Photo: Joseph

15 Epic Ways to Spend Winter in Alaska

Alaska Student Work Ski and Snow Food + Drink Camping
by Joe Baur Feb 4, 2016

1. Get toasty at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival in Anchorage

Oppressively cold negative 40 temperatures aren’t unheard of in winter here, so finding a way to keep toasty is essential. One way that works is to simply get toasted drunk at the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival.

Approximately half of the event space is dedicated to Alaskan breweries with the other half welcoming guest breweries, primarily from the Pacific Northwest and a handful of the most established craft breweries in the country, like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s an Alaska-only affair with crowds piling into the Alaskan side of the festival, as if it were Black Friday for beer. HooDoo, Alaskan Brewing, Silver Gulch, and the list goes on to more than anyone can reasonably handle for one evening.

Simply put, Alaskans love Alaskan beer.

2. Pedal, not paddle, on a river

Fat tire cycling is all the rage in a state that experiences the extremes of all four seasons. What starts as a river for paddling in the summer freezes over by December for fat tire cyclists to ride. Dan McDonough runs tours with Lifetime Adventures. “There are over 10,000 fat tire cyclists in the state, according to the Iditarod Trail Invitational,” Dan explained before heading out on (yes, on) Anchorage’s Elk River. He should know about the skyrocketing popularity of the sport after having directed two fat tire races, including the Iditarod Trail Invitational and Sheep Mountain Challenge.

3. Go winter camping

“Winter camping is a totally different setup,” says Shannon Markley of the Alyeska Resort during an icy hike. “You can build a table out of snow and pack it up around your tent for warmth.” Not to mention it makes for completely different scenery than any other time of the year with snow-covered forests and mountains dominating the landscape. On clear days, the sun glistens off the hoar frost that forms on anything and everything that stays outside long enough.

4. Embrace the three S’s: Snowboarding, skiing and snowshoeing

Considering Alaska’s size, over twice that of Texas, there is no shortage of snow sport opportunities in the last frontier. However, you certainly can do worse than taking Alyeska’s tram up 2,300 feet to experience the world’s snowiest resort (and most temperate rainforest). They’ve accumulated approximately 400 inches of snowfall so far this year — by January, folks.

5. Ride the rails of the 100-year-old Alaskan Railroad

Sure, you can do Anchorage to Fairbanks in about seven or eight hours in a car, but travel isn’t about speeding. So instead of rushing it, sit back and relax over 11 hours of the Alaska Railroad’s scenic rails that skate alongside the famous (or infamous for climbers) Denali National Park. You can see North America’s tallest peak from the comfort of a dining car on a clear day.

6. Crisscross Alaska on a snow machine

The blanketing of snow opens the gates for Alaska’s favorite mode of winter transportation — snow machine. These motorcycles of the snow are used to crisscross the state, reaching some of the most remote cabins imaginable that are inaccessible by road.

7. Marvel at moose in the city

The lumbering moose can weigh over 1,000 pounds yet manage to support themselves on four scrawny legs.

While moose are relatively easy to find year-round, they’ll help themselves to the city once the snow covers their sources of food in the mountains. Americans in the Lower 48 might (or “outside” as Alaskans call the continental U.S.) complain about deer in their yard. Alaskans check out moose in theirs.

8. Hunt the northern lights (or Aurora Borealis)

With the extra hours of darkness in the winter, Alaska becomes a hotspot of northern lights tourism. The Aurora Borealis Lodge welcomes guests with a warm viewing area supplied with ample amounts of hot chocolate and coffee. For something more intense, Chena Hot Springs Resort will take you out in “snow coaches” for a 5-hour waiting game against the aurora in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

9. Melt in a hot spring

Chena Hot Springs certainly makes for an interesting contrast to relax in the mineral waters while outside in freezing temperatures. If it’s cold enough, you can even dip your head under water, pop out, and feel your hair immediately freeze over. The resulting hairdos are all the rage on Hoth.

10. Shoot the sunrise and sunset

There’s not much daylight in the Alaskan winter. The northernmost town of Barrow goes completely dark for a period of the winter while central and southern Alaska settle for just a few hours each day. That said, its position on the globe makes for some surreal sunrises and sunsets that appear to last throughout the day, longer than the stuff you’ll find in the Lower 48. It’s a photographer’s dream to constantly be covered in such photogenic lighting.

You know how they say you should get up early to watch at least one sunrise whenever you’re traveling? Well, it’s not like you’re getting up at 4 or 5 in the morning in the Alaskan winter. Try 10 A.M. Unless you were at the craft beer festival or hunting the aurora the night before, chances are you can find time to catch a sunrise.

11. Dog sledding

Dog sledding is arguably the sport of Alaska. Most know it by the Iditarod, the famous 1,049-mile route created following the historic serum run in which relay dog teams (with the help of trains) hurried an antidote to diphtheria-stricken Nome in Western Alaska. The ceremonial start takes place in Anchorage (assuming there’s enough snow) before moving over to Willow for the real race.

But there’s more than just the Iditarod. In fact, the upcoming Yukon Quest is arguably a more challenging course than its celebrated sibling.

Regardless, those courses are for the pros. Amateurs to the sport would be better served by trying their hand in an afternoon helping with Black Spruce Dog Sledding just outside of Fairbanks. Married owners Jeff and KattiJo Deeter take care of nearly 40 dogs as 28-year-old Jeff trains for the upcoming Yukon Quest and 2018 Iditarod. (He raced the latter once before in 2008.)

Jeff will have you sit up front as he commands his team of excited pups over 10 to 20 miles, sledding through a mixture of trails they created themselves and public routes. Towards the end, along a safe straightaway, Jeff will hand driving duties over to you, if you’re so inclined.

After a day at Black Spruce, Jeff says he’s never had someone leave thinking they’re mistreating the dogs. “You see them out there and know they’re born for one thing. They want to go and run.”

12. Skijoring

Want to share the load with your dogs? Take just a couple out with you and go skijoring – a mixture of cross-country skiing and dog sledding with two dogs pulling from the front as you ski from behind. You can also do it with a horse or snow machine.

13. Try your hand (but don’t loose a finger) at ice carving

Downtown Anchorage’s Crystal Gallery of Ice in Town Square Park features a variety of impressive ice sculptures throughout the freezing temperatures of the Alaskan winter. The aforementioned Chena Hot Springs Resort is home to the Aurora Ice Museum featuring sculptures created by husband-wife duo, Steve and Heather Brice — world champion ice carvers with 16 and 7 titles, respectively. Their exhibits resemble something out of an art museum that we outsiders in the Lower 48 might be more accustomed to. Those especially interested in the craft can plan a trip around Ice Alaska’s World Ice Art Championship in Fairbanks.

14. Listen for “Winter Thunder”

One of the natural wonders that can only be experienced in a winter climate like Alaska’s is “The Breakup” or “Winter Thunder.” That’s when frozen rivers start to breakup or giant sheets of ice rip apart and crash, sounding eerily like thunder.

15. Have a laugh at the annual Fairbanks Funny Festival

With the long days of summer, “people don’t want to be in a dark club,” says Jerry Evans of Explore Fairbanks, who doubles as a Fairbanks famous standup comedian having opened for the likes of Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan. That’s why he hosts his pet project, the Fairbanks Funny Festival, in January when Alaskans have little choice but to embrace the darkness with a bit of laughter.

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