Spring Emerges: Bird Festivals and Heli-Skiing
Spring offers the best of both worlds in Alaska: the long, bright days that promise summer, late-season skiing in mountains frosted in lingering winter snow, and the return of millions of migrating birds that heralds the season’s change.
As the sun begins to beam its warmth again, shoulder season deals and a combination of summer and winter activities make spring an excellent time to visit the Great Land.
Whether you fancy joining in the revelry of Alaska's bird festivals, or prefer getting deep into backcountry powder on a heli-ski trip, spring adventures are warming up in Alaska for travelers and locals alike.
The arrival of Alaska's summer birds is an excellent reason to celebrate, and visitors will be treated to an array of festivals around the state in April and May. You don't need to be a birder to partake in and enjoy these events; most are family-friendly and showcase local art and fun activities honoring the feathered friends on their annual migration.
Thousands of bald eagles congregate on the Stikine River Delta in Southeast Alaska to feed on small oily fish called hooligan. At the end of April and early May, the small town of Wrangell hosts the Stikine River Birding Festival in honor of this grand avian. With photo and art contests and even golfing, this festival is for more than just bird lovers. In addition to eagles, hundreds of thousands of gulls gather here as well as nearly a dozen other species.
Alaska hosts the largest population of shorebirds in the U.S., and during migration, they arrive by the millions and stage along Alaska’s coast. Homer's Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, billed as the state’s largest wildlife festival, focuses on these little but mighty shorebirds, some of which travel annually from the southern tip of Mexico and beyond. There are more than 25 species of shorebirds and 236 species of other birds in Homer that visitors can spot.
Also celebrating Alaska's migratory birds on a coastal stop, the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival celebrates the more than 5 million shorebirds who stop to feed on the largest undisturbed wetland in North America. Here you can witness, against the backdrop of the Chugach mountain range, massive flocks of birds feeding and staging on the tidal flats. The festival includes classes, workshops and guided hikes.
The tiny hummingbird debuts in Alaska in spring as well, and Southeast Alaska's Ketchikan throws a festival to honor the Rufous hummingbird. This powerful little bird travels from as far as Central America to reach Alaska. The Alaska Hummingbird Festival lasts the entire month of April so you’ll have plenty of time to catch the guided bird hikes, craft workshops, art contests and family-oriented activities hosted in the community.
These are just a few of the bird festivals available in spring. You can also find celebrations in Fairbanks, Kenai, Tok and Yakutat.
Spring in Alaska also marks the height of heli-skiing. In this somewhat extreme sport, adventurers are lifted by helicopter to the top of a peak, from where they ski or snowboard to the base. Heli-skiing is a great way to ski the backcountry without spending most of your day climbing, and you can access stunning and remote terrain.
Heli-skiing doesn’t necessarily need to be for expert skiers, however. While some backcountry experience is preferable, the angle of slopes varies. Check with tour operators to see if they’re able to offer a gentle package for you.
There are several heli-skiing hotspots around the state, though they tend to congregate in Southcentral and Southeast. Valdez, on Prince William Sound in Southcentral Alaska, is one center of the spring heli-skiing excitement, and Haines (in Southeast) is the other. Both of these small towns are abuzz during the spring ski season, which runs from late February through the end of April.
In Girdwood, home of Alaska's largest ski resort, Alyeska, you can take a heli-skiing trip in the Chugach Mountains or to the nearby Talkeetnas, or stay closer to base by cat-skiing. In this activity, skiers are driven up a mountain in a snowcat, the machine used to groom ski trails.
Other heli-ski operators are close to Anchorage in the Matanuska Valley, or across Prince William Sound in Cordova. Whether you stay close to the city or travel to one of the state's smaller towns, your experience in Alaska's bright spring backcountry is sure to be full of powder, adrenaline and a bit of shoulder-season magic.