge
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Little Round Top. My son is fascinated with the audacity of Daniel Sickles to break the Union Fishhook. (My son is totally into this element of this particular battle. I had no idea what he was talking about until he explained it to me.)

It’s just amazing to see my kids access the past by being fully immersed in the present. By standing in the same spot that these soldiers stood we all got to feel a little more connected to history and, though it sounds grand to say it, a little more connected to humanity.

By standing in the same spot that these soldiers stood we all got to feel a little more connected to history and, though it sounds grand to say it, a little more connected to humanity.

Socrates said that art is a conversation through time. So, in my opinion, is the study of history. And, as you can’t fully participate in a conversation about a work of art without seeing and experiencing that work of art, neither can you fully participate in that historical conversation through time without experiencing some aspect of it. You only know if you go. And you don’t know what you’re missing until you do.

Day one was filled with excitement and interest, meeting new people, seeing new perspectives on history. Day two would give us all that and more.

Check out day 2 at Gettysburg here.