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.
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.
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:
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.
Resort near Anchorage offers lifts, slopes & views
Alyeska Mountain Resort, less than an hour from Anchorage, is a compelling summer and winter destination. In summer, it is a part of one of the classic shore itineraries for many of the 300,000 or so passengers whose cruises begin or end in Anchorage. Some spend the night at the resort hotel at the bottom of the mountain, and almost all ride the tram to the 2,300-foot level, which looks a lot like Colorado at 12,000 feet. The lodge at the top station of the tram provides splendid panoramo views of the jagged Chugach and Kenai Ranges. Looking a the view, taking photos or videas, getting a bite to eat or buying a souvenir.
In winter the tram is the main lift hauling skiers and snowboarders from just outside the hotel. From the top, it is possible to ski several super-steep trails to the bottom (in snow years that are more generous than this one, anyway) or drop into a magnificent double bowl that holds most of Alyeska’s skiable terrain. The resort officially offers 1,400 skiable acres, but lean snow and ferocious winds earlier in the week mean that , not a lot is skiable right now. Off-piste conditions are frankly miserable right now (the hike-to upper slopes are not even open). I’ve been to Alyeska when the snow was abundant and it skied bigger than statistics indicate, but right now,,the skiing is limited to the groomed runs. That includes the runs at the original ski area from the original base part-way around the mountain, the terrain park and the Moose Meadows cross-country trails.
But in a large sense, it doesn’t matter, because the area is so spectacular. The ride between Anchorage and the resort is mid-blowing in its beauty. The highway skirts Turnagain Arm, which has the world’s second-highest tide. At this tie or year, chunks of ice, slabs of ice and slush islands ride the water up and down with the tides. I passed it en route back to Anchorage for an afternoon at an annual Charlotte Jensen Native Arts Market improbably in a shopping mall and a visir to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in the other direction near Portage.
The views from Alyeska are sensational — mountains after mountains after mountains. In summer. the glaciers are well defined from the rock. In winter, it is a jagged-peak world of endless white. And skiing or no skiing, sidetrips or no sidetrips, that fabulous scenery, that very Alaska-ness alone makes a visit worthwwhile.
Award-winning travel blog. Colorado-based Claire Walter shares travel news and first-hand destination information from around the corner, around the country and around the world.