Alaska in Winter? Five Outdoorsy Reasons Why, Where, and When
Story & photos By Melissa Coleman
“Alaska, take back your winter,” has been a common complaint in the lower 48 this winter and last. “Gladly,” the snow-starved Alaskans reply.
Winter, after all, is what Alaska is known for, and when much of the fun happens. Especially March. March is when days return from the near constant darkness of December to a respectable, often sunny and bright 10-12 hours. It’s also the occasion of some of the state’s most celebrated events, plus great skiing and aurora borealis viewing. Herein, six March highlights from a winter trip to Anchorage and Fairbanks.
1) Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
Why: The Last Great Race on Earth makes pretty much anyone’s life seem easy by comparison. Competitors must thrive on cold, adversity, and sleep deprivation as they travel nearly 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome on the back of a dog sled, and in the paw prints of Balto and the heroic 1925 journey to save Nome from an outbreak of diphtheria. It seems like everyone in the state helps with the race or comes out to cheer on one of the 60-some dog teams. Five- and four-time winners Rick Swenson, Susan Butcher, and Martin Buser hold celebrity status in the state, and beyond, as do many of their dogs.
Where: Everyone lines the streets for the Iditarod (iditarod.com) ceremonial start in Anchorage to watch teams dash one-by-one down the snow-covered track on Fourth Street for a 12-mile warm-up to Campbell Creek. The next day’s official start is usually in Willow, but this year due to lack of snow, it will be in Fairbanks on Monday, March 9.
When: The ceremonial start is always on the first Saturday in March, which means the 43rd annual Iditarod begins Saturday, March 7, 2015, with winners reaching the finish line eight or nine days later, and the awards banquet in Nome on Sunday, March 22.
2) Dogsled Tours
Why: Dog mushing in Alaska is like baseball in the rest of the country, and anyone can give it a try with one of the many outfitters in the state. 2012 and 2014 Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey hosts rides with Salmon Berry Tours on a network of trails along the frozen lakes and tundra surrounding his kennel in Willow, about a two-hour drive from Anchorage. The dogs and guides are friendly and hard working and you can both ride aboard or drive a tag-along sled before returning to a hearty bag lunch (for large groups only) in the warming yurt. Similar adventures can be found with Leslie Goodwin-Williams at Paws for Adventure Sled Dog Tours on the outskirts of Fairbanks, and overnight expeditions are available with both outfitters.
Where: Salmon Berry Tours (salmonberrytours.com) will pick you up at your Anchorage location and drive you to Willow, and Paws for Adventure (pawsforadventure.com) is a 20-minute drive from downtown Fairbanks.
When: Tours operate from November to March or April, depending on snow coverage.
3) Alyeska Resort
Why: With a record of nearly 24 feet of snow falling in one month, Alyeska Resort is known for acres of deep and steep, as well as open and treeless intermediate terrain. Girdwood is also known as home to Olympic skier Tommy Moe and the sprawling chateau-style Hotel Alyeska, boasting eight floors, 304 rooms, and four dining options. Girdwood is the launching off point for many backcountry adventures, from snowmobiling to the glaciers and heli-skiing the Chugach, to backcountry and Nordic skiing with or without a guide. Fuel up at the Bake Shop for breakfast, Sitzmark Bar & Grill for lunch and après ski, and Jack Sprat for dinner.
Where: Located on the Cook Inlet in the Chugach Mountain range, Girdwood and Alyeska Resort (alyeskaresort.com) are a 45 minute drive from Anchorage. The Bake Shop (thebakeshop.com), Sitzmark Bar & Grill (thesitzmark.com), and Jack Sprat (jacksprat.net) are all within close proximity to the resort.
When: Lifts run from the mid-November to mid-April, with night skiing Thursday to Saturday from January to March. Days are short from November to mid February, but exceed 10 hours in March. Note for early risers: lifts open relatively late at 10:30 a.m.
4) Aurora Borealis Lodge
Why: Fairbanks is located under the aurora oval, which means it’s far enough north that there’s a good chance you’ll see the aurora borealis, or northern lights, at the Aurora Borealis Lodge, and certainly a lot of Japanese tourists. Myth has it the Japanese believe conceiving a child under the aurora brings good luck, but others say the rumor was popularized by an episode of Northern Exposure. Either way, the lodge is well situated for viewing this extraordinary phenomenon, located on top of a mountain 70 miles from Chena Hot Springs (another popular viewing destination) with a north-facing deck and large picture windows in the common room. Reserve ahead to stay in the two-bedroom chalet with private viewing deck or the four rooms in the main lodge with viewing windows (in case you want to the give the myth a shot). If the sky is overcast, call it a night and hit the Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. brewpub on the way back to Fairbanks.
Where: You can fly, drive, or take a train from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Aurora Borealis Lodge (auroracabin.com) is located on Cleary Summit 20 miles north of the city. Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. (silvergulch.com) is 11 miles from the lodge on Old Steese Highway.
When: The lodge is open from the end of August to end of March, with as much as 20-hours of night—which means more viewing time—from November to end of January.
5) Artic Circle
Why: If you’ve made it to Fairbanks at the 64th parallel, you might as well go the distance across the Arctic Circle at the 66th and visit Coldfoot Camp, about an hour by twin-engine plane with Northern Alaska Tour Company. Bonuses include expansive views of the white peaks and wide river valleys in the Yukon Flats and Kanuti national wildlife refuges and the Brooks Range. Coldfoot is a no-frills base for workers on the nearby Alaska Pipeline and the “male-female odds might be good, but the goods are odd,” as they say in these parts. Diversions include dog sledding, and if you stay the night, aurora borealis viewing. You also get a very official certificate upon returning to Fairbanks stating that you successfully crossed the Arctic Circle—which also means you survived the flight.
Where: Northern Alaska Tour Company (northernalaska.com) is based at the small-plane area of Fairbanks International Airport on University Avenue, and Coldfoot Camp is a 250-mile, six and a half hour drive north of Fairbanks (coldfootcamp.com).
When: Flights operate year round. Expect 24-hour dark on the winter solstice, December 21-22, and 24-hour light on the summer solstice, June 20-21.