A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, January 9, 2011

There are no penguins in Alaska... except for maybe two

“I’ll sit on your feet, Daddy, and you can regurgitate fish.”
            “I can do what?”  Jay seemed confused.  Personally, I thought Lizzy pronounced “regurgitate” pretty well, for a four-year-old.
            “You’re the daddy penguin,” Lizzy explained patiently.  “I’m the baby penguin.  Mommy is the mommy penguin, but it’s her turn to go to the ocean.”
“So… I have to regurgitate fish?”  Jay still seemed a little hung up on the dietary realities of penguin parenthood.  He shot me a look, mock-aggrieved, and I shrugged and grinned.  Don’t blame me, blame the road trip.
Admittedly, we live in a cold climate here in Fairbanks Alaska, but we didn’t actually encounter any penguins on our family vacation.  Contrary to popular belief, there are no penguins in the Arctic.  However, despite this salient ecological fact, somewhere between home and our destination near Skagway our kids morphed into flightless Antarctic waterfowl. 
When we started planning our summer, many of our friends seemed surprised and even perturbed that Jay and I were going to hike the challenging Chilkoot trail with the twins.  How would preschoolers would fare on the notorious the Chilkoot Pass, they asked?  I was a bit concerned, too.  But in the days preceding the trip, the potential rigors of the climb paled – at least in my mind – compared to the rigors of the car journey. 
The Chilkoot trailhead is seven hundred miles from Fairbanks – seven hundred and three miles, in fact.  Not that I was counting.  As I poured Goldfish crackers into Ziplocs and crammed sleeping bags into stuff-sacks, almost any potential entertainment started to seem like a good idea, including a few thousand plastic beads, an arsenal of picture books, and any form of food that takes a long time to consume, regardless of nutritional value.  Sunflower seeds in the shell?  Sure.  Tootsie Pops?  Bring em’ on. 
            I was worried that Molly and Lizzy would drive me nuts.  I was even more worried that they would drive their grandpa nuts.  Sure, he had six kids of his own, but that was a long time ago.  At sixty-eight years old, he was not used to the uninterrupted company of people whose idea of “singing” involves high-pitched bellowing of “one, two, buckle my shoe,” four hundred times.  My father-in-law is also a Catholic deacon.  I’m a little foggy on what that entails, but I’m sure it includes high standards of some sort or another. 
Would the kids whine?  Demand a potty break in every clump of willow from here to the Canadian border?  Blindside me with questions such as, “Why do grownups have hairy bottoms?”  I imagined many potentially disastrous scenarios. I did not, however, imagine that I would be forced to become a waddling, fish-eating bird.
For the first 200 miles, it was just the four of us in the car.  Breakfast was a crunchy mix of dry cereal – because a car that smells like sour spilled milk is even worse than a car that smells like five pairs of hiking socks.  Each baggie had lots of shapes – the more the better.  “Corn bran is my favorite,” declared Molly.  I gave silent thanks for her limited range of experience, because I couldn’t imagine what the rest of the day might be like if she had a bag of Froot Loops at her disposal. 
Done with breakfast?  Time for fun!  Let’s see what’s in this big bag…  Six Playmobil dogs?  Notepads?  Crayons?  My shoulders got tweaked from passing stuff to the back seat, but I could pretend I was taking part in beneficial automotive yoga.
We did a pretty thorough job of getting beads and crumbs all over the back seat, but everyone was still happy at lunchtime, when we picked up Grandpa and stretched our legs.  Impromptu hopscotch was highly encouraged.
Naptime follows lunch, so the next hour or two went by smoothly, despite my new vantage point in the back seat with my legs jammed among the bags of snacks and toys and my torso contorted between a car seat and a door handle. 
After nap?  More snacks!  More toys!  A scenic viewpoint!  A wayside outhouse!  A border crossing!  Look, kids, you can admire all our passport photos… but please don’t make mine quite so sticky... ok, please give that back, see the nice man in the booth needs it? See the flag with the maple leaf?  Oh, wait, you are growing up in Alaska.  We don’t have maple trees.  Well, but it’s a cool leaf anyhow, isn’t it?
“Mommy… are we there yet?”
It was time for the DVD player.
Compared to their peers, Molly and Lizzy have watched a miniscule amount of TV.  They know Dora the Explorer, but only from picture books.  They know Spiderman, but only via the imperfect cultural osmosis of preschool.  We don’t particularly want them to know more about these characters, and we’re pretty sure we don’t want them to know about Hannah Montana at all, ever.  Still, faced with fourteen hundred miles in a car, the loan of a portable DVD player seemed like a fabulous idea. 
I’d brought along plenty of choices, gleaned from friends and from the public library.  I had Disney.  I had cartoons.  I was even willing to suffer through Curious George.  The kids, however, were not.  Their viewing choice was March of the Penguins.
This selection seemed excellent, even laudable – the first time.  The second time, it still held passing interest to me.  Besides, we were almost there!  We made it to Skagway without tantrums, shot nerves, or wrecked upholstery, and I bounded onto the hiking trail with a family of happy campers.  The notorious pass turned out to be merely an adventuresome scramble, and my father-in-law a no point seemed to have grown weary of his grandchildren. 
I thought the stress and worry were largely surmounted – and this was true.  I also thought that by the time our return journey rolled around, the kids would have branched out in their cinematographic tastes.  They hadn’t.
We watched March of the Penguins twice more on the way home, and then moved on… to the bonus tracks.  The Making of March of the Penguins!  Meta-penguins are meta-fun for the meta-family!
I asked to watch Curious George.  I was denied.
When we got home, we played penguins.
“Daddy, I need to sit on your feet!”
I was grateful, at least, that the kids had fixated on a species in which the male does the bulk of the childcare.  “You have a special flap of skin for keeping the egg warm,” I coached my husband, trying not to sound too gleeful.  “You stand on the Antarctic ice for months at a time, without eating, as you incubate your chick.”
Nodding approvingly, Lizzy plopped all 33 pounds of herself down on Jay’s toes, and snuggled up with his imaginary ankle feathers. “Now you have to regurgitate the fish,” she insisted.
            As Morgan Freeman intones at the beginning of the film -- which I have now conveniently memorized -- March of the Penguins is a story about survival, and it is also a story about love.
            As Jay leaned down toward Lizzy and made a noise somewhere between retching and guffawing, it occurred to me that the same thing could be said about family vacations.

No comments:

Post a Comment