Winter in Alaska
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All week long they've rolled and tumbled in the cold updrafts along Point Woronzof. Like the acrobatic World War I flyers in their lugubrious biplanes, they've been out there every day barrel rolling, cart wheeling, loop-the-looping, back flipping. Sometimes they are also just hovering complacently in the north wind that rumbles unhindered across Knik Arm and crashes against the snowy bluffs where it is forced upward like an invisible geyser into the clear sky above. There, beneath the blue heavens above and the frozen sea below, the ravens play. No matter how cold, no matter how windy, they are there, their black feathers shining like anthracite coal in the long, cold sunlight.
According to the name system adopted by Caroline Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century biologist, the ravens I was stopping to watch every day during my run are called Corvus Corax-or common raven. But there is nothing common about them. They are big, black and very beautiful.
In most other places in the Lower 48, people tend to retreat from the cold, the snow and the dark. Instead of embracing the cold, they would, instead, shy from it, retreating indoors to wait for the warm days to come again. But that's certainly not true here in Alaska. Like the common raven, Alaskans always make time for play. The more snow that falls, and the colder it gets, the more they want to play. And, like the raven, they take their play very seriously - no matter what that play entails.
Contrary to most beliefs, Alaska doesn't close down in winter and the people don't all move away. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If anything, Alaska comes even more alive-and more beautiful. In the morning, the long light of the distant sun spreads its long, golden fingers over meadows of snow and grabs hold of the mounds of white, fluffy powder bending the branches of nearby spruce.
On days like this-which are more the norm than the exception in Alaska, there are outdoor activities in abundance to enjoy. From attitude to gear, winter in Alaska is all about the right approach. If you're ready for fun, you'll have it. And if you're dressed for it, you'll appreciate it even more. Gear can be found throughout Alaska or can be assembled ahead of time. Gloves, hats, a good jacket and proper layering techniques can make even the simplest winter outing much more enjoyable.
For those who want something relatively tame, there is a wide variety of parks in Anchorage with winding trails and mile upon mile of converted bike trails to get out and ski, run, walk or bike on. In Anchorage's Kincaid Park and Hillside Parks, where the trails are specifically groomed for skiing, there are routes of all distances and difficulties passing through many different types of terrain. For those who want to go north out of Anchorage, there are also groomed trails in Hatcher Pass-which is also a favorite place for snowboarders and snowmachiners-and the Nancy Lakes Recreation Area, both of which are less than a two hour drive north. But then no matter where one goes in Alaska, there will probably be groomed ski trails if there's snow on the ground.
For downhill skiers and snowboarders there is Alyeska Resort located 30 miles south of Anchorage, Arctic Valley ski area less than 10 miles north of Anchorage and the smaller Hillside Ski Area in Anchorage itself. And, for the downhill enthusiast, there's Eaglecrest ski area in Juneau and Fairbanks is host to Mount Aurora Skiland, Moose Mountain, and Birch Hill.
For those who don't want to be relegated to pre-established trails, there is all of Alaska to explore. It is in winter that the wet world of ponds, lakes, bogs, rivers and creeks that make up so much of Alaska freeze over and make so much more of the backcountry accessible to travel.
As Al Meiners, the former Superintendent of Chugach Park told me, "winter is a great time to get out and do things when there's few other people. This is because there are a lot of places where you can get to in the winter than in the summer."
Al ought to know. In addition to presiding over a half-million acre state park during his career, which is one of the biggest parks in the nation (bigger than the state of Rhode Island), he is an avid snowboarder, skier and backpacker.
"It's certainly different," he said harking back to many of his own trips in the winter wilds, "but the ease of getting around the back-country is what makes winter in Alaska wonderful-as long as you have enough food and water," he added.
On a brilliant mid-morning in January, skiers, snowshoers and snowmachiners will be seen scattering out across frozen bogs, over snow-covered lakes and up ice-bound rivers.
Those just getting used to being in the winter wilds might begin by skiing up through the open alpine country toward Powerline Pass just above Anchorage. Others feeling more at home in the winter wilds will probably want to explore any one of the many back-country ski trips that are popular in the Anchorage area, such as the locally famous Arctic Valley to Indian traverse. This 22-mile trip takes one through the heart of the Chugach Mountains. Farther south, Twenty Mile River can be followed up river into an amphitheater of glaciers that is inaccessible most other times of the year.
Farther south, those more interested in telemarking may prefer to climb-and ski down Tincan Mountain in Turnagain Pass, which rises up and out of Turnagain Arm roughly 40 miles south of Anchorage. Or those who want a longer outing may choose to make a multi-day ski trip through Denali National Park or farther north in the White Mountains. Especially in the latter, not only are there cabins for a cozy night's comfort, but when the trip is done, the Chena Hot Springs outside of Fairbanks is a great place to soak the tired bones.
The 1,050-mile long Iditarod Trail, much of which is wholly impassable in the other seasons, becomes a major highway into the Interior throughout the winter. And one doesn't have to plan to go the whole distance to get on the trail for a sunny morning of skiing, snowmachining or even mountain biking. Guides will also take people on sled dog outings any distance of the way to Nome. It is there for everyone's use as long as the winter lasts. Just imagine sliding silently through the woods all bundled in furs with the mists of the dogs' breaths rising over their rolling backs ahead of you and the mountains steeped in violet Alpenglow above.
Neither does one have to avoid these mountains just because it's winter. All over Alaska, mountaineers are seeking out high, cornice ridges and wind-blown summits that may not be nearly as accessible in the summer. Whether in Juneau, Haines, Valdez or even Anchorage, heli-skiing has become a popular way to get up a mountain just to ski down it. Also in Valdez, considered by some to be the ice-climbing capital of the world, the numerous waterfalls that tumble out of the nearby mountains in the summer, are an ice-climbers' frozen pinnacles in the winter. You can see them dangling hundreds of feet above roadways and valleys, clawing their way up like tiny beetles.
For those who don't want that much excitement, there is Fur Rendezvous, a 10 day-long festival that takes place in Anchorage in late February. It commemorates the trappers and hunters of the old days coming to town to sell and trade their furs and pelts. Now it is a collage of arts and crafts, shows and music, snowshoe softball games and even a competitive snowball fight. It's highlight, though, are the fireworks and the three-day long World Champion Sled Dog Race, whose course winds through city streets and along bike trails on its way in and out of the nearby wilderness. Nor is this only place one can watch instead of participate in a sport in Alaska during the winter.
All over the state there are spectator sports galore, including dog mushing, snowmachine races, ice carving and snow sculpting competitions, downhill skiing races and more. In February, the Iron Dog snowmachine race roars over 2,200 miles up and back the Iditarod Trail. Then in early March the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race itself starts. For the next two weeks, more than 70 mushers and just under 1,200 dogs race north along the trail, through crystal forests, up wide, frozen rivers and even out onto the windswept Bering Sea just to see who will cross under the famous big burl arch on Main Street in Nome first.
And don't think that this race is for experienced mushers alone. There are guides available to anyone who wants to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime event. They will outfit you, teach you how to mush and guide you every step of the way. Or if you want to just go along for the ride, you can do that as well and it doesn't have to be in the Iditarod. Whether out beneath the shadow of Mount McKinley, through the deep of the Wrangell-Saint Elias Range, or just around town, there are eager dog teams ready to accommodate you.
The Iditarod isn't the only competitive winter sport in Alaska, though. There are also venues where anyone can compete in the great outdoors of Alaska. A truly unique event is the Bering Sea Ice Golf Classic, which is played with orange balls out on the ice pack of the Bering Sea. Those who want to work a little harder can take part in a variety of other races, such as cross-country ski races, snowshoe races and even triathlons. Almost every city in Alaska has at least one race like these at some point in the winter. In Anchorage, for instance, there is the 50-kilometer Tour of Anchorage cross-country ski race which takes place in early March on trails that run from one end of the city to the other. Anyone not wishing to race quite that far could ski the 25 and 40-kilometer race routes.
For the downhill skier who wants to go real fast on a real steep mountain, there are the death-defying antics of the Extreme Skiing Championship in Valdez, recently resurrected during Tailgate Alaska. A real winter adventure can be found in the Iditarod Invitational. This 350-mile race to McGrath or 1,000-mile race to Nome, is self-propelled race up the famous Iditarod Trail. On a clear day, one can even see Mount McKinley rising out of the frigid plains to the north-a view without which no visit to Alaska is ever complete. The annual spring Slush Cup offers a colorful option for downhill fanatics at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. Competitors donning zany costumes ski or ride down mountain and attempt to skim across the 90-foot pond, many finding themselves face down in the water. The winner receives a season pass for the upcoming ski and snowboard season and it provides a lot of laughs and photo opportunities for spectators.
So it is that skiers, snowmachiners, snowshoers, snowboarders, walkers, bicyclists and runners continue go out every day and play all winter long. Not now, though. The day of play was over. People were home sipping hot chocolate or wine and soaking their tired muscles in a hot tub, or maybe they were relaxing in front of an old movie or eating out in some bright restaurant downtown.
The ravens were gone as well. But their shadows still haunted the dark air overhead. Standing on the frozen bluffs in the cold hours of the night with the north wind pulling at my hair and tugging at my parka I imagined I could still see them-just as I'd just seen them that morning-twisting and turning, hopping and hovering in the cold blasts of the north wind. Tomorrow, they'd be back again, their black feathers iridescent as gemstones in the long, bright sunlight of the late November and their cooing and cawing filling the air with coarse laughter. I'd be back then too; and I wouldn't be alone. Others like myself would come to play and sport in the winter sun. But all our play would be as nothing compared to the play of the Corvus Corax-the uncommon "common raven"-who has mastered the simple art of play to a height we mere humans can barely hope to equal and certainly not surpass, although we try again, and again and again.
Shawn Lyon is an outdoor writer and hiking guidebook author who doesn't let the winters in Alaska slow him down. He revels in the quiet beauty this season brings to the North.
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