Special Correspondent Mira P. Anselmi traveled with her family from Seattle to Fairbanks and Anchorage. This is her report.
Visiting Alaska in the winter? It wasn’t “immediate excitement” that I felt when I was first invited.
I envisioned 24 hour darkness and sub-zero temperatures. I imagined my boys, 6 and 8, losing body parts if I didn’t manage to get every inch of them covered.
Then I considered the memories the kids could make with their grandparents who were going. So—it was “Alaska – here we come”… in winter.
Good decision. Seeing Alaska in winter is to see it by the locals, for the locals. From Fairbanks to Anchorage, our family spent one week braving the weather, learning about the culture and traditions and experiencing first hand Alaska hospitality and cuisine.
Thankfully, the light was returning by mid-February. And the Alaskans commented on how warm it was: +10-20ºF. We considered ourselves lucky.
There were, of course, some kid-related challenges: screaming about mittens, one bout of frozen toes and one new emergency snow bib in a larger size. But gear-wise we were well prepared. The key of course is layers – thermal underwear, fleece, down coats, waterproof shells, wool socks, liner gloves and extra hand warmers for emergencies. Big Ray’s is an incredible outdoor store right in downtown Fairbanks that has everything frozen tourists could possibly need.
Our family, all nine of us, enjoyed a variety of “front country” activities to accommodate everyone’s interests: from hotel pools and hot springs, to restaurants and local festivals, to snowmobiling and the arcade at the mall.
The highlight for everyone was dog sledding. For my husband and I, watching the Aurora Borealis dance across the sky at 4 a.m. was a memory we will cherish always.
Our visit coincided with the World Ice Art Championship. One afternoon, while we took the kids and grandparents to the fairgrounds, my brother-in-law’s family stretched their comfort zones by going snowmobiling. (The 12 year old swears she almost died, but they all had smiles while they talked about it.) We got there right as it opened at noon and were thrilled to find the “game room,” boasting a ping pong table, a hole of mini golf, a giant Connect Four game, and corn hole all made entirely of ice. There were slides ranging from kid friendly to downright deadly and plenty of sleds to use for free. There were some sculptures made to play on, some to use as photo props and backdrops and there were the actual sculptures in the competition. It was a very photogenic afternoon, so naturally one child decided he would scowl for all the pictures. I can’t even remember why.
That night was predicted to be the clearest night of our trip so we bundled up the kids, grabbed blankets and pillows and headed away from the glow of town in our quest to catch a glimpse of the elusive Aurora Borealis, something we had earnestly tried and failed to do before in Iceland. We ended up at Murphy’s Dome, a popular hill for gawkers to park and hope for a show. On this night, our persistence paid off. While the rest of the family gave up by 11pm, we stayed and stayed and napped a little and listened to music in the heated car and by 2am we got a green show. We watched in awe as the vertical stripes of light danced and undulated across the starry sky, captured more vividly by our phone cameras. It is like seeing a whale in the wild. You cannot help but gawk with childlike glee at something so magnificent and ancient and impressively large.
For the second leg of our trip, we flew south to Anchorage. Here is where we would learn the difference between ice sculpting and snow sculpting and between sprint racing and long distance racing dogs.
We were a couple days early to truly experience the long held tradition of the Fur Rondy – a local winter festival since 1936 – with a rich history steeped in the local culture of fur trading. The snow sculpture competition begins before the rest of the festival starts, so we took a walk through the surprisingly large blocks of pressed snow that were just starting to take the shape of gods, dragons and video game characters. There are a few Division I competitors, who are in it to win the chance to represent Alaska in national competitions, and others who are there for fun with little to no experience. Some people take the entire week off of work to sculpt around the clock, while others arrive after their day jobs. Power tools are prohibited and we saw hand made tools made from household appliances, furniture, garden tools and more.
For us, the undisputed highlight of the trip was the dog sledding tour we booked with the Alaska Mushing School. An entirely different experience than the tour we did in Fairbanks, this one started at Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake, about an hour drive from Anchorage. First, our gear and attire was scoped and additional layers offered to those who might need them. After watching a brief movie about mushing history, we met our mushers and were thrilled that my family of four would get to ride together with two sleds hitched together and enough room for both adults and the musher to stand on the skis while the children rode in the sleds atop cozy reindeer furs. Once underway, we learned that our colorfully dressed guide was local celebrity, DeeDee Jonrowe, three-time runner up of the Iditarod which she raced 36 times, holding the fastest time ever recorded for a woman and racing even as she wrapped up chemotherapy for breast cancer. Retired from the sport now, she is a motivational speaker, author and occasional guide, among other things. One thing was clear, she cares deeply about her dogs and they were very happy. Together we mushed for almost an hour over frozen lakes and through the woods on a beautiful sunny day. We were honored to meet DeeDee and exhilarated by the experience.
On the beautiful drive home, we reminded the kids to keep their eyes out for Moose, as warned by the Moose warning signs dotting the highways. While we never did spy one of the gargantuan beasts while in the outdoors, to our surprise, there were two waiting for us right across the street from our hotel in downtown Anchorage. Check.
Completely converted from my earlier doubts, I would now highly recommend visiting Alaska in winter, even for multi generational families with small children and elder parents.
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