Northern lights, winter traditions & chance to see non-touristy Alaska
One year ago, I was in Anchorage, rubbing elbows with locals and visitors, shopping for Native crafts at a shopping center, trying to catch glimpses of the Northern Lights, skiing at nearby Alyeska, visiting a wildlife sanctuary and enjoying various downtown activities including the annual winter fest called the Fur Rondy and the ceremonial start of the Iditarod. I wrote the following feature story, which was syndicated to newspapers. What I wrote in 2011 holds true in 2012 — and it will in 2013 and beyond as well.
Copyright © 2011 Claire Walter
Distributed by Travel Arts Syndicate
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Summer is tourist season in Anchorage. With seven major cruise lines that call there, Alaska’s largest city swarms with tourists. But in winter, Anchorage is very Alaska-centric, with special events that are found nowhere else.
Inevitably and understandably, people first ask about the weather. The answer is: Not too bad. The maritime climate tempers the cold. By February, daytime highs are often in the 30s — nothing that warm clothes, insulated footwear, hat, gloves, scarf and even disposable heat packs for hands and feet can’t handle.
While daylight hours are brief from November through January, they become perceptibly longer every day, and by the March equinox, Anchorage enjoys 12 hours of sun. Still, nighttime is the right time to see the Northern Lights dancing in the sky. Request a north-facing hotel room and a Lights wakeup call, and prepare to be dazzled.
There’s more shine to Anchorage winters. The Chugach Range, a string of majestic mountains, forms the city’s snowy white backdrop. At half a million acres, Chugach State Park, the third-largest state park in the nation, is more than a pretty face. It offers snowmobiling, skiing and snowshoeing at Anchorage’s back door. On the other side of town, there’s more winter recreation at Kincaid Park, a former military base laced with trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Yukigassen, a snowball fight for grownups imported from Japan, is also practiced in Anchorage. Two teams of up to seven people each hurl snowballs at each other. The snowballs must be of regulation size, no more than 270 snowballs per team, and if you’re hit by a snowball, you’re out.
Ice sculptures gleam in Town Park in the heart of the city from January until they melt. These frozen artworks are chiseled from ice blocks weighing up to two tons and brought down from the deep freeze of interior Alaska. On Ship Creek Avenue where a snow sculpting competition is held, the artworks remain as long as the temperature is low enough.
Winter also spotlights Alaska’s Native heritage, as folks from all over the massive state come to town for Fur Rondy (short for Rendezvous). It started in 1935 as a three-day sporting event that occurred when miners and trappers arrived with money to spend and an itch to socialize. Today, it’s a real family-friendly Alaska fest from February 24 to March 4.
It originally featured skiing, hockey, basketball, boxing and a children’s sled dog race. Feats of strength and speed for humans and canines and also mainstream sports remain a big part of Rondy. But it is known for such whacky winter fun as Running of the Reindeer or racing with an outhouse on skis. Both take place downtown on Fourth Avenue.
In Alaska dogsled racing (aka “mushing”) is a major spectator sport. The World Sled Dog Championships take place during Rondy, too. Not to be confused with the fabled Iditarod, this competition is three days of sprints right in Anchorage. In the realm of dogsled racing, a sprint is 25 miles.
The ceremonial start of the 40th Iditarod begins, as always, on the first Saturday in March, in 2012 on March 3, and finishes in Nome more than a thousand miles away. Mushers, dogs and sleds line Fourth Avenue and spectators pack the sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the teams as they set out on the 1,049-mile Iditarod course, nicknamed “The Last Great Race.”
After a mile and a half on city streets, teams speed through the forested trails, greenbelts and parks of Anchorage. The real start is the next day in a place called Willow. The winner of the first Iditarod took 20 days to reach Nome. Leaders now do it in less than nine.
The Seward Highway running southeastward from Anchorage along Turnagain Arm to Girdwood is one of the country’s most scenic drives. This long, thin body of water has some of the world’s highest tides.
On the drive from Anchorage, Chugach State Park’s 3,000-foot mountains are on the left. Sure-footed Dall sheep are often visible, perched on impossibly small rock ledges. On the right is Turnagain Arm. At high tide, seawater seems to lap almost to the roadside. At low tide, mud flats, up to four miles wide, freeze up and spout temporary formations of muck and ice.
Alyeska, the largest ski resort in the largest, most northerly state, looms on the eastern end of Turnagain Arm. With its enormous glacier-carved bowl laced with ski lifts and ski runs, it resembles a high-Rockies resort but with a lot more oxygen and a sea view.
Even non-skiers can enjoy Alyeska by riding the cable car to the mountaintop lodge. There is the Seven Glaciers Restaurant, an award-winner with jaw-dropping views. And who wouldn’t want a Baked Alyeska dessert in Alaska?
The nearby Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is a 200-acre preserve where injured and orphaned native animals are cared for. The setting is wild, but the bears, wood bison, musk oxen and others are in spacious, fenced-off enclosures and close enough for easy photography.
Sometimes it seems as if Alaskans and visitors to The Great Land are enamored of sports and the outdoors to the exclusion of everything else. The Anchorage Museum puts that to rest. The dramatic, contemporary building houses exhibitions on such themes as natural history, Alaska’s people from pre-contact onward, works by Alaskan artists and such widely reported 20th century events as the 1989 “Exxon Valdez” oil spill and the 9.2-magnitude earthquake that devastated much of Anchorage on March 27, 1964 — the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America.
The museum reflects the city and the state – ruggedness, beauty, creativity and an ability to meet challenges.