When the snow flies, there is lots of fun to be had in Alaska’s great outdoors
1. BP World Ice Art Championships
Fairbanks, Feb. 28 to March 5, 2012
Each winter Fairbanks is home to the largest annual ice art competition in the world. The BP World Ice Art Championships, in its 23rd year, has grown to a monthlong attraction involving more than 70 teams from around the world. The competitions—professional and amateur, youth and adult, single-block and multiblock carving—attract more than 100 ice artists. More than 45,000 visitors from Alaska and around the world come to Fairbanks in the deep of winter to watch the artists in action and marvel at their creations.
And it’s not a hands-off affair; frequent classes introduce people to sculpting with ice. Many of the student artists are familiar with sculpting in other media, such as wood or stone, so it’s a matter of teaching the properties and tools of sculpting ice. But others have little sculpting experience. One-day classes are offered regularly, and class participation entitles a student to compete in the Amateur Open Exhibition with no additional entry fee. Many of these Ice Alaska apprentices go on to win medals in the World Ice Art Championship competition years later.
The event is great for the whole family. For children, that usually means the Flint Hills Resources Kids Park. Constructed entirely from ice, the park features slides and rides for all ages, challenging mazes, life-size sculptures to touch and climb on.
Go: For more information visit icealaska.com
2. End of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
Front Street, Nome, around March 14, 2012
The Iditarod is unlike any event in the world. It’s a race across 1,150 miles of extreme, beautiful, wintry terrain that challenges mushers and dogs alike. Thousands will gather March 3 to see the teams off at the ceremonial start in Anchorage and at the official restart a day later in Willow. But the real party is at the finish line as the teams pass under the burled arch on Nome’s Front Street.
During Iditarod week, the population of this Northwest Alaska town can nearly double, as volunteers, mushers and visitors from around the world arrive. The city’s fire siren sounds as each musher crosses the two-mile mark before the finish line so that spectators have time to gather along Front Street to see each team reach the arch. Each arrival is a great event, and each team has earned the recognition. But, of course, everyone wants to see the winners pull in. Occasionally, the end of the race is a close one. Seven times since 1991, the race has been decided by less than an hour, and on three occasions fewer than five minutes separated first and second place. The closest race in Iditarod history was in 1978 when the winner and the runner-up were one second apart.
The entire town comes out to celebrate throughout the month of March, so there is a lot for visitors to do. There’s a golf tournament on the Bering Sea ice (played with brightly painted balls so they don’t get lost in the snow), live bands, snowmachine and sprint sled-dog races, the largest invitational basketball tournament in the world, the annual Miner’s and Musher’s Ball, crab feasts and a lot of drinking and dancing to be enjoyed. If you’d rather be outdoors, you can fill the time between arriving mushers by renting skis or a snowmachine or hiring a helicopter to explore the area and spy on the local musk oxen herd. Hotels are limited, and they tend to book up early, so plan ahead if you want to take part in the fun.
Go: Get more details on the race and associated events at iditarod.com, and find out more about Nome in March at visitnomealaska.com.
3. Tesoro Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic
Summit Lake, early April 2012
The Hoodoo Mountains, near Paxon at Mile 196 on the Richardson Highway, are home to one of the strangest and most popular winter events in the state. Arctic Man is an extreme competition that combines snowmachining and downhill skiing and snowboarding. Skiers start at 5,800 feet elevation and race two miles down a narrow canyon while dropping 1,700 feet, then they shoot across a wide, flat expanse of snow and grab a tow rope attached to a snowmachine, which pulls them up another mountain at 70 to 90 mph, so they can race down again, dropping another 1,200 feet, to the finish line. The event attracts some of the best extreme skiers, including several Olympians, snowmachiners and adrenaline junkies in the world. The top prize for the men’s ski competition is $25,000.
The race is the highlight event, but it is merely the centerpiece in a weeklong winter party. Organizers carve huge parking lots out of the snow to accommodate more than 15,000 people and their RVs, campers and snowmachines. Arctic Man becomes a small city—the third largest in the state—in the middle of nowhere for a week, complete with police and medical aid, live bands, barbecues, bonfires and of course, a beer tent.
Go: For more information on Arctic Man visit arcticman.com
4. Heli-skiiing in the Chugach Range
Haines, Girdwood, Cordova and Valdez, winter and spring
Southcentral Alaska’s Chugach Range has become a premier international destination for helicopter-access skiing and snowboarding. Over the last few decades, several heli-skiing guiding operations have sprung up around Prince William Sound.
The Chugach offers more than 2,500 square miles of backcountry, so the terrain options are numerous. Heli-skiing here is a wild ride, with runs up to 5,000 vertical feet. The region’s maritime climate makes for perfect deep-powder conditions and the views on a clear, bluebird-sky day are breathtaking.
Advanced skiing ability is required, and some guiding companies offer lessons and training camps to help advance your powder and steep-terrain skiing skills.
Go: These operators offer guided backcountry skiing and snowboarding from helicopters:
5. Tok to Dawson Poker Run
Tok and Dawson City, Yukon, March 1-4 and 8-11, 2012
Entering its 19th year, the Tok-to-Dawson Poker Run—also called the Trek Over the Top—attracts more than 700 people from Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48. Participants travel 200 miles by snowmachine along the Taylor and Top of the World highways from Tok to Dawson City, Yukon, taking part in the northern-most international snowmobile poker run in North America. Riders spend the weekend in Canada’s best-known Gold-rush town, enjoying banquets and nightly shows at Diamond Tooth Gerties saloon and casino and other local establishments—even joining the Sour Toe Cocktail Club by downing a drink with a real pickled human toe in it—taking scenic snowmachine rides and curling at the local curling club, before returning to Tok.
The event consists of two runs on consecutive weekends in March, leaving Tok on Thursday and returning Sunday
Go: For more information on the Tok-To-Dawson Poker Run/Trek Over the Top visit trekoverthetop.com.
—Rebecca Luczycki is senior editor of Alaska magazine.