It was only May, and nights in Alaska dipped into the 40s. Dragging myself out of my warm sleeping bag after the first night of camping, I spied a moose only 100 feet away. Wait — that was a mama, with a wobbly young calf. The baby had been born the night before, according to the campground host at Captain Cook State Park on the Kenai Peninsula. Talk about young. A few hours later, my friend and I glimpsed mama again — with two calves! Late May turns out to be a great time to visit Alaska, between the wildlife sightings, the wildflowers, some price breaks and the limited number of tourists. Although snow lingered in the mountains and we often needed several layers of clothing, the weather didn't present any serious obstacles. Neither did the active Mount Redoubt volcano across Cook Inlet. And surprisingly, we never had to use bug spray. I'd always assumed I'd need to visit in August to let the snow melt first. But my friend Mary Vaught from Anchorage said June was her favorite month, because of the flowers and solstice. Later in August, she said, would bring fall colors but also rainy weather. She recommended June, even late May. E-mails from kayak outfitters on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage reassured me that May was safe. They did suggest visiting the coast first, to let more snow melt farther north at Denali National Park. Sure, as I packed a 20-degree sleeping bag, long underwear and rain gear, I wondered if I was crazy. Luckily, my traveling companion Jane Schneider from Wauwatosa, Wis., was game. In fact, our first day in Anchorage was sunny and close to 70 degrees, and Vaught and her family wore T-shirts and shorts as we all biked along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. That was Memorial Day weekend — often a chilly, wet time in Milwaukee. Still, at Portage Glacier, our first stop on the Kenai, we didn't get to take a short hike to a glacier because the snow lingering in the mountains posed an avalanche danger. Instead, we looked at the ice floes remaining on Portage Lake and marveled at the snow-capped peaks around us. But spring had sprung, and the newborn animals were the highlight. The same day we saw the moose calves, we stopped in the sleepy town of Ninilchik to see the 1901 onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church, a remnant of Alaska's early immigrants. The owner of a gift shop told us to be careful on the footpath up to the church, because a moose was about to give birth. Maybe Memorial Day should be called Labor Day there. (Someone said that all moose give birth on the same day, which seems a stretch, but calving season does run from May into June.) Although the weather turned cool and damp for the rest of our stay on the Kenai, we still were able to kayak on Kachemak Bay across from Homer. Seaside Adventure owner Rick Harness had us swap days and hike the first day at Kachemak Bay State Park, then kayak the next, to avoid being on the water as a front blew through. We sure were glad we weren't kayaking when the wind whipped at us as we hiked past early wildflowers near patches of snow that were a dirty gray with volcanic ash. The next day, our intrepid kayak guide, whose enthusiasm for nature is infectious, made us hot tea after a chilly night of camping and a cold boat ride and gave us big boots and warm gloves. As we paddled in sheltered waters, Rick pointed out otters, a seal and bald eagles. At low tide, he showed us sea stars of all colors (what many of us call starfish), pulling one up to show us its strange "mouth." Back at his cozy cabin, he fed us beach soup made from seaweed, fiddlehead ferns, fish, and other things he found on land and sea. The area was so enchanting that Jane and I decided to stay another night and rent one of his cabins, which was easy to do in May. The ice-free port of Seward is another worthwhile stop for wildlife viewing, though we didn't see the moose and bear that were wandering around nearby Exit Glacier, only their scat. An eight-hour cruise out of Seward into Kenai Fjords National Park is a pleasant way to see a tidewater glacier and whales. It took several hours to get to Holgate Glacier, which is about half a mile across and extends about 4 miles back. Its size made a nearby tour boat look like a toy. Several times, the glacier calved, making a loud crashing sound as a huge ice slab fell into the ocean and sent out mini tidal waves. Park ranger Colleen Kelly narrated the trip aboard Major Marine's M/V Kenai Star, pointing out otters, sea lions, seals and colorful-beaked puffins. The passengers hurried to the rails, cameras in hand, when Kelly pointed out black-and-white orcas swimming alongside; one even swam under the boat. Blow spouts and a few dorsal fins and tails signaled the presence of humpback whales, and later we watched Dall's porpoises swimming sleekly under the surface. Kelly told us that we'd had a superb day of wildlife viewing, and the gray weather probably made the sea animals more likely to appear. We would have worn our rain pants and jackets on deck anyway, so what did it matter if it was drizzling? And the boat sold a killer spiked cocoa that warmed the bones. Furthermore, by going May 30, we got the 20 percent discount for booking before June 1, so the cruise was $119 (still pricey, but well worth it). Another bonus was that the boat was only half-full, so we could move to port or starboard whenever the ranger saw something. Car rentals also are cheaper then. A car would have cost us several hundred dollars more for two weeks in July. We also got a bit of a break on plane tickets. The national forest campground we stayed at on the Seward Highway was nearly empty, which was another plus. (We'd also arrived without a reservation on a Monday night at the moose campground.) Motels already were at the high season rate, but finding a room in Homer was nearly as easy as spotting an eagle on the Homer Spit. Of course, there were a few downsides to going early. Store clerks sometimes were a bit slow and rusty at making change. And one enthusiastic young server in Seward said he had just driven from New Mexico in three days. He couldn't answer all our questions, but he was happy to serve us a tasty basket of fried halibut. So close to the solstice, we also never saw darkness, which was great for cooking dinner late but not as good for sleeping. Bring eyeshades. We watched the sun set over Cook Inlet about 11 one night, and even at 3 a.m. it was light enough to see. If you want to glimpse the northern lights, you'll have to go in the winter. The biggest problem was at Denali National Park, which was off to a slow start. We discovered at check-in that the water wasn't hooked up at the Savage River Campground 13 miles into the park. We drove to the park store to stock up on gallon jugs, only to discover the store was sold out. So we filled all our water bottles, a cooking pot and even two empty paper soda cups. The water pipes never got hooked up the three days we were there, but we made do. But the weather made up for the inconvenience. They say only 30 percent of visitors actually see Denali, but we were lucky enough to see it three days in a row. At 20,320 feet, Denali is the highest peak in North America. For political reasons, it's still formally called Mount McKinley, but many Alaskans use the Athabascan name, which means "High One" or "Great One." From a viewpoint on the Denali Highway, we saw so many snowy mountains we figured one must be it. Nope. But when it does peek out of its own clouds, the mass of white dwarfs everything else. It truly is the great one, and seeing it in all its glory is breathtaking. Our rain pants weren't needed at Denali, where the sun shone every day and the mercury neared 70 in early June. The best way to see the park is by bus, because private cars aren't allowed past Mile 14. There are tour buses, but most hikers use the shuttle buses, whose knowledgeable drivers love the park so much they might as well be guides. They stop whenever they spot Dall sheep, a golden eagle or a good view of the mountain. The eight-hour ride showed off Denali's big four: sheep, caribou, moose and our only bear of the whole trip, a mama with two juveniles looking for berries and grubs. The driver spotted a special treat: two wolves trotting through the low brush. A moose calf sighting showed nature's harsher side. It had been abandoned and was crying under a bridge, observed but untouched by park staff, until it made a break for the hills. A park worker shared this sobering statistic: Only about 10 percent survive their first year. We went as far as Eielson Visitor Center (a $31 ticket); it was only the second day the buses were going the full 66 miles. Travelers wanting to go on to Wonder Lake must wait until later in June. To return, visitors can go back on the same bus or take their time and get on any that has room, even getting off to hike and hailing a later bus on the road. So early in the season, it wasn't hard to get picked up, but even then it was important to make bus (and campground) reservations weeks in advance. With few trails past the entrance area, the park encourages visitors to hike off trail. We tried not to step on the small spring wildflowers, but we also had to change course a few times to avoid snowbanks. And the grizzlies hid from us. Looming over the tundra was the stark white mountain, and at that time a couple hundred people were somewhere up there, either climbing or getting ready. May through July is a busy time of year south of the park in Talkeetna, which the climbers use as a staging ground. At the ranger station there, they buy permits and get their safety lectures — they even have to pack out human waste. At that point in the 2009 season, two people had died, and the climbers had about a 40 percent success rate of reaching the summit. Sobering numbers. Talkeetna is a funky little town reminiscent of the TV series "Northern Exposure." The quirky Talkeetna Roadhouse is a favorite of the climbing crowd, so I was disappointed that I didn't rub elbows with any mountaineers at the long dinner tables, only middle-age tourists from a cruise line. On the drive back to Anchorage, however, we did get to meet another kind of Alaska adventurer — the sled dog — at the Iditarod Trail Headquarters outside Wasilla. (No, we didn't see Sarah Palin.) The mixed breeds turn out to be relatively small, and once again we melted at the sight of young animals. While chatting with race founder Joe Redington's son, we got to hold 6-week-old pups, socializing them for their big jobs ahead. And if we hadn't needed to catch a flight home, Jane would still be cuddling one.
IF YOU GO Seaside Adventure, www.seasideadventure.com. Guided kayak trips on Kachemak Bay and cabin rental. $150 for a full-day trip with lunch, including water taxi to and from Homer. Major Marine: www.majormarine.com. One of the fjord tour operators out of Seward; this one brings a national park ranger aboard. Denali National Park and Preserve: www.nps.gov/dena