Everyone wants to go to Alaska. It’s certainly on the top of any North American’s travel wish list and is incredibly popular with Asian travelers, particularly from Japan, China and South Korea.
However, the 49th state is generally portrayed as a barren wasteland during the winter months when daylight is minimal to non-existent. Of course this perception is based on little more than assumptions. It’s north, ipso facto, it’s cold. But as I’ve found in my travels, assumptions are almost always a steaming pile of, to stick with the Alaskan theme, moose crap.
So, I purposely traveled to Alaska for a Matador Network story this past January to see what exactly one does in an Alaskan winter.
I had little idea of what to expect, my Alaskan knowledge based solely on a reading of One Man’s Wilderness, Richard Proenneke’s diary-turned travelogue on his 16 months building a cabin and surviving in the, as the name suggests, Alaskan wilderness. Oh, and I knew Chris McCandless of Into The Wild fame died up there.
Unlike Proenneke, my Alaskan travels began in the city — Anchorage, the city most outsiders (Alaskan for residents of the lower 48) mistake for the capital (it’s Juneau). After my flight, gliding in over snow-capped mountains out of a coffee table book, I met with Jeanette of Visit Anchorage. Jeanette is the kind of person anyone wants to meet after a long flight with what felt like a motherly affection for all, even strangers such as myself.
Driving into Anchorage, Jeannete started giving a basic background on Alaska and her own upbringing in the state. To begin, she explained that people like her are native Alaskans whereas Alaskan Natives are those with indigenous roots, harboring a variety of cultural groups and languages. In fact, the local school system counts over 100 languages among its students, including Russian, Korean, and Japanese alongside English and Alaska Native languages.
One of the first things I noticed on that short drive into Anchorage was a bumper sticker protesting the controversial Pebble Mine. I would’ve known nothing of the controversy had I not just watched PBS Frontline’s piece on the matter. In short, it would have been the world’s largest mine causing unspeakable environmental damage by the estimation of most experts. For now, the project has been put on hold after losing its funding base, marking the rare win for indigenous and environmental groups in this world.
Anchorage is tiny. You can walk it easily within 30 minutes, an hour if you stop to look at some things. One of those things to look at in the winter are the ice sculptures in Town Square Park, left behind by professionals of that craft following ice carving championships. Otherwise, given the cold, most aren’t toddling around. Others, however, are out running and cycling regardless of the temperature.
Now speaking of the temperature, it really isn’t that bad in Anchorage. It’s on the water, after all, making for comparatively warmer temperatures than cities more inland. I bundled up, sure, but I never felt uncomfortable walking around outside. In fact, I welcomed and enjoyed the brisk, fresh air, something I got plenty of when fat tire cycling the next morning.
Fat Tire Cycling
Dan McDonough of Lifetime Adventures met me for an hour ride around Winner Creek. Granted said ride started late as I spent a solid 30 minutes layering up in the park restroom, grunting like a 300-pound man suffering from constipation as I sat on the toilet, sweating through feeble attempts to pull my skin-tight bike kit over my long johns.
Fat tire cycling was a thrill. It combined the aspects of mountain biking I enjoy, which is scenic cross-country cycling, with the ability to trudge over obstacles that would typically send me flying over my saddle.
Most novel of all was cycling on top of the frozen creek itself. Dan assured me we were perfectly safe, though we did eventually make a turn for dirt trail when the ice seemed oddly thin. Sadly (yet unsurprisingly), Anchorage and the whole of Alaska have been suffering from climate change, experiencing temperatures far warmer than typical for the season. Several locals shared that the prior year had been the warmest winter for Anchorage on record with this year’s shaping up to be the second warmest.
All told, we only covered two miles within our hour together, including time to stop for some photos of the surrounding mountains and snow-covered forests. But I learned that fat tire cycling in Alaska is something I would enjoy doing for hours at a time through the remote countryside. Dan, who has directed fat tire races such as the Iditarod Trail Invitational, assured me that I could come back and shuffle across the landscape from cabin to cabin.
It struck me as a romantic notion, being alone in the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but my bike and panniers full of clothes and supplies. Romantic, so long as I don’t get myself eaten by a bear a la the Grizzly Man.
With a morning of fat tire cycling under my belt, I meandered through the rest of my day with stops at the Anchorage Museum and Anchorage Distillery. In between, I caught a cloudy sunset over the Chugach Mountains that dominated the Anchorage skyline.
The next morning I got a taste of a local breakfast favorite with the Snow City Café. All I recall is seeing a breakfast option combining chorizo and eggs, so I was happy. Then, it was off to Alyeska Resort in nearby Girdwood for some snow-shoeing.
Unfortunately, thanks to the aforementioned climate change, the snow hadn’t really accumulated enough to warrant snow-shoes on the trail. Instead, the dirt trails had been iced over, forcing my hiking companion Shannon and I to skid along the trails rather than hike. Nothing makes a human look more unathletic and uncoordinated than catching oneself from slipping on ice. Arms flail, eyes bulge, breaths are held, and legs go in opposite directions. I lost track of how many times I almost completed a Looney Tunes-style wipeout before finally reaching a snow-covered portion where firmer footing was possible. On the return, we opted to cut up the side rather than risk sliding down the trail.
Ice aside, it was nice for this city guy to get back-to-back retreats into the woods.
That night, it was time for something truly only available in the winter when traveling to Alaska. I’m talking of course about the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival.
The festival was conveniently located right in downtown Anchorage with my hotel crawling distance away. I forget how many beer tickets came with admission, but I know it was enough to put any reasonable liver in the hospital.
What can I say? I love a good beer fest. This was a good beer fest with drinkers excited to support local beers of the Alaskan variety. It’s not that guest beers were ignored, but the Alaskan half of the venue resembled something of a popular rock concert. I had a blast, complete with traditional German singing and lederhosen (watch the end of the video).
Suffice it to say, I was sufficiently put on my ass and into bed for an early wakeup call to catch the Alaska Railroad up to Fairbanks.
Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of Travel Alaska. As always, all opinions are my own.