by Lee Foster
If you plan a ski trip or adventure outing for next winter, don’t overlook Alaska. February in Anchorage is an option with some surprising attractions.
A downhill skier can savor the Alyeska ski area, 40 minutes south of Anchorage. Alyeska is a world-class venue, a contender that represented the U.S. in the 1994 Winter Olympics bids.
The cross-country skier can enjoy what may be the most elaborate cross-country system in the world, headquartered in Kincaid Park. Anchorage boasts 136 miles of groomed cross-country trails, some beginning right downtown.
Moreover, all skiers and non-skiers can revel in an only-in-Alaska celebration, the Fur Rendezvous. The 10-day festivity includes the World Championship Dog Sled Race and about 150 other intriguing events, ranging from the Eskimo Blanket Toss to the Fur Auction. Fur Rendezvous begins the second Friday in February and ends on the third Sunday.
Three myths about winter in Alaska were dispelled during my Alaska winter sojourn:
Myth 1: Alaska is cold. Not true, for Anchorage in February. During my stay the average high was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, good skiing and outdoor sports weather. The statistical average February high is 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Anchorage can get biting cold, but so can Colorado or California ski venues. Maritime Anchorage is not necessarily cold, although inland Alaska, such as Fairbanks, is extremely cold in winter and will appeal to the traveler who enjoys the extremes, which Alaska has plenty of, year around.
Myth 2: Alaska is dark. Not entirely true, for mid-February in Anchorage. The sky during my trip was a striking blue, with a low morning fog that the bright sun burned off by about 10 a.m. The sun set about 6:30 p.m., allowing plenty of outdoor sports time each day. Alaska in December is definitely dark, but Alaska in mid-February is relatively lighter, gaining about seven minutes of sunlight per day, until sunlight reaches 24 hours a day in June.
Myth 3: Alaska is so far away. If you’re planning to get on an airplane to go skiing, Alaska is not that distant. It is three hours from Seattle, five hours from San Francisco, 5.5 hours from Chicago, and eight hours from New York. Lodging, Fur Rendezvous events, and cross-country skiing are in Anchorage, 10 minutes from the airport. Downhill skiing is a short drive south.
Downhill at Alyeska
Alyeska is a scenic drive south from Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, named after Captain Cook, the discoverer. In winter you see huge chunks of ice piled up along the inlet as the twice-daily tides swiftly surge up and back. The Kenai range of mountains greets you, just as the Chugach range provides visual entertainment in Anchorage.
Alyeska ski area consists of a large north and west facing mountain, with five lifts carrying you up the face. The sunnier areas are near the top of the mountain, where you get spectacular views of Turnagain Arm and the glaciers on mountains immediately north and east. Skiers savor the 2,800 feet of vertical drop.
The runs at Alyeska are swift verticals down the front of one large mountain, with a high percentage of intermediate and expert runs. Alaskans were chagrined that Alyeska did not get the 1992 Olympics bid, partly because during that year 702 inches of snow fell. The word Alyeska is of Aleut Indian origin and means “the great land.”
Alyeska has full-service ski operations, including a major resort at its base. Most visitors lodge in Anchorage, especially during the Fur Rendezvous. Some of the locals at Alyeska worry that the Japanese ownership of the resort and the huge investments will trigger massive Japanese-dominated skiing, crowding out the locals. The owners deny the charge. Alyeska, on good days, can provide great skiing, equal to what California or Colorado can offer. In all fairness, however, the number of dependably good ski days, with sun, warmth, and excellent ski conditions, is somewhat less assured at Alyeska than at other major competing sites, such as California and Colorado. So allow for an off day or two in your schedule with some time at the Fur Rendezvous.
Cross-Country at Kincaid Park
Anchorage offers the most elaborate cross-country skiing setup of my experience. The California cross-country resort, Royal Gorge, may claim to be the world leader in kilometers of groomed trail at one resort. But the beauty of Anchorage is that several sections of the city, beginning right downtown, have excellent and interconnected cross-country trails. The miles of neatly groomed trails exceed the amount at Royal Gorge. A survey revealed that 64,000 people in Anchorage ski cross-country or downhill at least three times a year. The Nordic Ski Club of Anchorage has more than 2,300 memberships, many of which are family memberships.
Kincaid Park, near the airport, is the headquarters of Anchorage cross-country. The nordic headquarters is the Kincaid Chalet, situated in a recycled Nike missile bunker at the end of Raspberry Road. There you can get good maps. All of the Anchorage cross-country efforts are managed by citizen volunteers, so there is no charge for use of the beautifully-groomed trails. A donation is recommended. The wide trails at Kincaid are superbly maintained for both classic touring in grooved trails and “skating” cross-country. So enthusiastic are Anchorage citizens about cross-country that some trails are lit at night. Schools in Anchorage offer vigorous cross-country programs.
Scenery at Kincaid will inspire you, with views of the Chugach Mountains, east of Anchorage, and the massive shield-volcano mountain, Susitna, to the northwest.
Moose-viewing is one of the special experiences in Anchorage. A cross-country skier at Kincaid will see plenty of moose scat and footprints. An encounter with a live, wild moose is likely during an average day of skiing. Moose commonly walk along the ski trails to conserve their energy, appreciating the groomed highway rather than the deep snow. When viewing a moose, as I did one afternoon, heed the local advice: keep plenty of distance and allow the moose to move slowly off the trail.
Another choice cross-country path is the Coastal Trail, which begins downtown, on Third Avenue, and winds around the Cook Inlet. Gradually, as you proceed further out the trail, you arrive at Earthquake Park, commemorating the 8.6 Richter Good Friday 1964 quake, which caused massive destruction in Anchorage. Views of Anchorage, looking back from Earthquake Park, are especially lovely at sunset. I would advise getting a rental car and driving to Earthquake Park for skiing and sunset viewing.
The Fur Rondy
Alaskans like to refer affectionately to the Fur Rendezvous as the Fur Rondy. The celebration began formally in 1936 as a salute to the end of the December-winter darkness and as an antidote to cumulative cabin fever.
Though there are some 150 events, the most interesting contest of all is the World Championship Sled Dog Race. This is a three-day event during which each musher runs the same dogs each day over a 25-mile course. Unlike the Iditarod, a 1,049-mile sled dog endurance race from Anchorage to Nome, held each March, the World Championship is a sprint race. Speed and athletic ability in the dog are the winning qualities. Endurance and pacing are sought in Iditarod dogs.
Roxy Wright-Champaine and her husband, Charlie, dominated the World Championship race at one point in the past.
“My secret is attention to detail,” Roxy told me. “For every dog, it’s a question of breeding, training, feeding, and preparation. We just do this better than the others.”
Dog mushing is the Alaska state sport of winter. You can take Mushing classes at the University. As part of a visit here, you might want to spend a half-day doing some dog-mushing and snowmobiling, experiencing the old and new way of travel in this northland. The travel information source in downtown Anchorage, the Log Cabin Visitor Center at the corner of F Street and Fourth Avenue, carries brochures on the many commercial dog-mushing operations in Anchorage.
Some other Fur Rondy events that I found particularly enjoyable were:
*The Eskimo Blanket Toss, held on several days at the Carnival site, a festive area adjacent to downtown. The Blanket Toss, which allows a traveler plenty of opportunity to get tossed, is done for fun. Originally, it was a practical method of sighting whales in a flat environment.
*The Fur Auction, at the Carnival grounds. Alaskans appreciate furs because furs are such a natural part of their environment. The fur auction is a practical market for all kinds of furs, from fox to lynx, bear to moose. You can get a good buy on a fur if you enter the bidding. Many Anchorage stores sell furs. Some are from wild animals; others are entirely farm-raised furs.
*The Crafts Fair, at the Egan Center. Wood carving and rock hounding exhibits are particularly interesting. Alaskans carve handsome wooden bowls and walking sticks, which are both on artistic display and for sale. The rock-hounding enthusiasm of the state’s citizens is much in evidence, with plenty of jade and other rock exhibits. Photographers who specialize in scenics and wildlife also show some talented work, both at the fair and in shops.
*The Pioneer Pancake Breakfast. The Pioneers of Alaska put on this breakfast feed at their hall, 612 F Street. You can chat with the pioneers themselves while waiting for your ham and hotcakes. To join the Pioneers, you need to have lived in the state for 30 years. There are currently about 12,000 members out of a state total population.
Besides the specific Rondy events, some other Anchorage experiences not to miss are:
*Anchorage Museum of History and Art. This museum has impressive displays on all the ethnic peoples of Alaska and their 25,000-year history in the state. The geometric designs on poles, bowls, and clothing of the Tlingits, a leisure culture in Southeast Alaska, are prominent aspects of the heritage. Other exhibits depict the transition of Alaska from the time of European contact to modern statehood.
*The Northern Lights. If you drive outside the central city for an evening to minimize the background light of the urban area, there’s a good chance you’ll see the electronic pyrotechnics in the northern sky, which are visible about 240 nights per year.
*The Alaska Zoo, on O’Malley Road. All the major Alaskan animals, such as moose, polar bear, black bear, wolf, caribou, dall sheep, lynx, otter, and seal, can be seen here, up close and personal. However, Alaska is one of the few remaining places where you have a good chance of seeing these same species in the wilds.
*Gourmet food. Alaska may be the last frontier, but the locals aren’t suffering. Try salmon or halibut at Simon and Seafort’s, You’ll experience the beginning of a culinary genre inevitably to be titled: Alaskan Cuisine. Other tasty locales: ribs at Sourdough Mining and pasta at Center Stage Restaurant.
Surprising as it may seem, Alaska is an excellent winter destination, if you wait until the state lightens up in February and if you stay in the moderate maritime environment of Anchorage. You’ll find world-class skiing, both downhill and cross-country. True, you can find such skiing elsewhere, but the state’s trump card is its Fur Rendezvous, an only-in-Alaska experience.
Anchorage, Alaska, in February: If You Go
For further information, see the Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://www.anchorage.net.
The main downhill skiing is at Alyeska Resort at http://www.alyeskaresort.com.
For tourism information on all of Alaska, see http://www.travelalaska.com.