Category Archives: Alaska

Alaska’s Multiple 2017 Celebrations

Festivities from the state’s sesquicentennial to a Fairbanks park’s 50th.

The Society of American Travel Writers’ Western Chapter was supposed to meet in Fairbanks next month, but that’s sadly not happening. Even without an SATW presence, there’s a lot happening this year in Alaska.

State Sesquicentennial.  Various communities celebrate the 150th anniversary of the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia. Heritage includes Native, Russian and American threads. Sitka National Historical Park in Southeast Alaska is the epicenter of commemorations that kick off on Seward Day, March 30.

University of Alaska Centennial. Located in Fairbanks “America’s Arctic university” turns 100. More than 10,000 students take a variety of courses and participate in a wide spectrum of research opportunities. Centennial programs and activities reflect the variety of academic and cultural offerings. The official ceremony takes place on May 3, 1 to 2:30 p.m., at Centennial Square (near Wickersham Hall).

Driving the Alaska Highway (aka, the Alcan Highway) is one of North America’s epic road trips.

Alaska Highway 75th anniversary.   Expedited by the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, construction on this remarkable route through some of the most remote, most rugged terrain on earth began about three months later. Also called the Al-Can Highway, it is 1,680 miles from Mile 0 at Dawson Creek in northeastern British Columbia to its terminus at Delta Junction. Upgrades and improvements have reduced its length to 1,390 miles. It continues to the Richardson Highway to Fairbanks.

Pioneer Park at 50. This 44-acre historically themed Pioneer Park, along with the Fairbanks Arts Association, celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year. The park, which bills itself as a “historic theme park,” features museums, historic artifacts and log cabins moved to the site that are into summer-time shops and eateries. Fairbanks Arts, located in the park, is the oldest community arts council in the state. It supports local artists, organizations and audiences via programming in performing arts, literary arts, visual arts and arts education.

Sweet Amenities at Brown Palace

BrownPalace-logoIs there anyone who hasn’t liberated a little in-room hotel amenity bottles of shampoo or body lotion from the hotel bathroom? I certainly have — mostly a little bar of fine soap or a bottle of body lotion that I haven’t used up. If I were staying at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, some of the new Rooftop Honey Amenity Line of facial and bath soap, bath gel, shampoo, conditioner and hand and body lotion would be coming home with me. The products are made with real honey – in fact, with honey produced on the rooftop of the hotel. It’s thought to be the only hotel amenity line in the country to be made with a hotel’s own honey.

Back in 2010, The Brown Palace began to nurture a colony of bees on the rooftop, intending to use the honey at the hotel’s signature Afternoon Tea. The hotel even began producing a specialty craft beer served in the Ship’s Tavern. Now come the beauty and skin products since honey is known to moisturize, work as an anti-aging agent and fight bacteria. The sweet smelling, paraben-free Bee Royalty Honey Amenity Line is created with natural essences and honey harvested from the hotel’s rooftop beehives, and is also used in The Brown Palace Spa.

Guests who fall in love with the line can purchase more exclusively at the hotel’s spa. FoMoInfo: 303-312-8940.

McKinley Climb Centennial

100th anniversary of conquest of North America’s highest peak

McKinleySummit-logoOne hundred years ago today, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens,  Hudson Stuck and Robert Tatum reached the 20,320-foot summit of Mt. McKinley from this commanding mountain’s north side. Today, the continent’s highest peak is known by its Koyukon Athabaskan name of Denali (“The High One”), or as Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park.

Karstens and Tatum on Mt. McKinley 100 years ago. Project Gutenberg image.
Karstens and Tatum on Mt. McKinley 100 years ago. Project Gutenberg image.

The main feature of this centennial year is a guided climb by descendants of Harper, Karstens and Stuck. The party is making the Denali 2013 Centennial Climb” following the historic pioneer route up the mountain from its north side. In partnership with Alaska Geographic, the park has produced a new exhibit about the climb, First Ascent of Denali 1913-2013,” for display at the Eielson Visitor Center, near the base of Mount McKinley at Mile 66 of the Denali Park Road, that opened on June 1 and will remain until September 16. Some aspects of the exhibit may also be duplicated for display at the Talkeetna Ranger Station.

2013 Iditarod Starts on Saturday

Dogs, mushers and fans poised for “The Last Great Race”

Iditarod2013-logoBack in January, the snow in parts of Alaska was sparse and/or soft, putting  trail conditions for the the 2013 Iditarod into question. They have improved, and “The Last Great Race on Earth,” as it is promotionally nicknamed, is ready for the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday and the official restart in Willow the following day. Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to be in Anchorage for the start of the race. I hope that this post conveys the thrill and excitement of being there. I hope to experience it again in the future, and perhaps even the finish in Nome. Meanwhile, click here to see pre-race images from the 2013 Iditarod. I can’t post them here becaause the website’s gallery page instructions read “All photos in this gallery are by Iditarod Trail Committee. Reproduction prohibited without written permission from the photographer.

The teams follow the northern route in even-numbered years and the southern route in odd-numbered years.


Alaska Heli-Ski Operation Supplies Air Bags

Avalanche air bags now standard issue for Alaska heli-ski clients

The winter of 2012-13 is so far shaping up to be epic in the North American West and in the Alps with big snowstorms. Powder snow means massive pleasure for skiers and snowboarders, especially in the unpatrolled, uncountrolled backcountry but even inbounds. On Monday, a 20-year-old skier and two companions were caught by an in-bounds slide at Crystal Mountain, Washington. Two managed to extricate themselves, and fortunately Ski Patrol reached Emily Anderson and dug her out in 10 or 15 minutes. She had the presence of mind to clear airspace in front of her face as she was covered, and when Patrol got to her, she was conscious, breathing and happy to be alive — and ready to ski again.

Chugach Powder Guides, an Alaskan heli-ski operator, is one of the first in the United States to provide avalanche air bags to guests free of charge with Mammut’s Rocker R.A.S. (Removable Airbag System) 18 now part of the company’s standard issue safety gear provided to each heli-skier, including Mammut Pulse Barryvox avalanche transceiver. Mammut first integrated the Removable Airbag System, developed by the Swiss company Snowpulse SA, into its snow backpacks in 2011.

While other operators dogive clients an opportunity to rent an air bag system, Chugach Powder Guides supplies it to guests at no extra cost. Like Kleenex or Scoth Tape, the trade name AvaLung is often used to describe all such airbags.

Chugach whirlybird in the air over Alaska powderfields.

Founded in 1997, Chugach Powder Guides is headquartered in Girdwood at the Alyeska Resort and also has operations in Seward and the Tordrillo Mountains. Chugach Powder Guides offers a variety of heli-skiing and snowcat skiing adventures ranging from one day to one week. the company is a member of Heli-Ski U.S. Association.

Anchorage in Winter

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.

Northern Lights put on a dazzling show. (Photo courtesy Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau)

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.

Continue reading Anchorage in Winter

2010-11 Ski Season Winding Down Slo-o-o-wly

A handful of ski areas are still running their lifts

Most North American ski areas have rung down the curtain on the 2010-11 ski season — one of the best on record on many parts of the continent. In the US, a handful of areas are still operating, at least on weekends. Buy a season pass for next winter and use it for the remainder of this season at most of these areas. The late-season (and early-season) champ is Timberline, Oregon, on Mt. Hood, which lays claim to being the only ski area in North America that operates 12 months a year.

Timberline’s summer skiing terrain.

It is the only place where skiers and riders can get on lift-accessed snow throughout the entire summer, and many ski and snowboard coaches reserve lanes for their teams on the Palmer Snowfield, which provides amazing skiing and riding above treeline to the 8,540-foot level of Mt. Hood. Because or the camps, public-access terrain is limited — usually to one lane. It is recommended only for advanced intermediates and above. There really nothing quite like carving turns and catching air on a warm summer day.

Elsewhere in the state, Mt. Bachelor, Oregon, is running four of its 11 lifts and plans a spectacular SuperPark Pit Day tomorrow, May 14.Crystal Mountain, Washington, plans to remain open for skiing and riding on Saturdays and Sundays until the snow melts, which they they say “will most likely be July.”Snowbird, Utah, is still running four of its 13 lifts and ski 72 of its 83 runs. It garnered 711 inches of snow this season. They’re selling a $65 Endless Winter weekend package for lifts and lodging, at least through Memorial Day.

Mammoth Mountain, California, always a late-season leader still has eight of its 25 lifts running. Race  camps are scheduled through late May, and a big Memorial Day bash in splanned, Up in the Tahoe area,  Squaw Valley, California, is open weekends (Fridays through Mondays, except Monday, May 23) through Memorial Day. Kirkwood, California, is reopening for Memorial Day weekend and promoting heavily to this past season’s and next season’s pass holders.  Alpine Meadows, California, is operating its Summit Express lift this weekend (May 13-15) and reopening on the Fourth of July weekend with $25 lift tickets amd all sorts of slopeside fun. Click here to reserve a ticket.

Way up north, Alyeska Resort is scheduled to operate the Tram and Chair 6 for skiing and riding Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  May 13, 14 and 15; May 20, 21, 22 and May 27 and 28, 29 and 30. Lift hours are from 11:00 a.m.  to 5:00 p.m. Skiers and riders upload and download on the Tram and ski and ride off Chair 6. I was there in early March, when everything off-piste was choppy and frozen, and those were by and large the available lifts. The recovery enabling them to operate until Memorial Day is quite remarkable.

Closing day on June 8, 2008. The area could look even snowier this year. Photo courtesy of Arapahoe Basin

The big news for Colorado skiers and riders, or anyone passing through the state who wants the thrill of snow in June, is that Arapahoe Basin, which had previously announced June 5 end to its seven-days-a-week operation, is reopening for summer skiing for “at least” two three-day weekends – Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays June 10, 11 and 12 and June 17, 18 and 19.The ski area reports over 420 inches of snow this season — 15 inches in the last week. This is the first time A-Basin is experimenting with being open on weekends only. It will open at 8:30 a.m. with two lifts serving top to bottom skiing. Black Mountain Express will close at 2:00 p.m. and Lenawee Mountain Lift will close at 2:30 p.m. Lift tickets at the A-Basin ticket window are $39 for adults, $29 for youths (ages 15-19) and $19 for children (ages 6-14).

Backcountry skiing is epic in the West this year as well, and several Canadian areas are still operating. Do you know any US mountains that I missed?


Alaska Airlines New Bay Area-Kauai Service

South Bay and East Bay travelers have easy new connection to Hawaii –with no red eye involved

Alaska Airlines' logo of a Native Alaskan goes tropical with a lei accessorizing his customary fur as the carrier starts flying between the Bay Area to the Garden Island of Kauai.

The flag airline of the 49th state has started flying another route to the 50th. Alaska Airlines inaugurated its first-ever nonstops between both San Jose (March 27) and Oakland (March 28), and Kauai this week. The three-times-a week service using Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport is more convenient for Silicon Valley/South Bay-based travelers than San Francisco International (SFO) . San Jose to Lihue flights operate on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, departing at 7:50 a.m. and arriving at Kauai’s Lihue Airport at 10:29 a.m. The return departs Lihue on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2:20 p.m. and arrives in San Jose at 10:40 p.m.

Similary, East Bay-based travekers  can now use Oakland International Airport instead of SFO. Flights from Oakland depart on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:50 a.m. and arrive at Lihue at 10:29 a.m., with return service on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Friday, and Sundays at 2:20 p.m., arriving in Oakland at 10:40 p.m.

Both routes use Boeing 737-800 aircraft seating 157 passengers, with 16 seats in First Class and 141 seats in Coach Class. And in addition to passengers who would rather avoid SFO, both provide alternative to the usual eastbound red eyes from Hawaii to the Mainland.

News from Nome: Alaska Native Wins Iditarod

John Baker of Kotzebue won the 39th running of the “Last Great Race on Earth”

2011 Iditarod victor John baker and Velvet, one of his lead dogs, being interview after he was the first into Nome, the beginning of the end of the 2011 race. Bob Hallinen photo.

Kotzebue musher and bush pilot John Baker, 48, reached Nome at 9:46 a.m. today, Alaska time, winning the 39th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in  a record-setting 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds from Anchorage. In doing so, the Kotzbue musher and bush pilot became only the second after Martin Buser to break nine days in this grueling 1,040-mile competition and the first Alaska Native since Jerry Riley back in in 1976. 

An Inupiaq Eskimo, Baker is the fourth Native to win the Iditarod and the first since Jerry Riley in 1976. Three of the first four Iditarod winners were Natives — Emmitt Peters won in 1975 and Carl Huntington in 1974, but it’s been a long dry spell for descendants Alaska’s original inhabitants since then.

I was at the ceremonial start in Anchorage last week, and I sure would love to have been in Nome for Baker’s triumphant finish as his team powered him under the Burled Arch that spans Front Street in Nome. Baker bested a field that included the only five-time champion, Rick Swenson, as well as four-time winners Martin Buser and Lance Mackey.

See the finish by going to KTUU-TV’s live coverage at the finish in Nome.

“We’re just hoping and pulling for him. [It’s] great to have one of our own local people from the Norton Sound win…pretty exciting,”  Debbie Anungacuk of Golovin told a reporter. Bertha Koweluk, 43, an Alaska Native from Nome, who watched the finish with her 8-year-old daughter, was quoted as saying that Baker  “”represents a resilient people and it just shows we’re strong and we can overcome.”

While four-time winner Mackey, a cancer survivor, was inspirational for trimphing over his illness, much like another famous Lance (Armstrong),  Baker is inspiring because he overcame alcohol addiction, a particular tragedy in many remote Native communities. Anungacuk said that her people are often depicted as weak and crippled by addiction, and Baker’s win shows courage, resilience and strength. “We all need people to look up to, and this is a good guy to look up to,” she was quoted as saying.

When I watched the mushers and their teams line up at the celemonial  start, I mused that it was ironic how many competitors grew up “outside”, while only a handful were Natives. I later learned that the race started with 46 Alaska mushers, eight originally  from the Lower 48 and eight other countries (Canada, Scotland, Norway, New Zealand and Jamaica). Until the advent of snowmobiles (which Alaskans call snow machines), dogsleds were their means of winter transportation. How wonderful it must have been for Baker to hear the Native drums and the cheers on a cold and sunny morning in Nome, as he and 10 of the original 16 dogs he started with raced into town.

The Anchorage Daily News noted that Baker ” drove a team of dogs born and trained on the coast, their fur thicker and their durability unquestioned. Together, Baker and his dogs proved that the Iditarod does not belong to small, wiry mushers, who have collected the majority of recent victories. Baker weighs in at 220 pounds — that’s two DeeDee Jonrowes and about one-and-a-half Lance Mackeys.”

Baker’s victory is a good thing for the Natives of the North Slope, though there will be no champagne celebration.

Images Of & Insights Into the Iditarod Start in Anchorage

Iditarod, “Alaska’s Super Bowl,” highlights early March in its largest city

Some people head for the Sunbelt like migrating birds. They boast that they “never have to shovel snow” as if it were some personal accomplishment. Others (like me) embrace winter, a truly glorious season when snow and ice become playgrounds. Anchorage in summer is high season for tourists — 300,000 or so cruise passengers, road trippers heading down to the Kenai or up into the interior, and anglers, rafters, climbers and others for whom Anchorage is the port of entry. But winter is for Alaskans and lucky visitors who come share the beauty, the activities and the very Alaska-ness of the place that appeals to some of us from “outside.”

I am writing this post from SeaTac International Airport, using free WiFi and an hour to post a few pictures from  the Iditarod ceremonial start, which is the best known annual event on the streets of downtown Anchorage. Locals and those of us who follow the race every year know the names of the top mushers and even some of their dogs — and we know their stories of fortitude, courage and wilderness smarts — and luck, bad or good, in previous races.

A Bit About the Iditarod

As I sit at SeaTac, the restart of Iditarod — “The Last Great Race on Earth” — is taking place in Willow, Alaska, and that’s when the real race begins. I wish I were there and someday, I’d love to be in Nome at the end, but here are a few pictures from yesterday’s ceremonial start. It is a street party for the media and for spectators. The Iditarod captivates me; click here for a primer about the race.

Carolyn Muegge Vaughan provided some insights. She knows what she is talking about. She has run three Iditarods and her late husband, the legendary Norman Vaughan, ran 13 including his last finish at age 84. She says that many mushers far prefer rural Alaska and long, snowy trails to city streets and quietly “hate” the start in the city, but they know the ceremonial start has to be. They get it over with before heading out on the 1,050-mile trail alone with their dog teams, heading north to Nome.  Each musher starts with 16 dogs and must finish with at least six.  An injured or exhausted dog is dropped at one of the two dozen checkpoints, examined by a volunteer vet and flown back to Anchorage. There, the dogs literally go to jail, where inmates care for them until a dog handler from their kennel picks them up.

Dog food and straw for bedding the dogs down are cached along the route. Even when the dogs rest, the musher needs to prepare food and check each dog’s four paws, fit them with new trail booties, repair the sled if anything has broken and undertake other chores. They sleep very little. There are also requirements for what each musher needs to take on the trail, includimg  food for him/herself  and the dogs, a backcountry stove and other emergency supplies.

Iditarod Ceremonial Start

More than 60 mushers and their 12-dog ceremonial teams form up and depart at two-minute intervals for a short, 11-mile run out of the city. They add four dogs for a total of 16 at the restart the following day. Some dog teams are noisy, barking, howling and jumping in anticipation of the race, tails wagging at the prospect of the trail. Other teams are quiet, as if a Zen zone before a big race. These dogs are born to run and trained to pull loads. They love temperatures around zero. Even as the mushers and the dog handlers are at the start line and the 30-second countdown begins, each musher goes up the line — eye-balling each harness once more, talking to the dogs and patting most of them. And the dogs respond to “their” human.  The handlers unhook the dogs from the “holding” line, and the mushers step onto the sled runners only in the last few seconds before the “Go” signal. Then, they’re off! Here are just a few grab shots I managed:

A few dogs have personalized kennels on the back of mushers’ trucks.


A bag of Distance Dog Food, developed by Wyoming musher and Iditarod veteran, Billy Snodgrass, sits behind a competitor’s truck. Did Snodgrass donate it or did the musher buy it? Who knows? In contrast to other far less demanding sports, the Iditarod’s commercialism is restrained.
Clad in her signature hot pink parka is DeeDee Jonrowe. This cancer survivor, perpetual top 10 finisher, hopes the be the first into Nome in the 39th annual Iditarod. To do so, she’d have to best Lance Mackey, also a cancer survivor and winner of a record four consecutive Iditarods.
These kilt-clad laddies work with Scotland’s Wattie McDonald. The temperature hovered around zero, but there was no wind for which they were probably even more grateful than I.


Teams line up on the lettered streets and are directed onto 4th Avenue to the start line. On the trail, it’s each musher for him- or herself, but in Anchorage, dog handlers keep each rarin’-to-go team in check till it’s time to take off.


As the biggest annual event in Alaska, the Iditarod is the focus of media attention — especially the easy-to-cover first day.


The teams take off at 2-minute intervals, with an Iditarider is in each sled and a second emergency sled towed behind in case of a problem on city streets, which are unfamiliar to reared-in-the-bush dogs.


Hello, Dolly! Iditariders are paying passengers on the start day’s 11-mile run out of Anchorage. “Dolly,” dressed like a Gold Rush era madam, is the most elaborately costumed.


View down to snow-covered 4th Avenue from the 14th floor of the Hilton Hotel.

And for Your Own Taste of the Last Great Race

If you get to Anchorage, summer or winter, take at least half an hour to visit the Bear and Raven Adventure Theater, which shows a wonderful film about the origins and heritage of the Iditarod. The inspiration was the famous “serum run” of 1925. Dipthteria had broken out in Nome (three children had already died), so serum to innoculate the other villagers was desperately needed. There were airplanes in Alaksa by then, but open-cockpit biplanes were no way to transport serum to the North in winter.

Serum was put on the train in Anchorage, freighted to Fairbanks and then taken to Nome by a musher relay in time for the local doctor to save many more lives. The annual Norman Vaughan ’25 Serum Run from Nanana, outside of Fairbanks, to Nome.  commemorates this feat. In the film “The Amazing Trail,” a Native elder narrates historic footage. It is moving because he might not have survived without the life-saving serum. Then in a clever multi-media presentation, Noman Vaughan himself sits next to the screen and talks about Alaska and the race. Five years after he died just shy of his 100th birthday, Carolyn still got bit choked up  and had a tear in her eye seeing the program, even though she had seen it often before. I had the privilege of meeting the Vaughans on a previous trip to Anchorage and before that at Mountainfilm in Telluride, and I too got a lump in my throat at the appearance of her late, great husband.