It's 9 a.m. in downtown Anchorage, and the air is filled with the yips, barks and howls of hundreds of dogs. Crowds line one of the city's main avenues, joining in with the event announcer as he counts down over a loudspeaker: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … and they're on their way to Nome!"
This was the start of the 42nd annual Iditarod sled dog competition, and Anchorage was bustling with mushers, dogs and spectators.
I had come to Alaska to watch the race and get a taste of some of the activities available to winter visitors. While nearly nine out of 10 visitors to Alaska come in the summer, winter has its own attractions, none more noteworthy than the Iditarod.
Team after team was introduced and then raced down a snow-packed street past cheering crowds, souvenir stores and furrier shops toward the Chugach Mountains in the distance.
The event in Anchorage is mostly ceremonial; the timed race will start the next day in the town of Willow, when the teams begin the roughly 1,000-mile journey to the finish line. The ceremonial start coincides with the end of the Fur Rendezvous festival in Anchorage. Traditionally a time for trappers to come sell their furs, the festival still features fur auctions as well as colorful events like the outhouse race and a team snowball fight tournament.
After the festivities drew to a close, I spent a day cross-country skiing around one of Anchorage's many city parks and the next day hopped a flight with Regal Air to Rainy Pass, one of the mandatory checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail.
The one-hour flight afforded my four fellow passengers and me the chance to appreciate the sheer vastness of the state and to observe Mount McKinley peeking out above the clouds. We were also able to spot several of the sled dog teams, racing through wooded trails and open fields below us.
Our plane landed on a frozen lake and pulled in alongside several other small planes carrying Iditarod enthusiasts. The Rainy Pass checkpoint is nearly 200 miles into the race, and many racers stop to rest their dogs and maybe catch a few winks.
Alyeska Resort boasts North America’s longest continuous double black diamond slopes. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson
Eager to see what else winter in Alaska had to offer, the following day I set off from Anchorage to the town of Girdwood. It's a scenic, 40-mile drive into the mountains along the Turnagain Arm, an extension of the Cook Inlet. Once there, I met up with Glacier Guides for a half-day snowmobile tour. Having been given a quick lesson on how to operate the machines, a group of us headed off into the backcountry, speeding across open plains and navigating frozen rivers. After an hour and a half of riding, we reached the Spencer glacier, spilling out between two mountain peaks. The glacial ice was a shade of blue I'd never seen before in nature, and we were able to explore a small ice tunnel that had been carved out by melting water, carefully shuffling through it until reaching a small ice chute to slide down on the far end.
Of course, I couldn't leave Alaska without trying the most obvious winter sport, so I headed to the nearby Alyeska Resort for some skiing. Alyeska boasts the longest continuous double black diamond slopes in North America. I was scheduled to leave early the next morning for a heli-skiing trip with Chugach Powder Guides, a day of being ferried by helicopter up to untracked slopes to find fresh powder, but the trip was canceled due to bad weather. Luckily I had a plan B and was able to spend the day skiing at Alyeska.
The resort has undergone significant infrastructure improvements, including the installation of two high-speed quad chair lifts in the last few years. According to Amy Quesenberry, marketing manager for Alyeska, the improvements are a direct result of owner John Byrne and other staff members' personal experience at the resort.
"John comes here and skis and sees what needs to be changed," she said. "The resort is run by avid, die-hard skiers, and that really makes a difference."
I spent the day cruising the bowls at Alyeska and admiring the views from the top of the mountain. I often felt like I had the mountain all to myself, to the point of wondering at times if I had somehow taken a wrong turn and missed a "Dangerous Cliffs Below" sign. But run after run I made it safely to the bottom and headed for the lifts to do it again.
Visit www.alyeskaresort.com and www.anchorage.net.