Spotlight 49: Winter Events and Festivals
Alaska is a state full of extremes — extreme climate, extreme jobs, extreme sports and extremely fun events. It is the place where people come to test their skills, ambition and sense of adventure; they come to experience the landscape, weather, wildlife and wealth of cultures; and it’s home to some of the most exciting, fun and fascinating events and festivals in the country.
Every month brings with it a variety of notable activities that will liven and warm the spirit. Winter events in Alaska run the gamut from extreme sporting competitions to stunning artistic showcases and festivals calling to the senses.
Alaska is synonymous with winter sports — from slow and mellow Nordic skiing to extreme, fast-paced alpine skiing or snowmobile competitions. The state’s unique terrain makes for some of the best alpine events in the world. Alaska’s Chugach Mountains attract freeride skiers eager to carve lines into the fresh snow every March for the Flow Tailgate Alaska event in Thompson Pass, just outside of Valdez. The 10-day festival of snow education, avalanche and survival training and freeride skiing is complemented with music, beer gardens, food trucks and the company of fellow snow enthusiasts. In April, as melting ice turns to slush, the world-renown Alyeska Resort celebrates the last of the season’s snow with the Alyeska Spring Carnival and Annual Slush Cup. In the signature event of this carnival, 25 fearless skiers and snowboarders (selected for having the best and most outrageously funny costumes) speed down the mountain into pools of slushy water. Even if not selected for the plunge, attending as a spectator is just as memorable.
Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city is home to many exciting events, but one of the more quintessential is the Native Youth Olympics. These are not your run-of-the-mill Olympic events. For these April games, participants compete in games that test agility, endurance, balance and strength with categories such as the two-foot high kick, the ear pull and the knuckle hop, known also as the seal hop. Alaska youth gather to participate in these games that celebrate the skills their elders and generations before them found necessary for survival in the harsh arctic climate.
Testing agility and endurance of a different degree, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race travels 1,150 miles through some of the harshest terrain in the world from Willow to Nome. The contest draws the attention of dog-mushing lovers from all corners of the globe as they follow the progress of the men, women and their dog teams beginning the first Saturday in March. The event kicks off with a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage where fans can mingle with the mushers and their four-legged teammates before they take off on a short 11-mile stint along the city’s trail system. The official start takes place in Willow the following day and is also open to the public. If you missed the start, the real party takes place in Nome for the conclusion of the race. The small town’s population grows by nearly 1,000 people who have all gathered to celebrate the athletes who have just completed the Last Great Race.
Many of the Iditarod mushers gear up for the race with the Yukon Quest race that takes place a month earlier, in February. The Yukon Quest is 1,000 miles following the historical Gold Rush and mail delivery route from the turn of the 20th Century, between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon. Fairbanks and Whitehorse take turns hosting the race start every other year and in 2013, the 30th running of the race will begin in Fairbanks Feb. 2.
If the speed of a dog team isn’t enough, the world’s longest snowmobile race, the Iron Dog, follows the course of the Historic Iditarod Trail to Nome and then on to the finish line in Fairbanks, 2,000 rugged miles later. The 2013 race will mark the 30th anniversary of the Iron Dog on Feb. 15.
It’s a rare month in Alaska if no festivals are taking place. Alaskans have many things to celebrate and even if there isn’t an official holiday, they’ll find something to toast to. Ice worms, for example. Cordova’s Iceworm Festival takes place over a period of six days in February, hosting sports tournaments, cook-offs and brew-offs as well as music, art, historic ice worm displays and quirky contests such as the ice worm tail hunt. The signature event of this festival is the popular Iceworm Parade where a long, man-made ice worm parades through the streets, mimicking a Chinese New Year dragon dance.
The largest winter event in Alaska, the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Festival, livens the streets for 10 fun-filled days of crazy, winter competitions and events. Watch the World Championship Sled Dog Races, hit the streets for the Running of the Reindeer or form a team and compete in the outhouse race or snowshoe softball game. Aside from that, festivalgoers can stroll around downtown and see the snow sculpture display, don their best costume for the Miners’ and Trappers’ Charity Ball, dance in the MultiTribal Gathering or deck out in costumes to run the Frost Bite Foot Race.
Alaska is a birder’s paradise, so it’s no surprise there are year-round opportunities to spot just about every feathered species. The Bald Eagle Festival in Haines and the Ketchikan Hummingbird Festival are both scheduled around the migration to the shores of these exceptionally scenic towns. In November, around 4,000 bald eagles gather in the Alaska Bald Eagle Preserve to feed on the late run of salmon. Participants can take part in photography workshops, cultural tours and more. The Hummingbird Festival celebrates the return of the male Rufous Hummingbirds to the southern panhandle of Alaska from Central and South America. The April festival in Ketchikan features daily, guided bird hikes, art shows and children’s activities.
Another item Alaskans are passionate about is beer. With more than 18 breweries and microbreweries across the state, Alaskans tend to be quite serious about their libations. For the past few years, Anchorage’s Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine Festival in January has been gaining popularity and is the main event to be at if you consider yourself a beer enthusiast. More than 200 beers and barley wines from 50 regional brewers are available for tasting, and the proceeds benefit the American Diabetes Association.
Many of winter’s most popular sports come together during Denali National Park and Preserve’s Winterfest – a weeklong affair featuring snowshoeing, dog mushing, snow sculpting and community potlucks. Taking place in February, Winterfest is a great way to explore a different side of Denali. The park is significantly quieter during the winter months and offers a completely distinctive experience than in the summer months.
Arts & Culture
Alaska is a melting pot of people and cultures. Alaska's Native people alone are divided into eleven distinct cultures with diverse languages and traditions. Russian and Pacific Islanders are also largely represented in the state’s population. All these traditions and cultures make for a very strong and rich arts and cultural scene throughout the state. Most communities host craft bazaars and art fairs during the holidays, and each individual culture has its own festivals and celebrations such as the Kodiak WhaleFest and the North Slope’s Inupiat Whaling Festivals.
Christmas comes late for the Russian Orthodox Community in Alaska. In Sitka, a remote island community of 9,000 people in southeast Alaska, Christmas is celebrated with the weeklong Feast of the Nativity and the traditional Russian Nativity “starring” event – the practice of caroling and spreading Christmas joy. Tours of the St. Michael’s Cathedral are available during the winter with prior arrangement. Fast forward a few months to April and celebrate the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau. Music performances, hours of dancing, a family concert and lots of talk about folk music make up this popular musical affair that began on a cold winter night in 1975.
Alaska has a number of fashion shows presenting locally designed and manufactured apparel, but Ketchikan’s Annual Wearable Art fashion show tops the list for creativity. Local and visiting artists use anything from duct tape to empty milk jugs and landfill scraps to create wearable works of art. This show’s models don’t just walk the catwalk — dancing, theatrics and music performances are all part of this not-to-be-missed experience. The Wearable Art Show takes place the first weekend of February each year.
The BP World Ice Art Championship in Fairbanks is the largest ice art competition and exhibition in the world, and has been hosted by Alaska’s second largest city for 24 years. More than 70 teams compete in this month-long competition and display of both single- and multi-block ice art. Aside from the sculptures, the Ice Art Championship features an accompanying kid’s play park complete with ice mazes, slides and a hockey rink, all made entirely of ice. The Nenana Ice Classic is another kind of icy festival altogether. This betting fundraiser challenges participants to guess the exact time the Tanana River ice will break up in the Interior town of Nenana. The 2012 jackpot topped the record books with a $350,000 prize. Tickets go on sale around the state from Feb. 1 thru April 5 and proceeds benefit many different non-profit organizations and causes statewide.