People & Places

Alaska in Winter: The Iditarod is the premier event but there's lots else to do

Marion Patterson

View of the sun from Flattop Mountain over the Cook Inlet in Anchorage, Alaska.
Marion Patterson View of the sun from Flattop Mountain over the Cook Inlet in Anchorage, Alaska.
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‘We are beginning our descent into Anchorage,” announced the pilot. As we sleepily stirred from our red eye flight, he added, “Folks, take a look out the left side of the plane. That’s the light of the full moon reflecting off glaciers.” Passengers were now fully awake and craned their necks to capture the view. This marvelous sight was just the beginning of my four perfect winter days in Alaska.

I headed to Anchorage in early March to visit our daughter and son-in-law and take in Alaskan winter activities. Anchorage has been described as a city not surrounded by wilderness but enveloped in wilderness. Awesome views are in every direction.

It took its name as a safe place for ocean going ships to dock and is tucked into the head of Cook Inlet, surrounded by mountains, and interlaced with trails and forests. Its 300,000 residents make up about half of Alaska’s population. People share the city with moose, bears, eagles and “skeeters.”

Anchorage in late winter was exhilarating. Former Cedar Rapids residents, Brenda and David Hack, who moved to Eagle River, Alaska, a few years back noted, “It’s an exceptional time of year. There is lots of sunlight and tons of things to do.” And, they are right.

Outdoor late winter activities include Fur Rondy winter festival; Tour of Anchorage, a cross-country ski marathon race; and the iconic Iditarod dogsled race. During the long cold season, Alaskans ice skate, ski, and ride fat tire bikes and snow machines, as snowmobiles are called in the far north.

Fur Rondy is the local name for an annual February celebration. It began as Fur Rendevous in 1935 as a simple social gathering when trappers came to town to sell furs. Today it’s a 10-day late February festival that incorporates Alaska Native activities like the Blanket Toss, Running of the Reindeer and the wacky Outhouse Race. It is just what it sounds like — a race with decorated outhouses.

Tour of Anchorage draws Nordic skiers from across the world and was especially popular this year on the heels of the Winter Olympics. Enthusiasts competed in any of three freestyle races — 25K, 40K, and 50K — or a classic 25K. We joined fans lining the trails ringing cow bells and cheering on the skiers.

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There are actually two Iditarod races. While our daughter, Nancy, was busy with staff at the Campbell Creek Science Center welcoming racers and visitors, Brian and I joined the throngs at the Ceremonial Start that begins in downtown Anchorage and ends at the Campbell Air Strip near the science center. This party atmosphere start enables many people to see the dogs and mushers pass by. It’s followed by the actual race that starts a day later from the town of Willow and winds about 1,000 miles through the wilderness to Nome, Alaska.

The iconic Iditarod is the major winter event. This year, Emily Maxwell, formerly of Iowa City, raced as a novice. We caught a glimpse of her at the Ceremonial Start, as she glided along the woodsy trails, and later at the Campbell air strip. Since my return, I have followed her trip via the online musher standing website at Iditarod.com/race/2018/standings and listened to the Dog Works Radio March 4 interview when they profiled Emily’s life as a musher. (Go to Facebook and Emily Maxwell musher to listen to the podcast.

The Iditarod is all about the dogs. One handler said, “Adrenaline gets kickin’ in as we groom the dogs, put on their ‘dog paws’ (bootees to protect their feet) and hook them up.”

In the staging area before the partylike Ceremonial Start kids, families, handlers and mushers of the 67 teams chat with visitors over the cacophony of dog yips. When the dogs are harnessed the tone becomes serious. The dogs wait excitedly but quietly. Handlers and mushers guide their teams closer to the chute where each is introduced at intervals. With the word, “Go,” they are off. Mushers and IditaRiders wave and smile as fans cheer. The race is funded, in part, by auctioning a chance to ride a sled during the Ceremonial Start (http://iditarod.com/zuma/what-is-an-iditarider/).

There’s a lot to get ready for the Iditarod. Snow is placed on streets and trails so sleds can slide along. Snow is stockpiled for weeks and laid down the night before the start. Rolls of temporary orange barriers to define the trail are unfurled along the 11-mile trek to the Campbell Air Strip. Signs direct folks to parking. Busses haul spectators to points along the trail. Science center staff gear up with activities, posters, and best of all, hot chocolate as families stream in. Everywhere vendors hawk tasty treats, and everyone seemed to be wearing some sort of Rondy-themed hat.

Although tall tales abound on how the Iditarod started, the race was an effort to preserve the sled-dog culture. Once the main way to move people and goods across the state during winter, dogsleds became obsolete when more efficient and faster snow machines were invented. Joe Redington Sr. and friends preserved history by supporting Dorothy Page’s idea of a dogsled race along portions of the historic Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome.

After faltering in the 1960s, the long-distance Iditarod race took hold and is now a premier Alaskan event.

Alaskans recreate outside. Kids shoot hockey pucks across icebound lagoons as parents pull toddlers on plastic sleds. At the Winter Carnival, couples hug and kiss on a Ferris wheel circling above ice sculptures in a downtown park. Fat tire bikers pedal beside skiers on dozens of miles of trails in and near Anchorage.

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Brian, Nancy and I took a moonlit spin around a low area of trails named “The Bog.” Although I “washed out” into the deep snow any number of times on the narrow and bumpy snow trail, I had fun. A hang glider amazed us as we hiked along Flattop Mountain south of the city. “I like to do a few loops when I see hikers below,” he explained while packing up.

Plenty of indoor venues tempt visitors, too. The Anchorage Curling Club hosts the multiday Rondy Spiel. In true Alaskan spirit, players talked with visitors in between their fierce competitive rounds.

The super fun Bear Tooth Threatre Pub & Grill enticed us inside one afternoon with the film “Coco.” A few friends converted the Denali Theatre in the “red light” Spenard district into the happening place today that serves locally sourced foods, craft beers and wines. You order food and watch first run indie and foreign films while noshing at your table. Concertgoers sip away on “First Tap” (first Thursday of each month) when new beers are released from Broken Tooth Brewery.

From the amazing Alaska Museum’s Smithsonian display of Alaska Native cultures, to First Fridays art and music activities, to New Sagaya Markets culturally diverse foods, to brew pubs, you’ll be intrigued, happy and well fed when you visit Anchorage.

l Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They blog at Windingpathways.com.

IF YOU GO

Most Iowans trek to Alaska during summer but a winter visit is just as interesting and fun.

Contrary to popular belief it is not dark 24 hours a day south of the Arctic Circle. Even in late December the sun is up for several hours each day in the Anchorage area. Clouds and snow prevail but often the sky is brilliantly clear with astonishing views to the inlet and mountain ranges that ring the city. Often Anchorage’s temperature is warmer than Iowa’s. Once away from town lights, there is magnificent star gazing and fairly good odds of seeing the northern lights.

Anchorage is a modern large cosmopolitan city with much ethnic diversity. It features a wide array of hotels, restaurants and indoor cultural and sports events.

Although further north than Iowa, it has a milder climate thanks to the moderating effect of the Cook Inlet. Typical late winter temperatures range from single digits at night to upper 20s and mid-30s in the day. Often clouds and fog settle over the city that is nestled at the head of the Cook Inlet and wrapped by several mountain ranges.

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Views are everywhere. The Kenai and Chugach mountains line the south and east, and the Talkeetna Mountains and Alaska Range form the north and west boundaries. Impressive Denali looms up through the clouds. The Alaska range transitions to the Aleutian Range extending southwest into the north Pacific Ocean. As a result, all the moisture gets snagged on the crags and drops, setting the scene for snow activities.

Although Anchorage is Alaska’s biggest and best-known city, Fairbanks and many towns along the coast in the southeastern part of the state welcome winter visitors. Crowds are lower than in the summer and off-season rates may take some of the sting out of the state’s notoriously high prices.

Winter in Alaska is an exceptional place to visit that comes with a bonus. When it’s cold the mosquitoes and bears are tucked deep into hibernation.

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